Toks Dada, the new Head of Classical Music at London’s Southbank Centre, talks to Brunswick Review’s Carlton Wilkinson about social change and how the arts should respond.
At the start of 2020, Toks Dada was the Classical Programme Manager at Town Hall Symphony Hall in Birmingham in England’s West Midlands. But as the pandemic took hold, the theater was shuttered and cost-saving measures were put into effect, leaving him furloughed.
“That was very unsettling,” he told the Brunswick Review in an interview in May of 2021. “I would say my life is probably 95% work. During the pandemic, to not have your work, your creative outlet, your platform, if you will, that was really difficult to deal with.”
Then, George Floyd’s death in the US at the hands of a police officer made international headlines. Protests shook the world. A young Black man, Toks felt it as a personal blow. “That was a low point,” he said. “I still don’t talk about the impact of that moment. I think ‘trauma’ is the only word I can use to describe what happened.”
Watching a world roiling in crises, he worked to identify a new future for classical music, that part of the world he knew best.
“I began to use the time to just reflect and consider all of the ways in which the industry and my role in it might have to change. Because it was clear that the way that we were doing things before, we would not be able to sustain, post-pandemic. So I made a list. And I said, ‘All this is going to have to change.’”
He started writing about his ideas in a series of blog posts and his articles captured the attention of the classical music community. By December, he had been hired in his new position, Head of Classical Music at London’s Southbank Centre, a vast complex of cultural venues on the Thames that includes the Royal Festival Hall.
Dada had begun his career in classical music while studying at the Royal Welsh College of Music & Drama. He had taken lessons in several instruments as a child, eventually settling on the viola. That instrument closely resembles the human voice in range and timbre, and frequently serves as a quiet facilitator, a central supporting bridge between the upper and lower instruments of an ensemble. While he doesn’t play anymore, the choice proved both formative and symbolic.
“If I had not chosen the viola, my journey might have been totally different,” he said. “That led me to the Royal Welsh College of Music & Drama. Composers in Wales didn’t have the platform I thought they should have, so I ended up setting up a commissioning and producing company.”
While still an undergraduate, the company he founded, Sinfonia Newydd, produced collaborative cross-artform projects combining music with visual art and dance, an experience that eventually brought him first to Birmingham and from there to his current position at Europe’s largest art center. As a producer and curator, he has become a central supporting bridge for artists and audiences.
When we spoke with him, Toks was a few days away from attending the first live performance he had been to in over a year, and eager to start talking about the coming season for Southbank, where he hoped to build on the progress the multi-arts center has already made toward a more inclusive and relevant cultural experience. Our conversation ranged from the lessons learned during the pandemic to the longstanding need for systemic change—including the ways in which classical music culture regards itself, and the ways in which performers and presenters can adapt to bring that evolving tradition to a wider public.
At one point in the conversation, Dada, regarded as a changemaker by the classical music community, paused and said: “I just love classical music so much. That’s ultimately what is driving all of these changes that I think that we need to make. I am absolutely in love with this art form. And I just want as many people as possible to have that same feeling.”
Do you think your writing about the need for change played a role in your being hired by Southbank Centre?
I imagine it probably did. Personally, I saw the job as an opportunity to really put in place all the changes I had been talking about in my blog posts, and that I had been thinking about for many years. Some of these things I had not only been thinking about before, but I had been doing to a certain extent. However, the past year has become a real catalyst for change. With the pandemic, we’ve been unable to do things the way we’ve done them before—so, what does a new way look like? What would it look like if we started from scratch? These were the questions that were going through my head.