As I write this, we are remembering Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. When you read it, we will be honoring Black contributions to our country’s arts politics, and sciences during Black History Month. That seems a fitting moment for a bit of a progress report: where are we on the journey to a more just society that I wrote about in Koinonikos a year ago?
My January 2021 column for this newsletter laid out part of the problem of systemic racism in choral music: I talked about how the world of music centered white voices, particularly those of long-dead men. I talked about our preliminary efforts to broaden our horizons and welcome all voices. Where are we now?
I think we can point to some progress, but it is small and painfully slow. Our repertory is much more balanced than it used to be. As an example, all of the music in the Lessons and Carols service we presented at Dayspring in December 2019 was by white men. There were no pieces by women and no pieces by composers of color. I remember being a little troubled by that at the time, but not enough to change the selections. In 2021, that was no longer tenable. This year’s Lessons and Carols service included music by women and a piece by a living Black composer. It isn’t much, but it’s a step. Perhaps the biggest change is that I no longer find it acceptable just to note that there is no music by women or people of color and vow to do better next time. Now, when I notice that I have done that (and I still do, sadly), I stop and change things. So, miniscule progress. By now, I have learned not to expect things like this to change overnight, but it remains frustrating that the problems of racism and division remain so intractable.
In my other life at ASU, we have taken active steps, changing the structure of some of our choirs and getting rid of gender labels (there is no longer a “women’s chorus,” but rather a soprano-alto chorus; similarly, its counterpart is a tenor-bass choir—you can be a member of these groups and feel welcome without reference to your gender identity, only to your voice type). We have reviewed all of our materials to root out traces of colonial language and to reflect a more tolerant and inclusive attitude than many university choral programs display.
I conducted a similar review of materials concerning the music program at Dayspring, and I am proud to say that I found very little that required change—except in the area of the music we sing and play. So I have focused my attention there. I have also striven to elevate Black performers, especially welcoming my wonderful colleague, Nathan De’Shon Myers, to Dayspring a couple of times in the last year or so.
A more subtle difference is our respect for the origins of the music we present in services. Thanks to the presence of a remarkable Gospel Choir at ASU for the last several years, I have learned a lot about this style and how to perform it faithfully. Celebration Singers frequently sing Gospel-style anthems, and they are doing so with a sound and practice that is much more in keeping with the Gospel tradition—arguably the most American form of choral music.
One further change: churches around the country are finding ways to acknowledge the rich tradition of the spiritual that informs a lot of the music we sing. The United Methodist Hymnal includes 30 songs identified as “Afro-American Spirituals” (we’d probably not use that label today). The composers of these songs are largely forgotten—or actively erased—so it is not possible to acknowledge them. Other composers receive royalties through licensing organizations when their music is included in services, but not the composers of spirituals. To address this, some churches have instituted a practice of contributing money to a fund when they use spirituals and similar music in worship.
Once again, Dayspring is ahead of the curve on this: last year, Nan Lawson established the HBCU College Fund as a means for the whole community to pay back some of what we owe to our Black forebears. So we have available to us a very simple mechanism for making up for the lack of compensation. Beginning this year, we will make an annual contribution to the HBCU College Fund, doubling and rounding up what we pay to Christian Copyright Licensing International (CCLI) for the use of other music. Our license from CCLI costs $129 annually, so this year, we are putting $300 from the music fund into the HBCU fund. (You may contribute here, if you feel so called.)
The ancient Chinese philosopher Lao-Tsu is said to have coined the proverb, “The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” We have made some baby steps, but at least we are on the pathway. We welcome your suggestions and observations about where we are falling short and how we can do better. In the loving, generous spirit of Dayspring, we can work together to make a better world.
Director of Music Ministries