Dr. Louise Toppin is a noted performer, scholar and professor who specializes in the concert repertoire of African American composers. Over the span of her career, two operas and more than 100 songs have been written expressly for her voice. In addition, she has sung the world premiere of more than 100 songs and arias by contemporary composers. As the administrator of the George Shirley Vocal Competition and the Director of Videmus (a non-profit organization that promotes the concert repertoire of African American and women composers), she encourages students and scholars alike to perform and learn about African American compositions through recordings, conference presentations, live performances, and lectures.
I had the opportunity to interview Dr. Toppin in January 2022 about Videmus and the African Diaspora Music Project she also created. This interview was conducted by email and has been slightly condensed for length.
Q: What are Videmus and the African Diaspora Music Project?
Videmus is a non-profit arts organization founded in Boston in 1986 by Vivian Taylor. The purpose of the organization was to present music of women, African American and other under-represented composers on recordings, concerts, and educational events. After doing two recordings with them in the 1990s (“More Still” and “Good News”) Vivian Taylor asked me to take over. I streamlined the organization to focus solely on women and African American composers, and enticed composer T.J. Anderson, who had been the founding board president, to help me with the transition to an expanded vision. We grew into a national organization producing recordings and concerts, but also started supporting residencies and scholarships for research and the education of students interested in this repertoire.
The African Diaspora Music Project (ADMP) is an online research tool that offers the opportunity to learn about the concert repertoire of African American and African Diaspora composers. Users do not need any formal prior knowledge to use the database—one can begin a search simply by typing in a voice type or other search criteria and the tool provides repertoire options. The vocal portion of the ADMP was released first in September of 2019 with about 4,000 songs. Each entry has all the pertinent information needed for further research, purchasing information, as well as a composer biography and recording of the song (if available). The orchestral portion of the ADMP was released in April of 2021. It is tailored to serve orchestras at any level, and many are already using it to find repertoire to diversify their programming. There is much work to do on the database and many works to add, but this groundbreaking research tool’s existence has already been called a “game changer” in the vocal and orchestral fields.
Q: How wonderful for the field that it’s been adopted so broadly and quickly! What inspired you to begin this work?
My father (the late Dr. Edgar A. Toppin, Sr.), a nationally-recognized historian of the Civil War and Reconstruction, inspired me to study African American music. He opened my eyes to the work of African Americans in all sectors of life, including the arts. His life’s research and work of telling the story of African Americans through lectures, the first television series on Black history in the U.S. “Americans from Africa: A History” (on PBS), and his public service as a historian on national boards presented me with a model of how to present the underexplored and often ignored music of African Americans.
I began collecting this repertoire while I was a DMA student at the University of Michigan (class of 1990) and it became my dissertation focus. As a young professional, I began cataloguing the music into a spreadsheet—initially for my own use—but also found that I could use it to answer others’ questions about the music.
In 2010 I co-founded the George Shirley Vocal Competition which focuses solely on this same repertoire but is open for students of all ethnicities (at the high school, college, and pre-professional levels). After a few years of the competition, I noticed the singers were presenting the same songs year after year. I realized there were very few resources and anthologies dedicated to African American music, which limited the repertoire they could present. This heavily influenced my urgency to create a usable database and make it public and free of charge.
We do not work in a vacuum and I am aware that there are others working on databases of this music, particularly since 2020. I have connected with these creatorss to link with them and share information with those who would use my database. While each of us is presenting a different approach to the repertoire, linking to one another can only serve to increase access and information for the user.
Q: What are some of the main goals of ADMP and how have you seen those play out over the life of the project so far?
The main goals of ADMP have been: 1) to provide repertoire and resources that allow performers and artistic administrators to think differently about repertoire choices and encourage real change within our industry; 2) to provide access for researchers who want to find composers to champion for theses, dissertations, monographs, recordings, etc.; and 3) to inspire the imagination of the performing/creative community. The database has already inspired major artists around the globe. I hear amazing stories from those engaging with the database. My team and I are gratified that we have been able to help others in this work.
In November 2021 I won a $25,000 NCID (National Center for Institutional Diversity) grant to begin the next phase of the database, expanding [the] voice and orchestral [sections] and adding repertoire for keyboard and other instruments. I look forward to continuing to expand this database to open a window into the world of African Diaspora concert repertoire.
Q: How does this project engage contemporary themes of social justice and anti-racist work in a broader sense?
I think this project, like all arts, offers the opportunity to broaden the scope of narratives that are celebrated. This can serve as a model for disciplines outside of music to see how the inclusion of diverse perspectives enriches curricula, facilitates thought-provoking conversation, engages with difficult subjects, and promotes listening and empathy. It provides tools for the engagement of social justice and anti-racist themes within a manageable framework.
Q: Have you encountered any obstacles in pursuit of this project? Has there been pushback or other hurdles you’ve had to clear? What’s been the most difficult part?
I feel fortunate to say that I have not encountered any pushback specifically for this project. My work in African American music has received pushback at various points in my career but this database has been supported by East Carolina University, the University of North Carolina and now the University of Michigan. Dean David Gier (Dean of the School of Music, Theater, and Dance (SMTD) at the University of Michigan), my colleagues, and my classes have been supportive of the project and were instrumental in the testing phase. Dr. Karen Fornier, the Director of Research at SMTD, and Marie McCarthy who preceded her, were both very helpful in reading grant proposals and suggesting sources of funding.
The two hurdles I have faced have been funding—which is especially critical when building a functioning website such as this one—and time. This alone really could be a full-time job for me, a research team and technical team.
Q: What’s surprised you most while undertaking this project?
I have been most surprised by the number of people who have seen the database globally and reached out with questions. Frankly, I hadn’t envisioned this level of interest.
Q: What do you envision for the future of this project? What do you hope it will accomplish?
I would love to have a fund to encourage further research of specific composers, and be able to provide a stipend for the assistant and associate editors who work with me on editing the entries. We are getting ready to do a big update this month that will allow us to receive more submissions, which is exciting. I envision opening all instruments for the database this year. It is my goal to have a site that can receive submissions from all over the globe. Several concerts and events in the past year were created based on the database and I hope we could do conferences, highly visible concerts, workshops and curriculum in the future utilizing the database as a foundational resource.
Q: Are there ways for people to get involved?
YES! We need people researching repertoire and submitting it to the database to help us compile a more complete record of what music has really been written by these composers. We need the help of the public as we have only volunteer help at this.
If anyone thinks of any foundations that might support this work, we would love help connecting to them.
Q: Thank you so much for taking the time to tell us about your work! Any parting thoughts?
Thank you for your interest in this database. We are trying to make this a user-friendly site so if there is more we can do, we really do listen to and value public feedback.
This interview is part of our DEI Talks series, which endeavors to showcase resources and initiatives dedicated to diversity, equity, and inclusion in Western classical music. To read other features in the series, click here. If you have suggestions for other initiatives we should feature, or if you would like to write a feature yourself, please contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org.