So here we are, August 2013, slap bang in the middle of BBC Proms territory. Whilst the Royal Albert Hall in West London plays host to the biggest names in classical music, the British Film Institute in South London shows the screening of series 2, show 1 of Top Boy- Channel 4's gritty drama about inner city street life.
On one side, press and pro social groups slam Top Boys violence and glamorization of gangs and drug culture. Critics call for a balance in programming. However, no one states the plainly obvious. TV commissioners make what rates, reflects present day society and is unique. Top Boy is all of these things.
TV picks up formats that are brought to its attention. There ARE balanced stories out there, but not everyone knows where to find them, or how to tell them.
Top Boys critics say ''why aren't there any positive stories about the black community? Why are we only shown in a negative, criminal light? Well, there are positive, soaring stories; it's just that commissioners and TV don't seem as interested in them, or only want to perpetuate the stereotypes.
For example, In trying gain a wider audience for this years proms, the BBC are holding an urban proms night at the RAH where acts like Wretch32 and N Dubz Fazer are performing with the BBC Symphony Orchestra. That's great! It encourages urban fans to attend the proms and is inclusive. But it doesn't end there. Next the BBC chooses to make a show for BBC3 where Fazer will take young street youth, and show them why the proms are to be appreciated. We are told Fazer '' is now on a mission to bring the genre to a whole new generation of British teens, many of whom have never heard the sweeping strings of Tchaikovsky or intricate layers of Bach before''.
Having spoken to many, this programming makes a lot of the urban music scene feel uncomfortable. Sometimes you can't even verbalise the emotion. It's a concept that demeans and presumes that all inner city urban youth are so tunnel-visioned that they can't appreciate or understand the existence of classical music. This is simply not true.
There are thousands of young music lovers and dance students from inner cities who love and appreciate classical music. Instead of a TV show that makes us all feel like the great BBC has charitably extended its hand and opened its doors to urban acts, why not champion and highlight black role models who are leaders in their fields of work in classical music?
Youth want to see leaders like Jay Z who are winning in their chosen fields. They don't like charitable hands reaching down to help them. Tell them about winners in classical music so they too can aspire to be like them. This is the hip-hop generation - they are aspirational, they want to see winners, they're not happy to live on the latest BBC funding handout.
Winners like Shirley Thompson who's a rarity in this country: a black composer AND educator at the University of Westminster where she created its music performance module which forms part of the Commercial Music Degree. Shirley debunks the myths that modern classical music and its composition is a strictly white male reserve; that classical music and those with skills in that area do not work in the commercial music or education sector and that compositional music isn't/can't be actively married to contemporary musical forms. Make a TV show and include people like Shirley instead of ''poor inner city youth who need to be lead to the classical music well to drink''.
As the classical open-air concert season is well under way - the end of the season's calendar and the BBC's most consistently successful musical annual ticket buying and broadcast event - the work Shirley is doing and has accomplished is timely. Added to that, she was voted among this country's '100 Most Influential Black People' on the basis of her invaluable and - shamefully - under-reported work.
Shirley is warm, driven, approachable and ageless. A typically ambitious January 7th Capricorn, she recalls being intoxicated with the sound of the piano from the age of 4 years old, in a little box room, in her Jamaican parents East London home. She recalls ''it was normal to have a piano in the home in those days. My mother did whatever she could to help us progress and develop as human beings. There was always soul, gospel and reggae music playing in our house, I saw classical music as the same, I came across classical music in TV and films. I loved pop music as a child, Sounds of Blackness and Marvin Gaye, Al Green, very classic soul voices. I was always into local music festivals. I started the violin at age 11, which is late in that world so always felt as if I were playing catch up, but my area-Newham- was musically creative back then as it is now with grime and classical talent''.
She graduated in music from Liverpool University. Not the nearest Uni to her home, but it offered what the rest couldn't ''I couldn't chose between attending a music course or history and Liverpool offered me the chance to do both, Having a grounding and good technique is really important, I spent 3 years studying the classical greats like Monteverdi and Polyphony, and this exposed me to more music than before''
Shirley left an extremely successful performing career to pass on her passion to younger students ''I've been teaching at Westminster uni for 10 years, they told me I needed to make the performance side of things work, 10 years ago recorded music was seen as the most important aspect of the music world instead of live performance. Nowadays its all about the live performance-its changed phenomenally. My students come from local state schools to public schools. A lot of them want to be singer songwriters and music producers in grime, classical, rock, hip-hop and indie. They are all passionate music lovers''
A big moment for Shirley was in 2002 when she met the Queen after creating a symphony for her with a 200-piece orchestra...'' I left the live music scene for a while and went into TV, I was making programmes about other composers and then sat up one day and said ''hold on-I'm a composer;' so went back to music. I worked at Granada TV and therefore met people who were making music for TV and so I managed to get into that too. I am a very ''can-do'' person. As a child I knocked on the door at the Theatre Royal in Stratford and asked for work, and they welcomed me- I ended up being their musical director simply cos I knocked on the door!''
After university Shirley composed a body of solo and instrumental ensemble works for concert hall, as well as working as a freelance composer of music for TV, films and the theatre. Being proactive is her great strength. She attributes her luck to self belief ''People say I've had a lot of knockdowns but I have the ability to brush it off even when its painful. I have the confidence to know what I'm doing is good and strong- I'm faith driven, its always been in me but I've embraced it more recently, I've been given so much and have much to be thankful for. Self-belief is big for me. When I was 14 I was asked what I wanted to do when I grew up. I wrote ''playing the violin and traveling''.
In 2007 Shirley was commissioned to compose music for the opening of the Parliamentary exhibition The British Slave Trade: Abolition, Parliament and People, which marked the 250-year anniversary of the abolition of the transatlantic trade in enslaved African people. It's of course an honour to be asked, but like many from the BAME community, Shirley has had to fight hard not to be pigeonholed by her skin colour. ''I resisted with institutions like the arts council who wanted to dub me a ''black composer'', my culture has made me who I am but I don't want to be pigeon holed and objected to that. Being Jamaican has given me that extra edge, my ancestors were very driven persistent people, so I love that, but I don't want to be labelled like that''
She co-scored the award-winning ballet PUSH, and toured the world in major venues such as Sadler's Wells, the London Coliseum, New York City Center and the Sydney Opera House. Arts and culture have been her ticket around the globe. Shirley set up the Shirley Thompson Ensemble way back in 1994 and this became the main vehicle for her instrumental and vocal works that fused contemporary classical orchestrations with popular and world music styles.
Just like the worlds of media, advertising, fashion, film, the ballet and more, the music industry is generally the domain of the middle class. More often than not, they hire people who look, act and think like themselves. What was it that made them accept Shirley and not see her as a threat? '' When I was told I was the 1st woman who had done what I do I was surprised, I believe in the power of music to transform lives, maybe its my passion for what I do''
Touching on general perceptions of urban youth and classical music she states ''I think young people attitude are really patronized in the way people think of them, my 200 students listen to everything from Jewish harp music to Indian ragas and rock music'', I meet random young people, I don't think the stereotypes about young black youth are all true''. With modern pop stars I think their sexuality is not as focused as the olden days rebels. I think Madonna and grace jones were pushing an artistic and political agenda with their outrageous acts, nowadays acts don't seem to have anything worth saying. ''I think there's been a lowering of expectations in the last generation. We were expected to get A's for all exams, nowadays in Jamaica its the same, but in the UK that level of aspiration as gone''
In 2010 Shirley was announced in the Evening Standard's "Power List of Britain's 100 Most Influential Black People 2010" ''it meant a lot to be acknowledged by the community and that classical music was being considered to be important in the community, I'd always struggled with being taken seriously in my community as they said classical music was a white persons game. I'm interested in finding a channel for my talent...the bible says that if you have been given a talent you must use it well''
Shirley's amassed a number of awards- (Ivor Awards / British Composer Awards/ Gold Badge Awards)- but yet is still so under the radar in the mainstream, WHY is she and so many others like her, work so unreported and not championed?
Regards her future ambitions she smiles ''I've got lots of operas and orchestral works still to come, my symphonies for the Royal Albert Hall and more!''
So there you have it TV commissioners. The stories exist. Do you have the teams and the balls to make them?