Terrance McKnight
Terrance McKnight | Credit: Matthew Septimus

Terrance McKnight didn’t always dream of becoming a classical music radio host.

As a kid, he wanted to be a superhero — either Superman or Spiderman. Later, he aspired to become a trumpeter, then a pianist. An unfortunate hand injury derailed his plans to become a professional musician after graduate school at Morehouse College.

McKnight found broadcasting to be an acceptable compromise. It allowed him to share his love of music history with the wider public while occasionally performing piano on air. Following a yearlong stint with Performance Today in Washington, D.C., on NPR, he started his own radio show at Georgia Public Broadcasting, where he stayed for seven years. In 2008, he moved to New York to host WNYC’s evening music show. The following year, WNYC purchased WQXR, New York City’s only dedicated classical music station, from The New York Times, and McKnight was moved to WQXR. He’s worked there since.

During the pandemic, McKnight moved from New York City to Baton Rouge, Louisiana, to be closer to family and to focus on writing his upcoming book, Concert Black, which discusses the Black experience in classical music over the centuries. The first season of his new podcast, Every Voice With Terrance McKnight, raises crucial conversations about the historical context behind harmful depictions of Black people and culture in opera.

McKnight talked with SF Classical Voice about his career in radio and discussed the ways classical music’s beloved — but at times deeply problematic — institutions can grapple with their racism problem.

Terrance McKnight
Terrance McKnight | Credit: Julie Yarbrough Photography

Could you tell us about the moment you knew you loved classical music?

You know, I couldn’t put my finger on it. I just knew that I loved music. I grew up playing trumpet, and I remember an important conversation I had with an older cousin. He said, “Man, what you going to do with that trumpet? Think you can play with The Cleveland Orchestra? Ain’t no Black folks in that orchestra. Better stick with the piano. At least you can play it in church.”

That stuck with me. When I got out of high school, I put my trumpet down and I went to Morehouse, and I wasn’t sure what to do with music until one of my instructors gave me a ticket to go see [pianist] André Watts. And I went to Atlanta Symphony Hall; I saw that guy come onstage, sit down, and start to play. I said, “Whatever world this is, this is my world. This is where I feel myself. This is where I feel most comfortable.” From that day on, I became a huge fan of Watts and classical music.

What drew you to music history?

I knew that I loved music, but I just didn’t have an example of what I wanted to do. I remember that my brother told me, “Just do something that you love doing, and you won’t feel like you have to drag yourself to get up and go to work every day.” And so I knew music was that place for me.

I became a music nerd in school. I was on scholarships, and I was very proud of that. I mostly just wanted to do really well because I thought that was my best chance of being able to support myself and perhaps even one day take care of my own parents. I wanted to immerse myself in something that they gave me: When I was 8 years old, my mother sent me a message and bought me a piano.

Was there a niche within classical music you were especially into back then?

Initially, it was whatever I was working on. It was those Bach three-part inventions, preludes, and fugues. When I got serious about music, that’s what I was really into: understanding fugal writing and counterpoint and trying to sing a line while playing the other — that stuff fascinated me. I still have a fascination with fugal writing.

And then I got really into Beethoven sonatas and Chopin ballades. Then I had a teacher who worked with me a lot on music by Black composers, so I was introduced to Florence Price, William Grant Still, David Baker. The music of Black composers became important to me early on. It was mostly piano music until I got started working in radio and I realized how much I didn’t know. Up until that point, I mostly focused on solo repertoire or accompanying the occasional Schubert lied.

Radio must have been a drastic change for you.

Yeah, I got to Performance Today, and I was like, “I know nothing, all this orchestral music, oh my goodness, opera.” It was a huge learning curve.

Were there ever any moments you second-guessed your decision to go into radio rather than performance?

Never. When I was in graduate school, I had a hand injury where I couldn’t play for about a year and a half. That was devastating because I’d always played piano. At the time, I was trying to get out of graduate school. [I had] prepped, planned four, five hours a day, and then all of a sudden, I couldn’t play at all. It forced me to reevaluate how I would communicate my passion with the world.

I just kept practicing, talking to my mentors, going through therapy, and after I got out of graduate school, after I was able to get my head back together and play that recital, that’s when I got the chance to work in radio. And I started to explore why I loved radio and what bothered me about radio at the same time and how radio was made.

What I discovered when I started working at Performance Today and going to radio conferences was there were very few people of my heritage who were working behind the scenes in classical music media.

So it was white.

Yes. And I thought, “I’m needed on this side of the table. That’s why I don’t hear about some of these composers I learned about in school. Because these folks have no idea who they are, or they have no interest in really telling those stories or no real vantage point from which to tell those stories. There are a bunch of stories that I can tell, and I think people will love them after they learn about them, so I need to sit on this side of the table to make sure this work is done. Because I know a lot of Black performers out there who are doing this stuff, and they’re able to practice four or five hours a day. When it rains, I have trouble with my hand, but these people are out there doing it, and their stories need to be told and heard. So I’m going to stay over here and make some space.”

Podcast poster

Your podcast, Every Voice With Terrance McKnight, debuted last month. Can you tell me the story of how the show came to be?

In Georgia, I had a show that dealt with all sorts of music and therefore the cultures that were in the state. When I got to New York, when we bought WQXR, I didn’t really have that opportunity outside of biographies to tell stories that weren’t specific to the Western European canon.

One day, I got a letter from a listener. The timing of it was interesting — it was just a few weeks after then-President Trump said to these congresswomen to go back to where they came from. This guy wrote to me, and he said, “Go back to where you came from, and you can take William Grant Still with you. You can go there and play all the Still and Duke Ellington that you want, but your culture is inferior to mine, so stop trying to push yourself into places where you’re not wanted.”

I shared this with the vice president of the station, and she was sort of upset about it and asked me what we could do. I said, “Well, we certainly don’t want to be a safe haven for the sort of mentality where people think the station belongs to the culture of Western Europe, [that] everybody else is inferior, and [that] when they hear my voice, it’s off-putting.” So we started playing more music by Black composers, more music by women, more music by Latino composers — we just tried to mix it up as a response to that. But she wanted to do more — she wanted me to create a podcast. At the time, I didn’t have the human resources to help me do this, so it took a few years to get to a place where I could.

After George Floyd was killed, I created a show called the Black Experience in the Concert Hall, where I invited some of my friends, all of whom were Black, to a live radio call-in show. … A book deal came out of that. … It’s called Concert Black.

And so some of the material that I delve into in this book I thought would make an ideal podcast because you always hear a lot of people talking about the lack of diversity in classical music. I mean, you see it when you go to concerts — you just go to the orchestra’s website, you see there’s a lack of diversity.

I created a deal with the station where being here in Baton Rouge, close to my mom, without the sort of hectic life of New York City, would allow me to finish my book and create a podcast, just having more space to think and more space to be.

Terrance McKnight
Terrance McKnight | Credit: Julie Yarbrough Photography​​​​​​

Why did you decide to focus on opera for the first season?

I remembered that Uzee Brown said to me, “It’s hard for Black opera singers, especially here in the South, because nobody wants to see a Black man hugging a white woman.” I thought about that, and in my research, I started to look at opera and some of the characterizations of Blackness that we see in opera. It became apparent to me that opera was an art form that was able to display someone’s wealth through them having all these musicians on staff, by them being able to commission a composer to do it, having the resources to buy all of the costumes. You’d have to be financially wealthy to be able to put on an opera.

So I connected folks putting on opera to what they were investing in, and many of them were investing in the slave industry. So I thought, “Well, they’re investing in the slave industry. Chances are that the subject matter is going to promote and justify their thinking around slavery.” So two things happen: Either Blackness is not mentioned at all, or when it is, it exists through that lens that these people were to be enslaved, that these people were less than, that these people were just there to entertain white folks.

That’s what I’ve been discussing in these four operas. In The Magic Flute, Monostatos is an enslaved man who’s punished for just doing his job. … Then we deal with Shakespeare’s Othello. … When he wrote it, England was ramping up to heavily invest in the slave trade. And then, when Verdi set it to music, it was shortly after the Berlin Conference, where Europe carved up [Africa]. … Then we deal with The Abduction From the Seraglio. You have a Black man who’s a slave. And we deal with Aida; she was an Ethiopian princess, but she became enslaved.

It just seems to me when you have this art form, oftentimes supported by the one percent — these are the folks that make a lot of decisions, whether it’s legislatively, who gets the job, or who gets the promotion — these are the images that they see. You can understand some of the disparity in our country if what happens onstage impacts real life.

If it were up to you, would operas like the ones we’ve discussed still be performed by opera houses today in their original form when there are so many others to choose from?

I’ve been thinking about that a lot. We’re going to talk to Peter Sellars today. And I know when he did Otello, he cast a Latino as Otello. … He found a way of telling the same story through a different lens, and I think there needs to be more creativity. First of all, there’s the understanding that these operas were composed to meet a larger agenda. And we realized that that agenda is not relevant or doesn’t serve us in the 21st century.

If we can agree there, then we can agree that there need to be some changes made. … Maybe, in the case of Monostatos, there’s a way to make his aria or his presence onstage bring forth more empathy for that character. I think that’s where the creative genius of directors comes into play.

Should our music institutions consider setting aside warhorses that were written with these racist, outdated stereotypes in mind?

I’m not suggesting setting them aside — I’m suggesting tweaking. If you realize the context in which the warhorse was created and understand that there are still ripple effects … then there should be some desire to make a change if we see this impacting our culture in a way that’s negative and that might be part of the problem.

Since the murder of George Floyd in 2020, many initiatives across the country have been launched with the goal of diversifying the classical music industry, such as by providing money or performance opportunities to living composers of color. Your approach is different — it looks into the past and into the Western classical music canon for these hidden characters. Why do you feel it’s important to tell these stories?

In my experience and in my research, the problem with diversity has never been about the lack of Black creativity, intelligence, aptitude, or ability in classical music. I mean, some of the first orchestral players in our country were down here in Louisiana; they had a philharmonic back in the 1840s. And all these people of color were playing classical music that they brought with them from Haiti. There have always been a lot of Black folks who were fluent in Western music.

The issue has been about inclusion and us being able to come together as Black and white — to value each other’s ability and creativity in a way that is not hierarchical, where it’s not a matter of high and low but rather a matter of human creativity and equal genius. That’s been the crux: coming together.

Terrance McKnight
Terrance McKnight | Credit: Julie Yarbrough Photography

In my research, I talk a lot about this orchestra that was founded in New York called the Symphony of the New World. It was the first integrated orchestra in the country, and they were playing Ellington, Beethoven, and T.J. Anderson, and all these Black and white people were just playing music together. The orchestra only lasted for about 13 years. And there were some issues as well around funding, but it also sort of collapsed around the [influence of the] Black Power movement, where these Black players wanted a Black board, they wanted a Black conductor. Because of some of the racial baggage they had to carry from years, centuries of propaganda that taught that Blacks were second class, that we were slaves by nature, that we were best under the guidance of white folks. That started to rear its head in this orchestra.

That’s what I’m trying to uncover in my work. I’m trying to dispel that notion that this isn’t who we are — this was just the propaganda that was necessary to have the slave industry prosper. They had to fool the public into thinking “Black people need our guidance, that these people are better off over here working for us, as opposed to being infidels on their own. We’re trying to save them through Christianity. And so this is the best thing for them and if they’re not under our guidance, then they become the Black brute.”

When Blackness is seen as [the brute], it becomes the antithesis to what classicism is all about; classicism is about order and beauty and symmetry. Well, Blackness is thought of as the complete opposite of that. There’s always going to be an uphill journey for the Black classical musician to try to prove [not only] all their ability as a musician but their fullness as a human being.

And so, that’s what I’m trying to deconstruct —  that notion that Blackness is not fully human, that Blackness is a different type of brilliance and genius. One of the lines of my show is “many cultures, many voices, one people.” We’re all just the same people.

To bring it back to your new show, can you tell me how you came up with the name?

Edward Yim [senior vice president and chief content officer] at WQXR said, “We want to call it Lift Every Voice,” because he understood what I was trying to do with my work, and we’ve known each other for a long time. He sees this consistency in my work that came out of church.

My mother used to tell me, “You never know who’s going to walk through that door on Sunday morning. We never know what they’re going through. So use your music to try to minister and help everybody who walks through that door.” She didn’t care what they looked like. She didn’t care what color they were, where they were coming from. She said, “Use your talent to uplift everybody.”

“Lift every voice” comes from the Black National Anthem. And I thought, “Boy, lifting, that seems like a lot. Let’s just call it Every Voice because we get to the same thing.”

I imagine your schedule is packed, so I have one last question for you. Do you still find time for piano?

I play piano when I need to, but I don’t have much time for leisurely playing. The podcast is pretty involved. I’ve got a weighted keyboard, and there’s a piece in Mozart’s Magic Flute for glockenspiel, so I just learned how to play it on piano and played it on the show.