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Julia Bullock Is Fighting for Social Justice One Song at a Time

Bullock, a biracial soprano, sings Schubert and Fauré but also Billie Holiday and Nina Simone—and she's blazing trails.
Julia Bullock.

Julia Bullock.

Classical music has a complicated history when it comes to race and gender. One important barrier was broken nearly 80 years ago, when African-American contralto Marian Anderson famously sang at the Lincoln Memorial. But another wasn't smashed until 2007, when Marin Alsop became the first female music director of an American orchestra (the Baltimore Symphony).

The next trailblazer in that distinguished lineage may be Julia Bullock.

At age 31, the biracial, St. Louis-born soprano is rapidly establishing herself not only as a superb singer, but also as something more.* Reviewing her recent recital in Santa Barbara, California, Los Angeles Times music critic Mark Swed declared: "She is completely aware of, and making exceptional use of, her identity. She made, to a degree that I think is new in classical music, the black experience a universal one."

That was partly a reaction to her repertoire. Countless black singers have incorporated traditional spirituals into their programs. But in her recital, Bullock—after singing music of Schubert, Fauré, and Samuel Barber—performed bluesy numbers co-written and originally sung by such legends as Billie Holiday, Alberta Hunter, and Nina Simone.

Bullock, whose current national tour takes her to New York's Carnegie Hall on April 20th, describes her thinking behind such choices in an email interview. "I identify with being black as much as I do being white," she says. "And my mixed heritage certainly informs my music-making."


You told the website San Francisco Classical Voice that, while studying voice in college, you were told to be "more animalistic" and less "heady," which angered you. Were teachers trying to turn you into their idea of a stereotypically black singer? Is that a form of subtle prejudice that artists of color still have to deal with in the classical world?

No, I think my teachers were simply trying to get me to connect my mind to my body. As a young student of voice, it is a bit overwhelming, as there is so much to learn. It's easy to forget that these sounds come out of a red-blooded human being. We make noises to communicate with each other out of necessity. The visceral, primal cries are an essential part of a classical technique, as they allow you to produce a free sound with full body engagement, but without stress or strain.

One must be connected to the body, the "animal," part and the "human" part. I only gave it a negative connotation in my mind at the time because I had issues with my own identity as a young woman of mixed heritage. Part of that is due to the fact that I grew up in a highly segregated and prejudiced town. Although I didn't realize it at the time, much of the racism I faced was insidiously communicated on a daily basis.

Prejudice is an integral aspect of North American culture, because so much [of it] was founded on colonialist, Western European culture. Categorization, grouping, and sweeping generalizations are things we all do on a daily basis. It's almost unavoidable. So yes, there are certainly subtle and not-so-subtle forms of prejudice with which performers of color have "to deal"—even just in terms of the expectation to have a particularly "colorful" instrument.

How did you respond to that pressure?

It's no secret that Americans actively seek to replace their most famous icons, and the world seems to be on a hunt for the next great black American soprano. I went through years of feeling pressure to present myself with utmost sophistication, honor, and nobility on stage because I wanted to actively fight against the history of black performers who had to put on some form of a "coon" show. But this insane need to be upstanding at all moments is not sustainable, and also not of interest to me anymore. I just want to lay my voice out, and deliver the material with immediacy. with whatever character that requires.

I'm curious as to whether, as a young woman, you have had to deal with the sort of sexual harassment that has been exposed by the #metoo movement. Has it taken a while to feel genuinely empowered?

There are some stories I could share that could jeopardize several careers, but I'm not in a place where I want to do that. In part, that's because I feel that everyone is becoming more and more aware of their behavior and how it affects others. Everyone is taking responsibility and will (hopefully) make adjustments.

When #metoo was getting so much momentum, I admitted to some male colleagues that I had committed micro-aggressions against them in rehearsals in order to display dominance. I was trying to preemptively avoid an uncomfortable situation where I would be [treated in a less-than-equal way]. I'd been in that position many times before.

But that's the challenge with any sort of oppressive culture that pervades a society: The victims and perpetrators both suffer and become more extreme in their responses, because of the cyclical perpetuation of the behavior.

My feelings of increased empowerment did not come from any external source, however. It has come from reflection and consideration of my actions and reactions. No movement is going to solve injustices of our world. What it does bring is an increased awareness and consciousness. And human beings can never have enough of that.

Julia Bullock.

Julia Bullock.

Tell me a bit about the blues numbers you perform. How did you come across them, and why did you choose to add them to your repertoire?

I've been in love with the work of Nina Simone and Billie Holiday since I was 15. I had just started listening to my mother's vinyl records, which included  Jefferson Airplane, Jimi Hendrix, Joni Mitchell, Laura Nyro, the Rolling Stones, and the Beatles. It was a brilliant time! My now-stepfather had just come into our lives, and was looking to make a further connection, so he started to drop off various albums in my room to encourage my musical explorations. (Unbeknownst to me at the time, my mother told him to give me the Simone and Holiday albums.)

I will never forget the first moments listening to those women's voices. The palpable pain that poured out of Billie Holiday took me aback. It was so incorporated into her sound that it almost became comfortable to listen to what otherwise would be almost unspeakable trauma. I loved her first as a vocalist, but was so moved to realize that the songs I found most profound were the ones to which she had contributed as a writer.

I hadn't even registered who Simone was when I first heard her. I just looked at the album cover briefly before popping her into the CD player. When I Put A Spell on You began, I rushed back over the album cover and asked, "Wait ... whose voice is this?" The more I listened, the more I fell in love with her sound, her delivery, and her musicianship.

Most amazing is that, two years later, when I started to become interested in classical vocal music and I went back to listen to Simone, I was simply delighted because I could hear Bach and Mozart in her piano improvisations. I was simply hooked. Still am.

I choreographed a dance to Simone's Four Women in high school for myself and three other unique and beautiful black students. After seeing the dance, my mom said, "Maybe you should sing this too." A rush of fear raced through me: "Oh no. I'd never! No one can sing Simone but Simone." But here we are. I've got some things I want to express through her material, and a bit more courage now to do it.

Your first immersion in music came by sitting in on your mother's tap dance class. But your true passion for classical music didn't begin until you were 17, when your stepfather bought you some recordings of the great French soprano Régine Crespin. Aside from her, who are the singers, classical or otherwise, who most influenced you?

I'd say the performer who first influenced me was Tina Turner. Talk about energy onstage! I'm a huge, huge, fan. The women whose voices I fell in love with on first listen all had one thing in common: They were all great communicators. There was a passion and ferocity in their delivery, a clarity in their sound, and a focus of intention.

Do you listen to recordings of other singers, or shy away from them for fear of copying what they are doing?

I'm leery of any musician who doesn't admit to going through a period of trying to emulate their musical idols, or their favorite performance of a piece, or even just trying to match what you're hearing. Jazzers do it all of the time, and aren't ashamed to admit it. I think it's part of how you learn what it is that so struck you about the music or performance in the first place, it's a path to discovering your aesthetic.

I can understand how one would fear only impersonating another, and I know I did, but slowly I began to codify the elements and identify the musical values that I wanted to implement in my own interpretations—so they weren't married to any one particular performer.

Also, it's lineage! Musical language evolves only if you know from where you've come. I don't believe in divine inspiration that strikes from nowhere. These moments of clarity about how to deliver a piece certainly haven't hit me randomly, and haven't come in ecstatic sparks—they unfold. I trust this slow development more, because it's conscious and becomes incorporated in my body and mind. Rapturous revelations don't last.

UPDATE—April 16th, 2018: This article has been updated to reflect Julia Bullock's correct age.