Meet Tania León, an Afro-Latina Composer Creating Change Through Music

Meet Tania León, an Afro-Latina Composer Creating Change Through Music
Michael Provost

For Tania León, music is transformative. It has the power to heal and is an instrument for activism. She would know. In the 73-year-old’s decades-long career as a famed conductor, she has witnessed how música, both the harmonies and the stories behind songs, uplifted artists like Marian Anderson and Josephine Baker, while using her world-renown talent to create works tackling social justice issues.

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And the Afro-cubana is fierce. As a composer and conductor, León’s work has been nominated for a Grammy and a Pulitzer Prize. Among accolades won: a Guggenheim Fellowship Award, a New York Mayoral Award, a National Council of Women of the United States Achievement Award and a New York State Council on the Arts Award, among several others, as well as honorary degrees from New York University, Oberlin College, Colgate University and more.

When León is not crafting award-winning compositions, she is teaching as a distinguished CUNY professor at Brooklyn College, where she also sits as the director of their composition program, and heads Composers Now, an organization she founded in 2010 to celebrate the diversity of artists and provide a platform for them to perform at numerous events and festivals year-round.

León is without-a-doubt an Inspiring Latina. Learn more about her skill, cultural activism and advice for aspiring female composers below.

How did you first get into composing music?

As a teenager in Cuba, my brother used to have a little combo, which consisted of three or four musicians. I would do songs for them, but it was really just entertainment for us. My family, however, saw something in me and encouraged me to go to the conservatory. My teachers were impressed with the exercises I did in harmony and thought it was something I should take on seriously. When I came to the U.S., I was a pianist, and that was what brought me into composing. I was a founding member of the Dance Theatre of Harlem. I was invited by Arthur Mitchell to join the soon-to-be company as a pianist. I was mostly following his direction. Then one day he asked me to write a ballet, where he’d, of course, focus on the choreography. So, without any guidance, I put together a piece for piano and chamber orchestra for a ballet called “Tones.” Once I saw it, I saw the light. I got so inspired. That’s when my career began.

That's amazing. Tell me about your upcoming piece, “Little Rock Nine Opera."

This is an opera that will mark the 60th year anniversary of the incident that happened in Little Rock, Arkansas in 1967. As you know, this was a mandate to integrate the high schools, which were segregated at the time. Nine students of color registered to be part of the Central High School in the city, but the mayor was opposed to the integration and so were many people in the city. They went against the children attending the classes. You know the whole thing was so out of hand that President Eisenhower sent troops to help the kids attending. Each kid was assigned a solider that would get them from room to room.

Why was this story of race and integration one that you wanted to tell?

Well, I was approached by the Central University in Arkansas, and they told me what the opera would be based on. I didn’t know about the incident, but when I learned about it, I said yes. I come from a family compiled of three different races. I was not taught to treat people differently based on what they looked like or their culture. It is very simple and natural for me to include everybody, so, reading this, struck me. I got to the U.S. a year before Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. I saw his marches on TV and heard his “I Have a Dream” speech. This raised my consciousness on the ills of our society, lessons later demonstrated to me at the Dance Theatre of Harlem. There, I had first-person accounts from people like Lena Horne and Sidney Poitier of horrible things that happened to them. I got very interested in the subject.

You don't just create work about critical social justice issues; you are also an advocate for diversity among composers. Tell me about Composers Now.

I created Composers Now seven years ago to bring together diverse composers. These are people of all genders, ethnicities and cultures. The only thing they must all have in common is that they’re alive. This isn’t about composers who died centuries ago. These composers are serving a segment of society that heals through sound, whatever sound. If a composer’s writing hip-hop, there’s a community for that. If they’re doing classical, there’s a community for that, too. I don’t feel like we should segregate composers by the type of music they write because, when you sum all these segments, you make society as a whole. Through Composers Now, we put on events and concerts that are very eclectic. They incorporate different composers who look different and sound different. It introduces audiences that didn’t know anything about a particular composer or sound. By the time they leave, they might be inclined to follow the work of that artist.

Why did you create Composers Now?

I wanted to recognize what composers contribute to our society. It’s a significant role, one as significant as artists, poets and filmmakers. We don’t know that much about composers as we do these other cultural producers. I want these makers of sound and music to reveal their stories and explain what’s behind the music they compose. It’s like poetry: each poem reveals something profound. We have a dialogue coming up with Margaret Brouwer, Du Yun and Esperanza Spalding – all women. It's great because it's music and conversations with the people behind it.

Why is diversity such an important issue for you?

First of all, I’ve been diverse since day one. The components of family, for me, have made me diverse. The human race can come in all shades, tones and manifestations. We have to realize all these communities are ones of equal contributions to our earth. We might be experts in one thing, and another community is an expert in another, and so on. All communities are proud of what they can contribute. Scientists who are trying to find the cure for cancer look different, speak different languages and are found in different countries, but they have the same purpose: cure cancer. They are communicating with each other to do that. We need to be like that.

You’ve had a very long and vibrant career. What has been one, or some, of the most rewarding moments?

You know, one thing that really touched me happened just last night. I went on Facebook and found out that Marian Anderson, an opera singer who helped launch the civil rights movement, is going to be on the $5 bill. It gave me chills. Here’s why: one of the pieces I wrote for the Dance Theatre of Harlem required a narrator. And guess who it was: Marian Anderson. I remember that moment. I have pictures with her. It was a ballet in Philadelphia. So when I heard this story, I remembered that. I remembered when she was asked to sing the National Anthem, what that moment became for the nation, among the plights of Americans of African decent. That touched me tremendously.

Another moment that sticks out was a premiere I had in Switzerland. The government there spoke with officials in Cuba and was able to secure a visa for my mother to be there for my opening. She flew from Cuba to Madrid to Geneva and arrived just two hours before the curtains were raised. It was beautiful.

When I reflect on my life since my arrival here, the nation that adopted me, I realize all these beautiful moments that encouraged me. My biggest inspiration was my grandmother, but working with people like Marian Anderson and Josephine Baker, who I did a performance with months before she died, Leonard Bernstein – these are things I didn’t think of in my wildest dreams. I am the total of these emotions and experiences, and I hope I can give that to today’s artists and composers through Composers Now.

I love that! What’s coming up next for you?

There’s a lot. I like to keep busy. But next month I’m going to Cuba because I was invited to conduct the National Symphony Orchestra of Cuba. This is so big, because my grandmother used to take me to concerts there. This is my first performance in Cuba since I left for the U.S. in 1967. I’m coming back, as a composer and conductor, and the program I will conduct will be one of mine and some of Alberto Ginastera, a famed Argentine composer. This is going to be tremendous to me. The people I left, my elder family, are no longer living. But they were the ones who had this vision for me. They were the ones who pushed me to go to school, who encouraged this path. Now I’m coming back and dedicating this to them, to my ancestors, and sharing it with those who came after me, my nephews and nieces. That’s pretty big.

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That's amazing! Any advice for young Latinas aspiring to be composers?

Believe that you are one. We put too much emphasis on the way we look and speak and don’t realize we are all equal; we all have contributions. If we are allowed to share them, we don’t have any barriers than the ones we self-impose. If we are going to live our lives through the opinions of others, then we don’t accomplish anything. We have to believe in ourselves and our purpose. When you do, there’s no mountain you can’t move. That’s why I have the “I Have a Dream” speech in my studio, and I read it again when I can.

Composers Now's 2017 Festival takes place February 2017. Register today!