Choral cultural appropriation
October 28, 2015 11:15 AM   Subscribe

I direct a small choir at a predominantly white church and I'm having some trouble determining whether an exclusively white choir singing certain repertoire is cultural appropriation or not.

When I was growing up in the 80s/90s and singing in choirs (always predominantly white because northeastern Wisconsin), we would often sing African-American spirituals and South African freedom songs in Swahili or Xhosa. No one thought about whether it was appropriate or not, and as I've gotten older and become a choral director myself, it's nagging at me. Is it considered cultural appropriation for predominantly white choirs to sing repertoire like the aforementioned spirituals and freedom songs (which I'm using as examples only)?

I get that different people will feel differently about this. Sure, I could just draw the bright line and say "No, we won't do this repertoire," but if there's flexibility, I would like to have the opportunity to introduce my choir to these diverse styles of music in a sensitive and appropriate way. I would welcome ideas/thoughts about how to do that as well.

Relevant: this church is part of the PC(USA), which is the more liberal arm of the Presbyterian denomination. This is an extremely liberal group of people who value diversity but may not always consider how best to express that.
posted by altopower to Society & Culture (40 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
It feels a little weird to me, too, as someone who did that sort of thing back in the 90s in the school choir, when gospel choirs were all the rage.

More convincing than questions of cultural appropriation when you have to actually make a decision about your repertoire, though, is that most white mainline Protestant choirs aren't gospel choirs and sound pretty silly when trying to do stuff out of that world.

I think specifically political protest songs would be fine, though, as, IDK, does anybody's culture really own freedom fighting?
posted by Sara C. at 11:25 AM on October 28, 2015 [1 favorite]

I have a couple of questions that will help me answer you question.

1) Why does your church have a choir? What is a choir's goal/point? How does the choir see themselves?

2) Why do you want to introduce these pieces?
posted by Stynxno at 11:25 AM on October 28, 2015 [1 favorite]

I think a more appropriate choice would be Appalachian "mountain music," sometimes also called "Appalachian Gospel."
posted by listen, lady at 11:31 AM on October 28, 2015 [3 favorites]

You're not laughing at it, right? Like "Hey, wouldn't it be a great goof if we did it like we see those gospel choirs do?" If not, you could take the opportunity to make it a teaching point (e.g., something in the program written by an actual scholar of the area you're drawing from).

I'm Romani, and I don't mind the appropriation of g-word jazz artists if I get the sense that they have a little background on it besides "Hey, I like the way that Django Whatshisname plays guitar."
posted by Etrigan at 11:37 AM on October 28, 2015

My mother was a church choir director for many years, and she's recently belonged to a community choir (not church related). I belonged to her community choir as well for a period of time. The community choir has done a variety of songs, from classical latin chorals to modern songs adapted for a choir. The choir director did include an African-American gospel choir song in the last season I attended, in the spirit of giving the choir some range in musical experiences and techniques, and also because it was a great, powerful song.

I think the appropriation issue would be a concern if that's a substantial portion of the music you did. But the odd song here and there? Even if some people felt a little uncomfortable, I'm sure in a liberal group there would be more perception that it's in the spirit of giving a nod to the music style, fostering an appreciation for different music genres on the whole.
posted by lizbunny at 11:41 AM on October 28, 2015 [2 favorites]

The thing about a school choir--and maybe a church choir too, I don't know--is that it's at least as much about studying music as it is performing it. In that light, the question becomes something more like "should I add nonwhite, nonwestern authors to my literature curriculum," in which case the answer is HELL YES.
posted by the_blizz at 11:42 AM on October 28, 2015 [41 favorites]

If it's appropriately attributed in the program or verbally by the director and not done insensitively (taking on accented singing styles, costumes, etc), could it not be seen as exposing your congregation to other music styles and cultures they might otherwise not hear? This doesn't sound like you're trying to be the Iggy Azalea of the choral world.
posted by cecic at 11:44 AM on October 28, 2015 [2 favorites]

Think of it this way:

If your white American church is not able to sing about freedom in South Africa, what use is it for anyone outside of South Africa to sing about it?

I think if your choir is appreciative of the music, and maybe even knows the history of it, you'd feel better about singing. can team up with a primarily African American church (I know you are in WI), and I'm sure they'd be able to hook you up with music you feel comfortable with...

This is not cultural appropriation; this is cultural celebration.
posted by hal_c_on at 11:44 AM on October 28, 2015 [8 favorites]

most white mainline Protestant choirs aren't gospel choirs and sound pretty silly when trying to do stuff out of that world.

This is definitely true, and that's something that I would have to deal with.

1) Why does your church have a choir? What is a choir's goal/point? How does the choir see themselves?

I have directed this choir for over eleven years. The answers to these questions now are different than they were eleven years ago. The choir used to be just that, a choir. Get up on Sunday morning and sing a song about God, go home and watch football. In my tenure, I've worked hard to expand their horizons and help them grow into something more, and I think I've been fairly successful. They're certainly better singers in a purely technical sense, but they also think about the music more and put more of themselves into it. I honestly couldn't tell you how they see themselves, but I know it's a lot different than it was.

2) Why do you want to introduce these pieces?

Because they offer something outside of most of the choir's/congregation's lived experience, because they offer the opportunity to utilize different musical techniques, because they're equally as important a musical genre as the European-influenced choral music that is standard in "white mainline Protestant" churches.

I don't want to give the impression that spirituals and South African freedom songs are the only things I'm talking about...I used them as examples only because they would be my hypothetical starting point.

I think a more appropriate choice would be Appalachian "mountain music," sometimes also called "Appalachian Gospel."

I have taught them some Appalachian shape note music after I attended a workshop on it and it was very well-received. We haven't touched it in a couple of years, but we certainly have the ability to add it back into the mix.

You're not laughing at it, right? Like "Hey, wouldn't it be a great goof if we did it like we see those gospel choirs do?" If not, you could take the opportunity to make it a teaching point (e.g., something in the program written by an actual scholar of the area you're drawing from).

Absolutely not laughing at it, which I hope is abundantly clear.
posted by altopower at 11:46 AM on October 28, 2015 [4 favorites]

If you believe you are honoring the spiritual and musical traditions of the pieces as part of a diverse repertoire than I think it's great to include them.
posted by alms at 11:58 AM on October 28, 2015 [1 favorite]

Really, these are your options:
* continue singing what you've sung before
* add new music to your repertoire but specifically avoid music by nonwhite composers
* add a diverse variety of new music to your repertoire

Yes, including these kinds of music has the potential to be appropriative. But you can mitigate the appropriation to some extent by being thoughtful and using the music as an opportunity for education. Avoiding these songs, which are a huge part of the American choral music landscape (especially in the context of Christian and social justice choirs) seems even worse. (I'm white, though, so take my opinion with a grain of salt.)
posted by mskyle at 12:04 PM on October 28, 2015

Here is a great video by 16-year old actress Amandla Stenberg about cultural appropriation of black hairstyles. She asks, "What would America be like if it valued black people as much as it values black culture?"

I guess a question to ask yourself is, while you are happy to celebrate black culture, are you doing anything to celebrate and protect black people? Contributing to help the civil rights situation within the US- even if only taking a public stance in supporting or praying for American black victims of police violence, for instance- might be a good way to make sure your actions value black people in addition to black culture. And I don't mean taking a paternalistic view of "helping"- I mean taking an ally's stance and supporting. Would you say "Black Lives Matter"? Would your choir agree? If you/they are not comfortable taking the social risk of performing actual actions that support black people, then maybe reconsider the choice to perform black culture.
posted by pseudostrabismus at 12:07 PM on October 28, 2015 [59 favorites]

Dude. That type of music is FANTASTIC. Do it. Often.
posted by Melismata at 12:17 PM on October 28, 2015 [3 favorites]

Growing up in a white community, it was a mainline protestant church that helped me broaden my horizons. Not just through the occasional trips to an inner city church or whatever but through music & other cultural lessons. So, my answer would be to absolutely include it. You sound incredibly thoughtful and, so, your music choices would be thoughtful. If you work with the minister, it sounds like you could come up with a great program and one that broadens minds while celebrating and learning about another culture (even subtly). That is not appropriation. And, in my opinion, a great duty of the church.

I think if more churches looked at how other cultures celebrated faith, even within the confines of the same general religious believes, the world would be a better more peaceful place.

Plus, as Melismata points out. Fantastic music
posted by imbri at 12:19 PM on October 28, 2015

So, my mother introduced gospel music to an all-white CATHOLIC church in the Midwest and it went over very, very well. But, I am a POC (as was she), so it was probably seen as an "authentic" appropriation because a former Baptist who converted to Catholicism taught the choir to do correctly sing African-American spirituals.

My only take is this: if you're going to include the songs, do them justice. Please, please, please don't short shrift the lows, highs, sharps, flats or depth of the music. Bring in someone who is familiar with South African freedom songs or African-American spirituals and have them listen and critique the choir.

And no, it's not cultural appropriation - it's a fantastic way to introduce the congregation to something different and it may facilitate discussion on broader topics.
posted by singmespanishtechno at 12:21 PM on October 28, 2015 [9 favorites]

In the same vein as pseudostrabismus's comment — one thing I see a lot of black activists calling out these days is the tendency for white liberals to canonize black movements of the past, and use participation in those movements as a way of soothing our own racial anxiety, or even use it as an implicit criticism of modern movements like Black Lives Matter. (See, for instance, Sanders supporters saying "Bernie marched with Dr. King! But these BLM kids are going too far / using terrible tactics / asking too much, so let's not listen to them.")

I see a similar risk with historical black music: consuming that stuff can become a way to feel good about your own anti-racist bonafides without actually engaging with the stuff that black activists currently care about. It feels good to sing about how Apartheid was terrible, but it's easy to use that good feeling as a way of telling yourself "Things are 100% better now, white supremacy is over, and anyway we don't have those problems here in America" — which is horseshit.

So if singing this repertoire becomes a way for your congregation to stake claim to an anti-racist identity while still actively participating in white supremacy (even in unconscious ways), then that's harmful.

And some of that is going to have to do with which particular songs you select, and some of that is going to have to do with how your church fits them into the service and what sermons are being preached and how your congregation is discussing this stuff outside of church. So it's not like I'm saying "Don't sing the old stuff." Just pay attention to the context and make sure you're choosing it in a way that doesn't send a message like "It's all better now" or "Progress is inevitable" or "Calm, patient dialogue solves all our problems."
posted by nebulawindphone at 12:47 PM on October 28, 2015 [32 favorites]

I think my own thoughts about appropriation, and what I've heard from POCs, is that instead of stepping in and using our white voices, we should step back and amplify the voices of the POCs that have the message that needs to be sent.

So, I guess, in what way will your learning, practicing and performing these (fantastic) musical pieces from POC culture amplify the voices of or help the POCs that created it? Would a richer experience for your choir (and your audience) possibly include attending performances by POCs of similar material? Or inviting a POC choir group known for this musical style to perform for your church? Or have a drive to help fund a local charity/non-profit that can benefit your local POCs?
posted by jillithd at 1:11 PM on October 28, 2015 [4 favorites]

I don't see why is this cultural appropriation any more than Jessye Norman singing Verdi or Mozart. Your church choir isn't parodying traditional African-American gospel singers, I trust, but rather honoring the heritage of the music.
posted by Ideefixe at 1:11 PM on October 28, 2015 [1 favorite]

I am in a large Presbyterian choir in the south. Our congregation is majority white, but pretty diverse for a PCUSA church. We sing all kinds of things from all over the world. We have among us people from some of the countries and cultures whose music we sing, and they have been appreciative of our efforts. When we are singing gospel or spirituals, we have choir members who were raised in the Black church to perform the solo parts. We have choir members from Mexico and the Caribbean who help us out with their language and musical styles. Recently when we did a Brazilian piece, we hired a local Brazilian-American women to be the soloist and help us with the Portuguese. I would encourage you to seek out expertise in the community to help you be authentic in your pronunciation and style.

One caution I would have comes not from this choir but from previous ones. There are out there mostly older editions of spirituals that include spelled out dialect pronunciations. To me, white people singing that dialect that way is pretty unacceptable, bordering on minstrel show horribleness. Most more contemporary arrangers of spirituals have avoided this. Since you're not in the south, and thus your choir doesn't naturally have the accent, just have them say the words in a natural singing way for your choir. That is a more legitimate way of performing spirituals than poor attempts at dialect, in my opinion.
posted by hydropsyche at 1:43 PM on October 28, 2015 [21 favorites]

I am a long-time choral singer and it sounds like I come from a somewhat similar background, growing up in the 80s and 90s in a majority-White community.

I think there is a real danger in kind of environment of fostering a perception that the only music (or art, or literature, or history, or...) that matters (or exists at all!) is what comes from the Anglo/European tradition. What we take the time to study and perform is an expression of what we value. African-American spirituals (just to take an example) are an important part of the American musical tradition and of religious history in the United States. What does it say when majority-White groups completely omit material from that history? What does it say when majority-White groups only casually dabble in or tokenize that part of our musical heritage?

That said there are obviously more and less sensitive ways to approach this. I am now cringing at the memory of my middle school choir director earnestly telling us to "sound more Black" when we were rehearsing a gospel piece. Yikes. While musical pedagogy isn't necessarily the core mission of a church choir, in this situation I think it's worth taking some time to study the history of the piece of music and/or the general style, listen to recordings, have a native speaker come in to rehearse pronunciation if the piece isn't in English, and so on. There is a big difference between "we are just doing this one piece because it sounded kinda cool but whatever" and "we really put effort into studying this so that we can learn and share a broader musical perspective".
posted by 4rtemis at 2:01 PM on October 28, 2015 [1 favorite]

If you're serious about broadening horizons and doing good, I'd suggest reaching out the the local choir directors at the black or Hispanic churches in town. Ask how they feel about it. And ask if you can do joint rehearsals or a joint recital or in some way actually interact with PoC members of your community instead of just singing the music. Some of the most meaningful experiences I've had with musical groups was in these kind of partnerships. Don't just talk/sing about diversity, make some happen for real.
posted by stoneweaver at 2:23 PM on October 28, 2015 [21 favorites]

A friend of mine is the music director at our big Unitarian Universalist church, leading a great choir with a very diverse repertoir. I've talked to him about it a little, after shifting uncomfortably in my chair over an African American spiritual that our heavily humanist and lily-white full congregation sang uncomfortably one week.

It's an issue that the UU's have publicly grappled with at... considerable... length. You're not UU, but you're in our neighborhood, so you might find those resources helpful, especially the one titled "Questions to Ask (and Answer)".

My friend's perspective, as I recall it, was that this is an issue you just have to keep an eye on. You can't be vaccinated against it, and you can't beat it once and get proclaimed a forever-friend of the other culture you're borrowing from. You just have to keep asking if your approach is respectful, appropriate, sensitive enough to justify the borrowing.

I'll add my own opinion: nobody owns culture. It's messy, and it will cross-breed and hybridize and mutate and spread faster than Chernobyl rabbits. Those who attempt to control it, channel it, or prevent it from developing in certain directions are rarely successful, and even less often are they pleasant folks to hang out with. This attitude gives you a certain permission, which is tempered by your own (and your community's) sense of taste.
posted by richyoung at 3:16 PM on October 28, 2015

In the early 00s my private girls school had a gospel choir, directed by a black musician working on his PhD at the local big university. He wrote half the stuff we sang, and all of it was gospel style (some was South African, Siyahamba to be specific). The choir was made up of mostly white girls, Indian-Americans, Latinas, East Asian-Americans, and a very small number of black girls, among which were Christians, Jews, Hindus, agnostics, and atheists. It was a freaking awesome time and Siyahamba, sung at large school events, never failed to bring down the house. He clearly thought it was important and worth his time to share this music in a community that was very predominantly non-black and secular, and while I'm an avowed atheist to this day, it was an awesome choir to be a part of and I loved it and the cultural introduction to something other than boring old English Protestant hymns.

But one thing he made a point to do when teaching us and at every concert was to talk a bit about the history and context of each song (even if he wrote it, he'd talk about the story or allusions it was based on), so it wasn't all just awesome music, there was a sense of the context and what the song genuinely meant to the people who first sang it. I think that probably helped transition it all from "mostly-white girls singing gospel" to "a meaningful performance ensuring the audience understands the history." If you go this route, I'd definitely recommend doing something similar.
posted by olinerd at 4:53 PM on October 28, 2015 [2 favorites]

I think a thing about cultural appropriation is that it's typically unacknowledged. If you acknowledge that what you are singing comes from somewhere far away, historically or culturally, and you introduce it humbly and in that manner, it's far less creepy than acting as if you 'own' it.
posted by A Terrible Llama at 6:35 PM on October 28, 2015

I think if you were performing these for some sort of personal gain or acclaim, that would be appropriative and a really big problem. But if your church is anything like the liberal churches I've known, you're talking about a relatively small group of people? A hundred people on a good Sunday, that sort of thing?

You're probably not looking at recording this and broadcasting it. This is what makes it seem more like the "nonwhite authors" thing. White kids in school reading A Raisin in the Sun in class is not appropriation, and it's an important thing to have happen. White actors putting on that play for their own professional benefit when people aren't actually going to go see black actors is a problem. Your congregation does not have an alternative more diverse choir who isn't going to sing because you're singing, and I'm going to guess does not have the option to pay to bring in outside artists to perform some Sundays. If you had those resources, that would be better. But that option is probably not on the table. The options on the table are "do we perform exclusively things within the white European and American cultural canon" or "do we occasionally perform other pieces", and in that case, I think the latter is the more respectful of cultural diversity.
posted by Sequence at 7:08 PM on October 28, 2015

I'll add my own opinion: nobody owns culture. It's messy, and it will cross-breed and hybridize and mutate and spread faster than Chernobyl rabbits.

I strongly advise against adopting this attitude, which I find is usually expressed by people with privilege. You know, the appropriators.
posted by listen, lady at 4:52 AM on October 29, 2015 [7 favorites]

I have nothing against the fact that my wife's church choir does spirituals. I do have a problem with that fact that their accompanists play like metronomes and the fact that the congregation sings Lift Every Voice and Sing without any knowledge of its origins.
Do it, just do it competently and respectfully (since this is a church choir question, there's even Scripture to that effect).
posted by Octaviuz at 5:46 AM on October 29, 2015 [1 favorite]

Jumping in to heavily, very loudly endorse the answers of pseudostrabismus, nebulawindphone, and stoneweaver. Take their answers seriously; I sincerely hope that you heed them.
posted by Ashen at 6:51 AM on October 29, 2015

Lots to think about here. Thank you to everyone who's taken the time to answer!

A couple of things: when I say "small church", I'm talking about 35-40 people on an average Sunday. My choir is 9-10 people. I absolutely do not have the resources to bring in other ensembles or anyone who would need to be paid (and I firmly believe that if people are coming in to perform or even just offer expertise, they must be compensated). I also believe that it's not my place as a choir director to verify my choir members' bona fides as racists/non-racists. I consider myself an ally who would absolutely say that Black Lives Matter, but there's no way to be sure that everyone feels the same. I feel like the best I can do is present the material in a sensitive and educational sense after making sure I'm as prepared as possible to do so (via research, contact with Black choir directors in the community (which I do have a lead on already)).

I'm confident that if I were to do this, it would be received well within the church and people would enjoy it and learn from it. I plan on pondering for a while longer and consulting with both the minister and relevant community members before making any sort of decision, but I'm finding myself in agreement with those here who have said that it's more harmful to omit this repertoire entirely, which is something I hadn't fully considered.

I really appreciate all these thoughtful responses.
posted by altopower at 7:27 AM on October 29, 2015 [1 favorite]

I consider myself an ally who would absolutely say that Black Lives Matter, but there's no way to be sure that everyone feels the same.

Then I respectfully challenge you to say it. Frame the song with its legitimate present day context. Take a stance publicly and be a leader and a role model amongst your peers. True, your choir may not all agree (yet, or ever). But if you truly think it's right and good to support this struggle, your principles can lead them. Imagine the issue was slavery, or criminalized homosexuality- would you have had the courage to say you thought it was wrong "back then"? The current civil rights struggle that makes "Black Lives Matter" necessary and even somehow controversial will be seen in exactly that way in 50 years, trust me. I urge you to be a leader now.
posted by pseudostrabismus at 7:57 AM on October 29, 2015 [4 favorites]

While you ponder, here's a tangentially related film you might enjoy: Oh Happy Day.
posted by wonton endangerment at 8:44 AM on October 29, 2015

I'm not a real stickler for anti-cultural appropriation. My understanding of problematic appropriation is that, like racism, it's actually the product of a number difficult and unpraiseworthy things happening at once.

For me, problematic appropriation is borrowing that profits, without giving credit to source cultures and artists, from the blood and toil of those artists and cultures.

So to me, a problematic performance of black gospel by your lilly-white choir would be one where you gave no credit and shared none of the struggles that created this music.

And to me, a good performance might intertwine a critical reading of gospel-era writing by writers of color, and critical engagements with other art from the same era. So maybe sing a piece, then read a piece of relevant poetry, or challenging parts of the Letter from a Birmingham Jail that white folks generally miss. Have the singing be the impetus to learn and do more. Maybe call for interfaith volunteering with the black choir/church that you have a lead on. Instead of just consuming and re-performing the beautiful, filled-with-grace music, also engage with the painful parts of history where whites and blacks didn't do such beautiful things. Engage with the material beyond the musical. Really do something meaningful also with the pain and loss that a lot of the beauty of gospel derives from.

This is what I would suggest.
posted by kalessin at 9:23 AM on October 29, 2015 [6 favorites]

Idealizing the Martin Luther King era is problematic. Lionizing a cherrypicked version of King's era instead of talking about today and engaging with the Kings of today (Ta-Nehisi Coates, Deray McKesson, many others) is actually a veiled way to discredit and tone-police today's ongoing civil rights struggle. It's the polite version of "All Lives Matter". That 16 year old girl who got thrown on her head by a police officer for refusing to vacate her classroom seat is today's Rosa Parks, and the videos and evidence of the murders of people like Freddie Gray and Mike Brown are Emmett Till's open casket, make no mistake. The struggle is ON. Engage with TODAY.
posted by pseudostrabismus at 9:46 AM on October 29, 2015 [6 favorites]

I think some of what people are warning you about is the idea of tokenism, that a superficial presentation of "diverse" bits of culture can end up smoothing over any discomfort about a group's/institution's/fill-in-the-blank's monolithic whiteness and actually prevent deeper engagement and self-reflection. So that might be something to do more research and reflection on, too.
posted by jaguar at 10:10 AM on October 29, 2015 [3 favorites]

I didn't see mention of this above, but forgive me if someone already suggested it, or its a total no-brainer: do you give the piece/pieces a brief introduction, at the time of actual performance?

It might be super useful to give your audience some context, and this would let you acknowledge the unusual choice of material in a respectful way. Something like a brief background of this piece or type of music, and the reason you chose to perform it. For me as an audience member, this would deepen my appreciation of the piece past "sounds good."
posted by jessicapierce at 11:02 AM on October 29, 2015

Some ideas about providing context in the worship service setting that we have used successfully:

Our director usually includes in the church bulletin a short note about what we're singing, information about the composer and their background, or if it's a traditional song, where it's from and the context of it.

We also sometimes sing things that are mentioned in the sermon--sometimes the preacher is reminded of, for example, a spiritual when writing their sermon, and they will actually talk about the words and the people who wrote and sang them and the meaning to them as part of the sermon, and then we sing the spiritual to support the preaching.
posted by hydropsyche at 12:30 PM on October 29, 2015

listen, lady:
I'll add my own opinion: nobody owns culture. It's messy, and it will cross-breed and hybridize and mutate and spread faster than Chernobyl rabbits.

I strongly advise against adopting this attitude, which I find is usually expressed by people with privilege. You know, the appropriators.
Fair enough. My earlier words could easily be quoted in defense of all kinds of cultural insensitivity that I would not choose to support. And I want to be clear that, unlike the preceding paragraph (which I still hope OP will find useful), that bit was all me and not intended to be representative of UUism.
posted by richyoung at 2:09 PM on October 29, 2015

From my perspective as a singer in a small, limited-resource church choir whose director actively tried to incorporate music from diverse sources into our repertoire, here are some things she did that had a strong impact on me.

1) During rehearsal, she would talk about the texts of the songs and draw the parallels of meaning that made that song important to the worship service where we would be performing it. She tied the meaning of the song both to the way we were to perform it and the reason it was included. It made me a much more thoughtful singer, and in some cases changed my opinion of songs entirely (she reversed my longstanding dislike of "In the Bleak Midwinter," for instance.)

2) She chose the music for each service very thoughtfully and intentionally. A lot of less common hymns got used in that church, not just the same 12 over and over, and she always chose them to support the message and theme.

3) When we did pieces in a different style or from a different culture, she always spent time in rehearsal talking about their context/translation/significance, and there were notes in the bulletins to that effect as well when we performed. Usually the minister would also tie these points in to the sermon.

4) We might use different styles of diction (not as much with the crisp consonants that we used while singing Vivaldi when we were doing shape note songs or spirituals) but we didn't try to use "dialect" pronunciations of lyrics.

Now, this was a majority-white, liberal-leaning Protestant church in the South, so obviously I'm not the authority on cultural appropriation, but I can say that as a participant in this particular choir, I very much felt that by including music from a variety of sources and time periods in our repertoire, by pushing us both to greater technical skill and to greater understanding of the music and its meaning and context, and by striving to make all the parts of the service well-integrated in theme and purpose, the effect on the choir and the congregation was a positive one. Additionally, by including music based on the content/message of the song and deliberately spreading out the sources - we might do Thomas Tallis, Bach, a modern "church song", a spiritual, and a shape note song all within a few weeks- she took the approach that music from all sources was an equal part of the "canon" to be drawn from for the spiritual edification of the church, and I think that, as long as it is done thoughtfully and respectfully, that's a good thing.
posted by oblique red at 2:53 PM on October 29, 2015 [3 favorites]

How about making an effort to look for works composed or arranged by black composers, including the great Moses Hogan and Jester Hairston? The latter's life really exemplifies the struggle between the availability of work and being willing to take less than ideal roles; similarly, you'll note the words of Hall Johnson, who said that "cahn't" had no place in a spiritual sung by his [black] choir.

But Moses Hogan published work for traditional [read: mostly white] choral groups specifically so they could perform them. Because choirs like yours don't learn or perform music in the same way that, say, the Mt. Zion choir does. (Side note: your choir should consider taking a field trip down there. And Leotha Stanley is the kind of guy who does a lot of outreach-through-music, so talking to him or having him come talk to your choir would be good. Although of course, it is not their/his job to teach you or give you permission... but maybe just approaching it as "I want to be better informed" instead of "what's okay and what's not?")

So you need to approach spirituals on a case-by-case basis. Some songs might be a little too dialect-heavy for your folks to sing comfortably, and the same might go for songs that require extra clapping or whatever. But other songs might require you to go out of your comfort zone and be worth doing BECAUSE they do.

Work with your pastor, too, to fit the songs with the weekly worship themes or scriptures so that you can give the songs more context.

And then maybe keep looking for diverse sources for pieces, including composers like Sydney Guillaume (Haitian-American) and the women published by Hildegard. Because while African American composer /= spiritual, necessarily, supporting and encouraging the work of these composers and musicians is a way to let them (and their art) speak for themselves.

Spirituals Project -- whoa, a TON of stuff here. Like this one.
Choralnet discussion
Curious UU (isn't that kind of redundant?)
Women in Theology
WQXR show on African American choral composers
VocalEssence WITNESS project and list of WITNESS repertoire (these guys are from Minnesota, which doesn't get much whiter)
posted by St. Hubbins at 3:03 PM on October 29, 2015 [3 favorites]

Just a note to say that MLK Day is coming up, and in our lovely hometown, the City-County Observance includes an MLK Community Choir that anyone can join. Absolutely anyone -- no audition or registration required. All they have to do is show up at two rehearsals. It's led by the aforementioned Leotha Stanley.

So if you're looking to encourage your choir members (or yourself) to get involved and immerse yourself in spirituals without feeling out of place, this is a nice opportunity.

(With respect to the discussion above of idealizing the MLK era, that's certainly true, but I think these events tend to focus on current events a lot and encourage participation in social justice from all corners.)

I would have sent you this in a PM, but I thought there might be a chance that other places around the country could have things like this going on, so I put it out there to get on the radar of other folks as well.
posted by St. Hubbins at 10:33 AM on January 7, 2016

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