Black History Month was first celebrated in 1924 as “Negro History Week,” founded by Black historian Carter G. Woodson with the aim that Black students in particular would be formally taught about their own heritage and the contributions of African Americans in their schools.
As Black History Month has evolved and been widely embraced, many historically White choral organizations have made strides over time to more prominently represent Black choral traditions and feature Black performers and artists. While those efforts signify progress and continually moving forward, the cumulative effect of this trend still has some Black artists currently seeing interest in their contributions limited to the month of February, leading to feelings of exhaustion, tokenization, and frustration.
As we approach the end of Black History Month in 2022, we share the work of a few choruses with predominantly White leadership that are examples of participating in sustained long-term efforts to foster appreciation for and more deeply engage with Black American choral music and musicians.
VocalEssence and WITNESS
[Photo Credit: Adja Gildersleve]
For 32 years, Twin Cities-based chorus VocalEssence has led WITNESS, a learning and engagement program designed for children and youth that celebrates the artistic contributions of African Americans to the fine arts and to our common cultural heritage. The curriculum of the school program includes workshops with experienced teaching artists for 4th-12th grade students, professional development and classroom resources for teachers, and Young People’s Concerts for schools. Other key components of WITNESS are an annual public concert by the adult VocalEssence Chorus, a 4-volume recording series showcasing cornerstones of American classical music by trailblazing African American composers, and the Reatha Clark King Award honoring outstanding leaders who are in the field empowering young people through direct contact.
VocalEssence’s next WITNESS Young People’s Concert features The Aeolians of Oakwood University, a leading HBCU choir, as well as VocalEssence Singers of This Age, the organization’s racially diverse youth choir comprising students from across the Twin Cities. “The concert is an affirmation of Black joy and resilience,” says VocalEssence associate artistic director G. Phillip Shoultz, III. The concert will be livestreamed from Orchestra Hall in Minneapolis on Friday, March 4 at 10:00am CST.
Cathedral Choral Society, Heritage Signature Chorale, and I, Too, Sing America
Two Washington DC choruses came together in 2021 to embark on a multi-year partnership to highlight traditional and contemporary music of African Americans. Cathedral Choral Society, a symphonic chorus founded in 1941 that performs at the Washington National Cathedral, and Heritage Signature Chorale, which since 2000 has been committed to preserving and elevating African American choral music, are joining forces on an initiative entitled I, Too, Sing America. The project takes its name from a 1925 poem by Langston Hughes, who was living in DC when the poem was written early in his career.
The three-year first stage of I, Too, Sing America will document the journey of the two choruses getting to know each other better, as well as performing African American music together as they delve deeply into its history and significance. “We have a common vision for a more united and equitable community,” says Cathedral Choral Society executive director Christopher Eanes, “and we’re sharing our journey publicly with the hope that others may be inspired by our steps.”
On February 3, the two choruses premiered the project’s second video, entitled “Spirituals: The Mother Music,” featuring interviews with Heritage Signature Chorale president and artistic director Stanley J. Thurston as well as composer and singer Ysaÿe M. Barnwell, conductor Everett McCorvey, author and organist Eileen Guenther. The video will be made available in March. Watch the initiative’s first video release here.
Bel Canto Youth Chorus and Stand Up
The Bel Canto Youth Chorus, part of the Bach Choir of Bethlehem (Pennsylvania), harnessed its local history, collaborations with guest artists, and multimedia storytelling to deeply explore traditional spirituals and music by contemporary African American composers. In Spring 2021, Bel Canto introduced a new curriculum entitled Stand Up: Singing the Underground Railroad, which is also the name of the chorus’s first full-length concert video project that was produced as a result. The Stand Up curriculum connected students to local touchpoints where the Underground Railroad passed through, leading Bel Canto to film parts of the video project in five Pennsylvania towns, and focused on themes of hope, resilience, bravery, strength, and dignity. Guest artists Camille Armstrong, Dashon Burton, Grace Spruiell, Craig Thatcher, and Dierdre Van Walters joined Bel Canto students to perform as part of the project.
Tell us about other organizations doing this work
The music of African Americans is the music of all Americans, and we all play a part in preserving and uplifting the musical contributions of Black performers and artists. We’d like to hear about more organizations engaging in these types of efforts that we did not feature here. If you would like to tell us about a choral organization that is furthering African American musical traditions in a way that you admire, let us know at [email protected].