Michael Harper

Michael is a Principal Study Vocal Tutor, who started working with us in September 2019. He was born in Petersburg, Virginia and first moved to the UK 24 years ago.

He shared with us how migration has affected his life and work…

michael harper

What does the word ‘migrant’ mean to you?

A migrant for me is someone who moves for a reason (relationship, economy, opportunity, career, strife, war, adventure, pleasure) or merely out of interest to be in another place.

It has recently been politicised and come to have a more negative connotation, but seems to only have that negative connotation if those migrants (immigrants) come from places that a nation or its citizens seem to deem undesirable. This undesirability seems often linked with poverty, class, race, religion, and/or geography.

These attitudes towards immigrants seem both historical and current, based on constructs used to separate – keeping human beings divided.

Migrant can also represent something very positive. The word is the thing on which is based many of the forward-looking and creative societies, current and historical – places from which some of the most creative and fertile thinking emanated. These places were often created by trade or sometimes war, but people came with their ideas and influences.

The other day a man walked into my barber’s. He was very friendly and we immediately struck up a conversation. He had a bit of an accent and I asked him where he was from. He made me guess –  I guessed ‘Greece, Pakistan, Italy?’ – no! – ‘Turkmenistan?’ – no! Poland was the answer and I never would have guessed. He looked as if he were Southern European or Asian. Appearances are deceptive. Migration creates new and interesting appearances and communities.

On my mother’s side, my family are from Virginia: my grandmother was part of the first independent black community in the US on Pocahontas Island in my home town of Petersburg, Virginia (USA). My grandfather, from Padukah Kentucky, via Nashville. I’ve traced my genealogy back to a single woman in the early 19th century on my maternal grandmother’s side. My grandfather and his parents were migrants from another state. According to DNA studies, both grandparents were probably connected to the first Africans brought to Virginia in the 17th century. My paternal grandfather was from one of the oldest African American businesses in the Commonwealth of Virginia.

There was a heated discussion in the States recently, when African people who had been enslaved were referred to as  ‘workers’. The offending passage was in pages titled Patterns of Immigration in McGraw-Hill Education’s World Geography book. A colourful map of the US was adorned with a speech bubble which said: ‘The Atlantic Slave Trade between the 1500s and 1800s brought millions of workers from Africa to the southern United States to work on agricultural plantations.’  (Dart, Tom. ‘Textbook passage referring to slaves as ‘workers’ prompts outcry’ – The Guardian, 6 October 2015). Suggesting that people who had been enslaved were part of a pattern of immigration was rather tricky in a politically charged environment. There was a legal challenge to this representation, and it had to be changed. So one also has to be careful with the concept of migrant, immigration, and emigration. Does it include those who did not move voluntarily?

The modern science of DNA also adds an interesting twist to migration. It sometimes reveals something we never expected on the surface and what we never hear in family lore. My DNA revealed a background from many parts of the world. So quite a few of my ancestors migrated at some point. Perhaps this is why I have such a curiosity about the world.

Where were you born, and what caused you to move away from your birth country?

I was born in Petersburg, Virginia – a small, but important city in the southeastern part of the United States.

I moved to the UK 24 years ago. I had come first in 1993 on scholarship to study with the countertenor, Paul Esswood (I had only previously visited Germany for two weeks nearly ten years earlier). The scholarship and trips had been prompted by my change from Baritone to Countertenor. Britain was the place to come to learn the tradition and the style.

On my third scholarship-funded trip to the UK, I was allowed to stay longer on a different visa and eventually enrolled in an opera school. Having visited before, I had developed friendships and was quite comfortable being here. For the first year, it felt like one great big extended holiday.

How have your personal experiences of migration impacted on you as a musician and artist?

I eventually realised that people in Britain did things in a rather curious way and spoke a strange language that sounded like English, but was something altogether different from my native English. For instance they stood in long queues (‘lines’) without complaining and used words like ‘way out’ for ‘exit’.

I realised that I had no idea about the system, I didn’t know the language, and I was living amongst aliens (the name that the Home Office used to refer to ‘foreigners’ who had some sort of temporary residency in the UK.)

I realised that though I was developing new friendships here, I had left my life, my connections, my structures back home in Virginia, and in Cincinnati where I’d been studying for my doctorate. It was strange, alienating, and exciting at the same time.

I had the disadvantage of knowing nothing about where I was and the excitement of learning. The disadvantage of having no tap root that grounded me here and the excitement of tenuous adventitious roots which worked in much more diverse situations and allowed me to adapt.

Being a student in a foreign land, I had to adapt and learn how to survive, and thrive. I started making friends in music and other areas of my life – many of whom became friends for life. Some of them, I still collaborate with musically, and cherish our connection. I kept my connections in the States and still have musical links there. I’ve gone back to give recitals, master classes, lessons, and coaching at various universities in the States – and collaborated with some of my American colleagues in Europe.

Looking back, I’d say it’s been a pretty exciting and fulfilling journey. I had expected my journey to be just classical singing. But the road veered off in a different direction and I ended up doing learning and participation, community choirs, starting an arts organisation, and working with dancers and composers by chance –which took me off to far-flung places. It was all very exciting – but not what I’d planned to do. Many times, I had the feeling that I had no idea what I was doing, but I just kept doing it anyway. And, then somehow, the things that I was doing started to lead back to more classical singing and the things for which I’d trained.

The journey that I experienced as a result of moving here has made my life much richer than it would have been if I had stayed put. It’s almost as if people’s not knowing me gave me more of a chance to challenge and prove myself, and to present a me that I created – not one that had pre-planned by the place of my birth, family, and circumstances. I’m grateful for this.

Where is home to you?

I live between the UK and France, physically. Home, though, is where I am. I’ve lived in London for more years than I’ve lived anywhere else – more than the place in which I grew up. In another 10 years, I will have lived in the UK for more years than all of the other places I’ve lived combined. That’s something! Something about it feels like home. I also had the pleasure of meeting my partner nearly 23 years ago, which made being here and feeling at home much more possible. That’s one of the true anchors for me – my family.

Though this is home, it still feels alien sometimes. It took me a long time to get the humour – and being able to laugh in life is really important to me. My partner and friends would be falling about laughing about something – and I was simply bemused because I couldn’t see how what had been said or done was funny. Now I understand more, but still I come across things that I just don’t get. A friend and I figured out a long time ago when we were trying to understand this, that we would never quite completely get each other because we grew up with different idioms and life experiences. And, idioms are things that will never translate directly. Ask most natives of any country why they say certain idioms – and they won’t have a clue. Being a singer, teacher, and creative person, I’m constantly trying to decipher meaning. I want to understand why people do or say things.

After being away from the place in which one was born or raised, one ceases to understand or identify with the idioms anymore except perhaps in a nostalgic way – a way that ceases to exist even if still populated with the sone of the same people. I often arrive ‘home’ (Virginia) and search for the nostalgic ‘thing’ that I long for when I’m not there, and have rush back to recapture once a year. By the time I get home, that  thing for which I’m searching will have just left town. In reality, it no longer exists. Perhaps it never did. Things change.

So I’ve decided – home has to be that place where I am, with the people that I have to love and care for at that moment. So the key is not where you are, but who you are that makes you, and home. Nobody or place can make that for you or take it from you – if you stay flexible and adaptable, home stays with you.