As a teenager, Brandi Waller-Pace felt left out from depictions of American music.
The fiddle, banjo, and other quintessential American instruments were often associated with white musicians. It was only through her studies at Howard University and scholarly research afterward that Waller-Pace learned that the banjo, one of her primary instruments, has ancestral roots in Africa and many early performers of the stringed instrument were Black.
My earliest musical associations with Black people were with “gospel, hip-hop, and R&B,” she recalled. “What was represented as musical canon didn’t have me in it. I wasn’t at the core of what was considered the valuable culture.”
Waller-Pace taught for several years as a Fort Worth ISD music teacher, and much of the curriculum, she found, was based on Western European-centric forms of music that watered down or negated the influence of rhythmically complicated African music or tonalities found outside Western music.
“The baselines for music education were taught from [the perspective of] dominant white culture,” she said.
Still, Waller-Pace was able to work within the school district’s curriculum to teach her primarily Black and Hispanic students about the wide range of cultures that influenced American music.
“Something that was big for me was including narratives they usually wouldn’t hear,” she said.
During Hispanic Heritage Month, alternatively known as Latinx Heritage Month, Waller-Pace would have the students discuss lesser-known ethnic groups that were also Hispanic.
“We would look at indigenous and Black communities that would fall under that umbrella,” she said. “My kids knew Spanish was spoken in a lot of these countries because Spain colonized those countries. I’m a talker, and I’d encourage my students to be talkers too. When we learned about Norway, I showed a picture of some very Nordic-looking people. A student said that looks like American people. ‘Hmm, look at us,’ I would say. ‘We’re Americans too.’ ”
Waller-Pace left teaching early on in the pandemic to focus on earning her Ph.D. at UNT, performance career, and nonprofit work. Public schools here and across the country are facing backlashes, often based on misinformation, against racial equity policies, something Waller-Pace said was “appalling but never surprising.” The musician/scholar said schools should teach the Reconstruction era that followed the Civil War as a means of teaching young minds about this country’s past efforts to marginalize Black communities. Now outside the school system, Waller-Pace focuses her advocacy work on music.
Part of the ... mission is to feature culturally diverse music. I want to have artists who are not used to performing in Fort Worth.
- Brandi Waller-Pace
Researching and performing music from Black composers and musicians has become central to her career. Those efforts include working with archivists at the Smithsonian and seeking out Black musicians whose families handed down music traditions for several generations.
The most publicly facing outlet for her efforts is the Fort Worth African American Roots Music Festival held annually at Southside Preservation Hall. The March 17 event will feature local, regional, and national musicians performing American roots music. The mission of the festival, she said, is to highlight Blackness in American music forms.
“I want to turn an eye toward Fort Worth outside of the 7th Street corridor and downtown,” she continued. The Southside is “where a lot of my artistic work happens. Part of Southside Preservation Hall’s mission is to feature culturally diverse music. I want to have artists who are not used to performing in Fort Worth. We always have educational components that include workshops.”
Her dream for the festival is to inspire young Black musicians to take up the fiddle, banjo, and other instruments historically played by Black performers.
Waller-Pace said her current and upcoming projects can’t happen without financial support for her nonprofit, Decolonizing the Music Room. She offers the following advice for folks who care about racial equity.
“There are financial and real physical dangers in being Black,” she said. “If someone sees me and decides that I am a danger, it won’t matter that I am getting a Ph.D. or that I can code-switch and talk with SAT words. When stuff hits the fan, our well-meaning white friends can walk out the door. There is so much that needs to be redistributed in terms of wealth, power, and position than many white folks are unwilling to do.”