When Gabrielle Pinkney ’24 sings—whether solo on stage or as part of the Black Celestial Choral Ensemble—her hands move gracefully, shaping notes and melodies out of the air. Her passion for the music is evident and, in her poise and commanding presence, so too her abilities as a leader.
In both her academics and involvements on campus, Pinkney—a music industry major in Syracuse University’s College of Visual and Performing Arts (VPA)—is at the forefront of making change. She works for representation and inclusion in classical music, advocates for empowerment and justice for artists, and builds community for students on campus.
Finding the Power in Opera
Pinkney has sung in church choirs since she was a young child and started taking classical voice lessons when she was just 8. But what made her fall in love with opera was the storytelling. She recalls seeing Puccini’s Madame Butterfly and being spellbound by the poignant expression of heartbreak in one of the scenes. “Operas tell stories that anyone can relate to, no matter who they are or where they’re from,” she says. And the power of opera as a storytelling medium makes it an important space for sharing perspectives and raising issues, she says.
While Pinkney aspires to become a classical performer, she also aims to shift the cultural narratives about the artform that, as she explains it, can be barriers to access and diversity in classical music.
Educating for Representation and Inclusion
One way Pinkney engages in this work is through a project she is developing as part of the Renée Crown University Honors Program. Aiming to share with others the musical education she feels privileged to have experienced, Pinkney is developing an online educational series for young people, delving into the interconnection of classical music with other musical genres, and shedding light on the rich and long tradition of Black and Brown artists in the classical world. “In communities that are underrepresented in this area, there aren’t many resources to share the experiences and stories of minority opera singers, or of classical music’s presence in a diversity of cultures,” she explains. “It’s important to have resources that are accessible to different demographics, and also for young people to hear these stories about classical music told from the perspective of someone who looks like them.”
The series, called “This is Our Story, This is Our Song,” also explores the significance of recent productions that have represented diverse narratives and cultures, and features interviews with working professionals.
It’s important to have resources that are accessible to different demographics, and also for young people to hear these stories about classical music told from the perspective of someone who looks like them.—Gabrielle Pinkney ’24
Pinkney says this project evolved in part thanks to the mentorship and support of Professor Martha Sutter, in VPA’s Setnor School of Music, with whom she studied voice during her first year. “It made a big difference that Professor Sutter asked me what I was passionate about outside of music and encouraged me to think from the very beginning about how I would incorporate these other interests into what I wanted to do as a musician,” Pinkney says.
Advocating for Artists
Pinkney is proud to be part of the Black Celestial Choral Ensemble, where she serves as director. The Black Celestial Choral Ensemble, which performs on campus and around the nation, was founded nearly 50 years ago as a spiritual home for Black students on campus. “It’s an honor to be part of such a legacy of advocacy for Black students and gospel music,” she says.
Pinkney intends to be an advocate behind the scenes of performance, as well. She describes the courses she took with Professor Todd Herreman on copyright law and intellectual property as formative in her academic journey. “Learning how artists can be disenfranchised within the industry inspired me to want to pursue law,” she says. “As a lawyer in entertainment law, I will be able to advocate for artists. I am expanding on my dream of advocating for classical music to include the goal of advocating for artists of all musical genres, as well.”
Learning how artists can be disenfranchised within the industry inspired me to want to pursue law.—Gabrielle Pinkney ’24
Pinkney is a founding member of the Black Honors Society, a student organization that provides community-building and support for students of color, and that helped established the annual Black Excellence Gala. “The Black Excellence Gala celebrates underrepresented students on campus and recognizes how so many are also community leaders working for changes that help everyone,” she says. “By the term ‘Excellence’ we recognize the work of students who are not only excelling academically, but also advocating for their communities and contributing through so many organizations.”
Starting the Black Honors Society helped Pinkney realize her potential as a community leader. “I was just a sophomore when we started this—I didn’t know what I was getting into. But stepping into the work made me realize my power, and my worth here on campus, and how much we can do as a student community to make the changes we want to see,” she explains.
Pinkney also appreciates the comradery and connection she’s found through the Our Time Has Come Scholarship program. “Our Time Has Come has been a wonderful space of mentorship, fellowship and connecting with like-minded individuals,” she says, and adds that she looks forward to participating in the program as an alumna, as well. “I can’t wait to be part of Coming Back Together and all the amazing events the Office of Multicultural Advancement organizes for the alumni community!”
Being the Change
Seeing her efforts make a difference is what keeps her motivated, Pinkney says. “I’m a VPA ambassador, and I recently saw a student on campus who said that the tour I gave her and her family helped her decide to come to Syracuse,” Pinkney recalls. “That’s the kind of story that keeps me going. I can say I am making a difference—I’ve helped somebody move on to their next step!”