When he first arrived at the University of Miami’s Frost School of Music for his graduate school audition in 2015, drummer Marcus Grant was eager to experience the diverse culture of a new campus and city. But he noticed that there weren’t a lot of students who looked like him at the predominantly white institution.
“I looked around and thought, ‘Where are the Black kids? Am I the only one?’” Grant said.
Even before enrolling at UM that fall to pursue a master’s degree in jazz music performance, Grant already knew that he wanted to get involved and continue to “seek out Black friendships” in Miami, just like he did in his undergraduate years.
“Grant is now 28 and soon to finish his second master’s degree at UM, this time in the Department of Musicology. His master’s thesis research project, “‘Say Their Names’: Black Music-Making in a Time of Protest,” focuses on African American protest music and hip-hop.
He cultivated a devotion to jazz drum set during his youth in West Chester, Pennsylvania and studied music performance at nearby Temple University in Philadelphia, where he was invited to join an informal group of Black students who gathered to talk about music and politics.
“It wasn’t an official campus organization, more like a bunch of friends who’d get together and have conversations,” Grant said.
These lasting friendships have been especially meaningful to Grant since he graduated. While physically apart, they still keep their discussions on issues of gender oppression and racism in music and general society alive.
Having built these connections at Temple, Grant wanted to create this kind of community at UM. It wasn’t until the racially explosive summer of 2020 — precisely the day after he marched in the Miami Black Lives Matter demonstration against the murder of George Floyd — that he felt defiantly prompted to follow through on his aspirations and launch the inaugural Black Musicians Caucus (@blackmusicianscaucus).
“I called [my friends] Michael Dudley and Alexandria DeWalt,” Grant said, “I told them, ‘We need to come together.’” They shared ideas, talked logistics and brainstormed actions they could take to amplify Black voices at Frost.
After attending some town hall meetings with Frost faculty and administration over the summer, Dudley, a jazz trumpeter and Doctor of Musical Arts candidate, said he, Grant and DeWalt identified “a need to develop a connecting force with and for outstanding Black students at the school.”
So, the trio contacted Black leaders at Frost, established a core team and collectively wrote the BMC’s mission to “provide a safe space for Black musicians at UM to feel heard, supported, loved and protected.”
“As musicians, our job is to express,” Grant stressed. “This is for folks to feel comfortable and welcome to express in a ‘for us, by us’ outlet.”
When he’s not directing the BMC or performing professionally, Grant doubles as a private instructor and percussion teacher at middle and high schools throughout Miami and a graduate teaching assistant in the musicology department at Frost.
Grant has most recently furthered his commitment to arts education and activism through the development of the BMC’s Black History Month Outreach Program, which presents free virtual lectures created and taught by BMC members to public schools in South Florida and Pennsylvania. The curriculum, titled “Celebrating Black History with the BMC,” explores prominent marginalized figures in American history and engages learners to openly discuss anti-racist narratives.
In Grant’s opinion, “listening and acknowledging where we came from” is the best way non-Black audiences can show solidarity with oppressed populations. In lieu of putting on performative acts, true allies can “contribute positively, ask questions, speak up, communicate with love and empathy and be aware,” he elaborated. “Just don’t do nothing.”
What keeps Grant motivated in today’s hardship-laden world is the BMC’s potential to foster large-scale change toward a more inclusive and empathic society that “acknowledges our shortcomings and makes room for Black musicianship.”
“Putting the innovation together, staying on top of it and forming relationships with Black leaders at Frost who I’d never met before keeps me going,” Grant added.
“The BMC became the organic support network that we needed as we navigated the trauma of [the past year], and it has now served to empower the creative actions of students and collaborators of various identities,” said Dudley, who now acts as Grant’s right-hand person as vice president of the BMC. He applauded Grant’s leadership, calling him “the visionary behind the BMC.”
“[Grant] decided to take matters into our own hands as students and be the change we wished to see,” Dudley continued. “He has worked hard to imagine a space for Black students in Frost.”
Next on the horizon for Grant is completing a Ph.D. in musicology at a prestigious university. Although he doesn’t know where yet, he is poised to depart from UM and his Miami family.
However, “the BMC will prevail,” assured Grant, who’s already begun the process of handing over the torch to members who will stay at UM and promise to keep the caucus alive after he graduates. Nevertheless, his personal command to recognize and uplift artists of color wherever he goes will inspire and outshine his newfound communities.
words_gianna milan photo_alex dixon