Classical 91.5

Classical Musicians of African Descent

WXXI Classical 91.5 is in the process of building a resource of photos and brief biographical information about musicians of African descent. This resource is by no means complete, and we rely on you to help us build the site by sharing your information. Please click on the alphabetical groupings below to begin your discovery.

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People of African heritage have made enduring contributions to classical music throughout history. There have been countless accomplished Black classical conductors, composers and performers (both instrumentalists and singers) who have enriched classical music as long as it has existed.

The Classical Musicians of African Descent (CMAD) pages were begun in partnership with the Gateways Music Festival at the Eastman School of Music (part of the University of Rochester) and will be a growing and changing resource for your information and research. We encourage you to visit the pages and if there are musicians that should be included, please write to us at

One such pioneer is the late Maestro Paul Freeman (1936-2015) who earned his bachelor, masters and doctoral degrees from the Eastman School of Music. Maestro Freeman founded the Chicago Sinfonietta as a mid-size orchestra dedicated to the causes of promoting diversity, innovative programming and celebrating the legacies of minority composers.

Here in Rochester, the Gateways Music Festival, in Association with the Eastman School of Music, has celebrated the contribution of classical musicians of African descent, biennially since 1995. Like Gateways Founder Armenta Adams (Hummings) Dumisani, Maestro Freeman passionately worked toward “opening the doors of classical music to everyone.”

With the assistance of the Gateways Music Festival, we have compiled a significant listing of classical musicians of African descent for your reference. Among the musicians listed are members of American symphony orchestras, college and university music school faculty, as well as concert and freelance artists.

Brianna J Robinson, soprano

Jan 29, 2020

Soprano Brianna J. Robinson is a graduate of Ohio Wesleyan University with degrees in Vocal Music Performance and Black World Studies. She received her master’s degree in Performance and Literature from the Eastman School of Music in May of 2018.

Veena Akama-Makia, mezzo-soprano

Jan 29, 2020

Arkansas-born mezzo-soprano Veena Akama-Makia received her Masters in Performance and Literature from the Eastman School of Music as a student of Professor Kathryn Cowdrick. A graduate of the University of Central Arkansas, she sang leading roles in their productions of Amahl and the Night Visitors (Menotti), Le Nozze di Figaro (Mozart), Hansel and Gretel (Humperdinck), and A Hand of Bridge (Barber).

Angel Blue, soprano

Jan 29, 2020

Recognized for her beautiful timbre and stunning stage presence, soprano Angel Blue's voice has been hailed for its shining, agile upper register and "smoky" middle register. A regular BBC Proms presenter who is equally at home on the concert or operatic stage, Angel is quickly establishing herself as one of the best singers in her generation, having performed in over 35 countries in the last 6 years.

Larry Williams, french horn

Jan 29, 2020

Larry Williams has distinguished himself as a multi-faceted performing artist, teacher and administrator. He is currently Principal Horn of American Studio Orchestra, Black Pearl Chamber Orchestra, Sphinx Symphony Orchestra, and a member of the Lyric Brass Quintet, and Ritz Chamber Players. Mr. Williams formerly served as Principal Horn of the New World Symphony Orchestra and has performed with the Baltimore, Pittsburgh, and San Francisco Symphony Orchestras, among others.

LeTriel White, clarinet

Jan 29, 2020

LeTriel Monique White is known for her virtuosic ability to perform fluently on the clarinet within the worlds of orchestral and chamber music, while at the same time working as a saxophonist and flutist in the varied genres of jazz, rock, and modern music. She has become a fixture in the music and education scenes of Houston, Texas. Ms. White has served as a D'Addario Reserve Method Clinician and adjunct Professor of Woodwinds at Texas Southern University.  Ms. White aspires to continue to contribute to the advancement of other young artists.

Robert Lee Watt, author and french horn

Jan 29, 2020

Born in Neptune Township, New Jersey, Robert Lee Watt was hired by Zubin Mehta and the Los Angeles Philharmonic to play assistant principal horn in 1970 and remained there for 37 years before retiring in 2008.  He was the first African-American French hornist hired by a major symphony orchestra in the United States.  After high school Watt was accepted to the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston where he studied French horn with Harry Shapiro of the Boston Symphony.

Lionel Thomas, violin

Jan 29, 2020

Lionel Thomas developed a passion for music as a young child listening to his church’s gospel choir. At age eight, he began playing violin in Pennsylvania where his earliest music instructors passed on their own love for music. Mr. Thomas received a Bachelor of Music from the University of Oregon and a Master of Music from the University of Cincinnati. He is a faculty member at Music School of Delaware and Adjunct Associate Professor at Delaware State University. Mr. Thomas is also a substitute violinist with Symphony in C.    

Damien Sneed, piano

Jan 29, 2020

Damien Sneed, a multi-genre recording artist, received a Sphinx Medal of Excellence in 2014. He has garnered critical acclaim across a range of musical genres, including jazz, gospel, R&B and musical theatre with features in the New York Times. A pianist, organist, conductor, composer, producer, arranger, and educator, Mr. Sneed has worked with music legends such as Aretha Franklin, Wynton Marsalis, and Jessye Norman. His opera, Marian’s Song, commissioned by the Houston Opera, will premiere in March 2020. This fall, Mr. Sneed will join the faculty of the Manhattan School of Music.

Yvonne Smith, viola

Jan 29, 2020

Yvonne Smith, based in Houston, Texas, is an accomplished performer on modern and historical violas. She appears in seasonal performances with the Houston Symphony, Houston Grand Opera, Houston Ballet, Bach Society Houston, Mercury Chamber Orchestra, Ars Lyrica Houston, La Follia Austin Baroque, and American Bach Soloists (San Francisco, CA).  She earned her Master of Music and Bachelor of Music degrees in Viola Performance from the Shepherd School of Music at Rice University under the tutelage of Joan DerHovsepian and James Dunham.