Opening Doors: Classical Singer Patrick Dailey (CFA’14)
Patrick Dailey (CFA’14)
They are determined to use their experience, influence, and positions to help make their business, organization, and world more inclusive. They are breaking barriers—and then reaching back to help those behind them overcome the same hurdles. They are BU alumni, faculty, and staff—of every race, ethnicity, age, and gender—and they are “Opening Doors” for the next generation.
Patrick Dailey’s Twitter profile picture shows him rocking a “Black music matters” T-shirt. It’s kind of a mission statement for his career as a classical singer.
Dailey (CFA’14) sings countertenor. He lives in Nashville and teaches voice and other music classes at Tennessee State University. Nashville Scene named him the city’s best classical singer in 2022. But the community that means the most to him is clearly the community of Black singers and musicians.
He received his undergraduate degree in music performance from historically Black Morgan State University. He was already singing professionally when he got his Master of Music from Boston University, thinking it might open more doors than a degree from a conservatory. At Tennessee State, which both his parents attended, he founded the Big Blue Opera Initiatives, a program for underserved students there and at other historically Black colleges and universities (HBCU). (The HBCU acronym comes up a lot in his conversation.)
He also founded the W. Crimm Singers, the resident ensemble at Tennessee State, named for TSU voice teacher and mentor William Crimm. He has sung in competitions and on America’s Got Talent, and on many different stages both sacred and secular, including at the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, the National Museum of African American Music in Nashville, and—with Aretha Franklin—at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., at an event marking President Barack Obama’s 2009 inauguration.
He is sustained by a broad vision of the Black music community, drawing from all of the people who helped a Black, gay youth find artistic success and personal fulfillment.
With Patrick Dailey
Bostonia: Some people we interview for this series are all about breaking down barriers in places where they might have been excluded. You do some of that, but you seem particularly focused on strengthening the Black music community, at the historically Black colleges and universities, and in the Black church.
Dailey: I’m devoted to Black institutions in general, but particularly the Black church and the Black colleges and universities, because they, to be clear and frank, really made me. I’m grateful for the public schools and all of these other things, but it was really the Black institutions.
I’m the great-grandson of West Tennessee sharecroppers on my mother’s side. My mother came to Nashville in 1966 to attend what was then called Tennessee Agricultural & Industrial State University, founded in 1912 from the second leg of the land-grant act. My father was also a student there, and in 1970 they were married.
I always loved choirs, and in particular, the Black college choir tradition. As I started studying voice, I wanted to be a Jubilee Singer, and though I didn’t go to Fisk University, the love for that tradition really remains strong.
I’m attempting to do something within the community, with the people that I love the most—that really helps to reignite the flame, the understanding of who we are to each other. What is possible? What limits we can take off when we really decide to bet on ourselves.
Bostonia: What was your experience at BU and in the early music world in Boston?
Dailey: There’s so much great music and artistry happening at BU, but I was used to the joy that comes out when Black folks experience it. I didn’t get that. There were cultural things, people don’t express themselves the same way, and it was hard for me to understand. Now I’m not one to bite my tongue about race, or what I observe. So, I’m like, well, if you don’t have a frame of reference for something I’m talking about, I need to explain it to you. I end up having to explain to you about Black churches and Black institutions and Black Greek life and everything else. It just showed me how much work we have to do in society for people to really connect and build relationships.
Bostonia: Talk about discrimination you’ve faced in the classical world, at BU or beyond.
Dailey: In my beginning experiences, people I knew who were very much into early music, yes, they were very talented and highly intelligent and well-read, but they weren’t always the nicest people. They were often quite arrogant and not helpful. To me, they looked down upon you, if you didn’t know the most obscure treatises and information about their field: “You didn’t read this thing from 1496?! Hmm! We all read it.” It was like if you didn’t come into the room having their same knowledge and information, oh, then you’re not supposed to be doing this. It’s like, well, if I don’t know, why don’t you help me figure it out? Give me some sources, and don’t be a jerk about it. So, I was initially resistant to early music because of the experiences that I had.
I found the music to be beautiful, but also I had a perception that early music was restrictive, because every time I talked to these people they said, “Oh, you can’t do this. This is not the style. You can’t do that.”
But I also will say that because of race, class, and privilege, there can be little understanding of people who don’t come from the same spaces. A lot of folks also just don’t know how to talk to people of different backgrounds and experiences. But that’s part of my role, to build and be a bridge.
Bostonia: Have you faced any more overt, direct sort of discrimination in the classical world?
Dailey: The performing arts world sees itself as very inclusive, to the point where some folks do not try to acknowledge the differences in folks and just brush it off. They want to see everything as colorless, believing that’s a good thing. Most of the time, it’s not overt, it’s sort of underlying. They don’t realize that they’re being disrespectful.
Until recently, many singers—Black singers, singers of all ethnicities—were sort of expected to not fully show up as themselves. Change your language, change how you react. A lot of code-switching is required to be seen as professional.
Although some may have issues around race, it’s not purely about race per se as much as it is about not being aware of where other people come from culturally and dismissing that.
Entering the early music scene, I was singing really big, in full, and you have people saying in a coaching, “Oh, this is lovely! But there’s too much color in the sound.” Microaggressions like that show more of their blind spots than it shows about any of us.
Now I think there are doors opening. My biggest thing is ensuring that we have agency, and artists are free to create their own thing and not have to wait for someone else. That’s one thing that my friends across the country marvel at when they come to Nashville, and they see what [creative] freedom does. They say, “Y’all are working all the time, but y’all are often working on your own projects.”
Bostonia: What can or what should people do in their own arts organizations, spaces, and performing groups to make them more inclusive, more welcoming to different kinds of voices?
Dailey: The biggest things are listening, asking questions—and then acting upon the information that you’re given. Be an example and help those who often feel othered. When you know better, you do better.
For example, we have someone in the Crimm Singers who is legally blind. As a conductor, I have to make sure she, like everyone, is clear on their part. So, I asked her, what can I do to ensure that she is aware of my movement and when it’s time to sing?
She said, “Since your skin is darker and sometimes we’re in halls that are dark, I can’t always see your hand gestures.” So, I’m like, okay, let me be aware of what I wear. Maybe make sure what I’m wearing has more color in the front, so when I move my hands a certain way she could see it.
Bostonia: You sing countertenor, which is a bit unusual. Would your path have been easier if you were built like a defensive lineman and sang bass? That seems to be sort of the stereotype that’s out there for Black singers in the classical and opera world.
Dailey: I don’t know if it would be easier, but I think I would have gotten more money. I have a substantial build, so I could have played ball. I almost did. But they gave us the practice schedule, and I was like, “Oh, no, honey, I have rehearsals. Not doing it!” If I was that, I would be the norm and an easy draw in entertainment and society. But because I’m different, that does allow for me to take more risks, be more intentional and outspoken.
Bostonia: You had help from lots of mentors. How are you paying it forward to the next generation?
Dailey: Most of the stuff that I do are things that were done for me in some way. I had the experience of singing with more mature singers when I was in college and also being paid to sing with more mature singers. So, I do my best to engage collegiate singers. Even on occasion there might be a student who’s really strong in high school and I’m like, “You should come over here and get this information too.” Putting them in the setting so they get that on-the-job training, the real-life experience—that’s one thing I really wanna make sure that they have. And when we have things that are paid, making sure that they are treated just as fairly as the pros. But we’re not holding your hand. If you come into the gig, this is the expectation.
Bostonia: Was there one moment on stage where you felt like a part of that tradition?
Dailey: Singing with Aretha Franklin at the Kennedy Center on the eve of President Obama’s inauguration. It goes back to being a little kid in school and not understanding the purpose of certain things in school.
My mother is an educator, and in a middle school meeting with my teachers that my mother had assembled, I said, “I’m gonna one day be famous, I’m gonna one day win a Grammy, and I’m gonna sing with Aretha Franklin.”
After I’m singing this song with her [in 2009]—it was “The Battle Hymn of the Republic”—my mother was back in my middle school with some of those teachers, and they say, “How’s Patrick doing?” And she says, “He just sang with Aretha Franklin at the Kennedy Center.” And she told me the guidance counselor, who was there for me as this little kid trying to figure out myself, figure out my voice, even my sexuality, he cried. He said he cried because “they almost tried to kill everything that was in that boy.” It’s really moments like that that are my favorites, because they link back to my roots.
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