Listeners of Chicago’s classical music station, WFMT-FM, have long found comfort in the playlist of Bach, Beethoven, Brahms and other centuries-old compositions by the male titans of European music. But comfort often leads to stagnation. That’s why, in its wisdom, WFMT hired LaRob K. Rafael (MUS ’15) as its weekend morning host and producer. Rafael brings a breath of fresh air to the musical rotation as he adds new and underexplored composers and performers from underrepresented groups to the mix.
On one Sunday, listeners were treated to the artistry of African American women with Chicago-based violinist Caitlin Edwards playing her own arrangement of the spiritual “Faithful,” Lara Downes interpreting jazz pianist Hazel Scott’s “Peace of Mind,” and contemporary violinist and composer Jessie Montgomery’s “Peace,” played by Black clarinetist Anthony McGill and Taiwanese pianist Gloria Chien. The sentiment of these pieces was entirely intentional.
Rafael, a bass-baritone singer who performs with Chicago’s William Ferris Chorale, also acts as the artistic director of Hearing in Color, a Chicago-based organization dedicated to bringing historically excluded music, stories and composers into musical spaces.
“I think it’s a myth that communities of color do not like classical music or can’t access classical music,” Rafael says. “I think the problem is we don’t see ourselves reﬂected enough in classical spaces. So, Hearing in Color is the stage for a Latina to tell her story about how she grew up listening to mariachi with her grandfather and how that aﬀected the way that she listens to and appreciates classical music. It’s for the Black person who grew up in church and knows spirituals like the back of their hand, and that aﬀected the way that they experience classical music.”
Among the events Hearing in Color has mounted are “Kababayan: A Celebration of Filipino Identity,” featuring performances from singers, poets, comedians and others, and “Undying Love,” a chamber opera by Steve Wallace, an award-winning African American singer and composer from Chicago.
“What I hope to do as a young, Black connoisseur of classical music is to continue to change its static culture,” Rafael says. “It has been the same for a very long time, but that’s not the case for the music. It has been changing. I want to be an ampliﬁcation for that change.”