Q&A: Cellist Cole Randolph on breaking racial barriers as a classical musician

On June 4 the Scarab Club opened up its outdoor garden to feature a string duet, showcasing the talents of Velda Kelly on the violin and Cole Randolph on the cello. The program for the day included a brief piece on how Randolph got involved in music, and his journey. The 24-year-old was born in Washington, D.C., and joined the Detroit Symphony Orchestra in 2020 as an  African American Orchestra Fellow, after earning his degree from the University of Wisconsin-Madison in mathematics, music (performance), and economics. 

In a city better known for manufacturing grammy-awarded rappers and Motown legends, Randolph feels like he stands out as an African American classical musician in Detroit. Model D reporter Zaire Daniels sat down with him to ask about his experience breaking barriers. 

Zaire Daniels: So, how did you get interested in classical music?

Cole Randolph: Growing up, my father was a musician and composer. My older sister and brother decided to play the violin. So when my mom gave birth to me and my twin sister, my dad said, in order to fulfill this vision of having a family string quartet, I would play the cello and then my twin sister would play Viola. So we completed the Quartet.

We would rehearse in our living room that was closest to the street. People would always be like, oh, wow, the music is so beautiful and then we would come outside and they would kind of be shocked, like unicorns just came out, because it wasn't an expected thing for four little black children to come out, playing classical music at a high level.

ZD:  So what is it like to be a Black cello player? 

CR: I started playing the cello at 5 years old and the hardest part wasn't practicing. Then the hardest part was you didn't have somebody to look up to.  I didn't really understand it, because I was young. But I enjoy playing basketball with my brother. We could always go on YouTube and watch Allen Iverson clips, you know, Lebron James clips, whatever. When it comes to classical music, there was nobody that I could really look up to except my dad, because that's the only person I really knew in terms of classical.  I thought of myself more as a cellist than a Black cellist , but when I got older and continued to play the cello, I would always look and there would be very high-level players that were White, and Asian, you could always count on that, but Blacks you could hardly find.  

If we as Black classical musicians needed some inspiration, you know, there's plenty of mainstream African American rappers, singers, and songwriters. When it comes to classical music, there was nobody that I could really look up to from my culture. 

ZD: What was it like studying the cello at university?

CR: Well, my senior year of high school, I kind of stepped away from basketball. I had been playing since freshman year and received some offers to small D one schools and D two schools, but I knew that it wasn't something that I really wanted to do with my life. I wasn’t thinking about ‘what have I been called to do? Why am I on this earth?’ I'm thinking, ‘what's gonna get me the girls, what is gonna make me the most popular?’

My parents were like, ‘Oh, you should audition for this School of Music in Wisconsin’ but I hadn’t been playing cello much all during high school. The professor asked me to audition in person and, to be straight up with you, it was not at all the level it should have been. We talked about my life and growing up and he asked if my parents were in Wisconsin. I was thinking to myself, like, why are you going to embarrass me in front of my parents and tell them I didn’t make it. He brought them in, and then to make a long story short, he said, ‘What Cole has in terms of the emotion, and expressiveness in his playing, that can't be taught, but the technical facility that he needs can be taught and I can teach him but he just has to promise that we'll work hard in the studio.’

I mean, even going back to being Black, like I was maybe one of maybe three, max, including myself in the school. Wisconsin, The University was only 2% Black out of 50,000 people. You know, going from growing up in Washington DC, very diverse to Wisconsin and often to the school within the school, being the School of Music, walking around the hall you notice things like, everybody dresses different than me, everybody is just different. I was like, I don't really like this. And also, I felt like I was always playing catch up in terms of music and that didn't feel good being a minority student.

ZD: Now, you said you majored in mathematics and economics? How did you keep all that together?

CR: Freshman year, I knew I was doing music to make my parents happy. I just was sitting in my academic courses, getting great grades, and then I'll go back to the school of music and feel kind of remedial. I made up some bs excuse to my professor like, Oh, you know, the music schedule won't fit in my academic schedule next year. So I actually took a year and a half off from cello and decided to focus on math and economics. The following summer, I applied to internships on Wall Street and ended up getting an internship in sales and trading. 

Once I got that offer, I knew I was gonna be set financially, work hard, do whatever I needed to do to make that money, but there was some type of force or something. Personally, I felt like it was God telling me to go back to the cello. 

So I ignored it at first, and then closer to the second semester of school I kept feeling it. I emailed my professor just asking me if I can take some lessons and he gave me a hard piece to work on all semester. He told me if you're going to be in the studio, you're not here to look cute and go out and tell people Oh, I play the cello. I told myself if I can play the movement of this concerto very well, meaning like, the music comes through, I hit all the notes, it's not just mechanical sounding then I'll go and put all my eggs in the music basket. 

So I played it well and the following day I called the firm in New York and told them I wouldn’t be coming that summer for the internship. My friends thought I was crazy because even at the time, I was still last chair in the orchestra and my musical career was looking rough. 

I kept taking the math courses, kept taking the econ courses, and I went all-in with cello. I did it for myself because I knew it wasn't my parents telling me to do it, I wasn’t doing it to get some bonus points out at the bars. Whatever it was, it was actually my passion. I had to have tunnel vision. And I just kept working and thank God that everything worked out. 

ZD: How do you think we can make the arts more accessible to Black and brown people?

CR: I think personally, that classical music is accessible. And that can be a hot tip, but I think it's accessible, maybe not in terms of finances, especially in terms of stringed instruments, because there were friends that I had growing up that were very good at the cello, but they had to quit because their parents couldn't afford it. 
You have to have the instruments, you have to make sure there's maintenance done on the instrument, also private lessons are expensive if you want a good teacher. 

So one thing I think about is relatability rather than accessibility, I can inspire people through my presence but that's really not enough for me.  What I'm doing right now is doing cello covers of popular songs I post on my Instagram every week. So one example I did was a solo “Cello Sonata” I then paired with Chief Keefs’ “Love Sosa”.

The majority of African Americans don’t listen to classical music in their free time but by mixing and adding these beats  I can be a high-level classical musician, and still, present this art to people who might not be interested in classical music at first. By seeing somebody that looks like you, playing classical music at a high level 
and knowing that I relate to this music, it can be a game-changer and get more people involved in the arts. 

Enjoy this story? Sign up for free solutions-based reporting in your inbox each week.