It took several years and a circuitous route before Joshua A. Thompson ’04 said, “I got over myself and my insecurities and my fears and put myself back out there as a performing artist.”
When he was a teen, his path seemed clear: He would study trumpet performance at DePauw, a choice recommended by his private trumpet teacher and eased because his sister, Jessica Thompson Anderson ’02, was already enrolled at DePauw.
But Thompson, who “was always that kid who would ask why,” felt confined by the demands of the trumpet program and, after an “unbelievably fascinating” sociology class, switched majors to sociology, the study of which helped him “get comfortable with my identity” as a gay, African-American man. It also prepared him for his professional life after DePauw – that is, after a break of several months immediately after graduation in which “I was a beach bum and I was a hang glide instructor and I didn’t do anything academic at all. I partied my brain off. It was so much fun and then I hopped on a plane and came back (to Indianapolis). I was like, all right, let’s go adult and do stuff.”
He spent the next seven or so years as a member of Gallahue Mental Health Services’ Assertive Community Treatment team, working with 18-to-25-year-olds who were diagnosed with severe mental illness and substance abuse. Then he joined the Damien Center, an HIV/AIDS care and prevention center organization, as a care coordinator and program director.
“Growing up, I would hear, ‘oh, you do classical music; you’re trying to be white.’ Or ‘black people don’t do that.’ I’m like, ‘no, we do; you just don’t know who they are.’ I didn’t know who they were. But now that we do know, there’s a sense of pride that I find with audiences who look like me. … I’m always nervous that they’re not going to like it, because who likes classical music when you can listen to hip-hop or reggae or jazz or blues? But it’s that look on their face when it’s something that’s written by someone who looks like them.”
Eventually, Thompson chose to use his experience in service organizations to promote his first love, and he hung a shingle as a consultant. “This is where I fused my love for music and arts advocacy with the knowledge of how nonprofit management works,” he said.
He still consults but, about three years ago, he went “back to my roots in piano” and began programming and performing classical works written by people of African descent, such as Americans William Grant Still and Margaret Bonds, as well as composers from the African continent, the West Indies and Europe.
“I could live this lifetime and the next and just barely scratch the surface” of such compositions, he said, though “they’re just as gripping, they’re just as rigorous and they’re just as indicative of cultural shifts and trends” as works by “your Mozarts, your Beethovens, your DeBussys, your Coplands. But we don’t teach it in schools; we don’t see it on stages. And so in my own little small sphere of influence, that’s my mission. That’s my passion.”
In 2018, Thompson and other Indianapolis artists – singers, musicians, dancers and visual artists, including Deonna Craig ’04 – performed “Village Voices: Notes from the Griot,” his original production highlighting such works, at Newfields, Eiteljorg Museum, the Indianapolis Public Library, the Jewish Federation of Greater Indianapolis, Theater at the Fort and several high schools.
Since January, he has been performer-in-residence for Eskenazi Health’s Marianne Tobias Music Program, for which he performs monthly in the hospital lobby. He often invites other African Americans from Indianapolis’s art community – singers, dancers and others – to perform with him. In August, the Arts Council of Indianapolis awarded him a Robert D. Beckmann Jr. Emerging Artist Fellowship, enabling him to undertake more research into music by composers of African descent. He plans to go to Boston, where he’ll connect with a friend of his sister who has expertise in African-American music.
Albert Lilly III ’86, the trumpet teacher who recommended DePauw to Thompson, said he was thrilled to learn that his former student, who was “a joy to work with,” was again performing music. He thought Thompson, a “state-level soloist” as a youth, would be “an excellent fit for DePauw. …
“I wanted all of my former students who attended DePauw to find the things that I did when there,” said Lilly, an arranger, a composer and an assistant music professor at Marian University. “Dedication, focus, supportive faculty, strong performance opportunities and a tremendous sense of ‘family’ in the School of Music. Those were just a few of the many things DePauw gave to me as a student, and I felt those things would be great for Joshua.”
Though he chose an unexpected route after arriving at DePauw, Thompson said the university and sociology were the right choices for him. As he contemplated sociology, “I thought, music is always going to be there. It’s not going to go away because I’ve been doing this for so long,” he said. “But there was another part of myself that I had to kind of figure out and discover, and I took that opportunity to do it.”