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Renowned Pianist Shares You’re Never too Famous to Escape Racism

Awadagin Pratt, a pianist renowned for his moving performances, spoke at the University of Memphis School of Music on Friday, March 1.

Pratt was born in Pittsburgh and began studying piano at the age of 3. A few years later, after moving to Illinois, he additionally began studying violin. Throughout Pratt’s childhood, he practiced unceasingly. As a result of his diligence, Pratt was admitted to the University of Illinois at the fresh age of 16, where he studied piano and conducting in addition to violin. Following college, he enrolled at the Peabody Institute of the Johns Hopkins University, a private music and dance conservatory and preparatory school in Baltimore, Maryland. He later received the Distinguished Alumni Award from Johns Hopkins in recognition of his achievements with the Peabody Institute and for his work in the field of classical music. He also received an honorary doctorate from Illinois Wesleyan University after delivering the commencement address in 2012.

Over his expansive 30-plus-year career, Pratt has earned numerous awards and recognitions. In 1992, Pratt won first place in the Naumburg International Piano Competition, making him the first Black artist to achieve this honor. Pratt also received the prestigious Avery Fisher Career Grant. He has performed at venues nationwide, including the Lincoln Center, Kennedy Center, Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in Los Angeles and Chicago’s Orchestra Hall. He has also performed for two United States presidents, President Bill Clinton and President Barack Obama.

In recent years, Awadagin has actionized his passion for social justice and creating more equality within the music community for Black artists. “Awadagin Pratt: Black in America,” a one-hour televised film centered around his life and career, is one way that Pratt hopes to aid this mission. The film was created by Michelle Bauer Carpenter, a professor in the College of Arts and Media at the University of Colorado in Denver.

“The film is about his (Pratt’s) experience after the death of George Floyd, his post-traumatic stress and his memories of being racially profiled,” Carpenter said. Awadagin Pratt: Black in America showcases his climb to fame and flows like a candid conversation about what it is like to be a person of color in the United States. The film’s website includes that the film “also confronts issues of privilege and racism in America and tells a personal account of an all-too-common experience for many people of color in America and worldwide.”

Pratt was personally bothered by public discourse surrounding Floyd’s criminal history and said it insinuates that victims “deserved to be killed because they put themselves in a compromising position. It subtly presumes and presents that Black people who aren’t criminals don’t get randomly stopped by police.”

While recalling multiple instances throughout his life when police stopped him, he recounted a specific incident that led to an overnight arrest when he was a student at the Peabody Institute. “The dean of the school arranged a meeting with me and the chief of police of Baltimore, who, with no apology or sense of irony, told me that I should be grateful that they were looking out for my safety,” Pratt said.

Pratt urges people to become part of the solution to promote equality, which he suggests starts by identifying the disparity and getting angry about such instances. Pratt poses the question, “Do you remember the first time you felt something was unfair? Do you remember the feeling of injustice? Do you remember the anger that you felt, even if just for a moment? Now imagine that every couple of years, every year, every couple of months, every week, every day, something stokes that anger. Another incident, another stop, that anger doesn’t go away. It grows, and then it bubbles over.”

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