The song that particularly challenged us was Janelle Monae’s “Hell You Talmbout,” a song that originated in the Black Lives Matter movement [https://www.youtube.com/watch
The director of our gospel choir had heard it and been deeply touched. When he shared it with the programming team, we all felt a powerful connection in ways that were personal to each of us. We all felt that as both a gospel choir (strongly rooted in the African American musical tradition) and a trans choir (who often found ourselves singing in remembrance of yet another murdered trans woman of color), we had to express our strong support and solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement at this particular moment in time.
But, we also did not know if it was right for us, an group of almost all white people (and no Black people), to publicly perform a song that held so much of the emotional and spiritual pain of a community that we were not a part of, a community under attack in the US. Our motive for potentially sharing the song with our audience was to honor the Black Lives Matter movement and the people who are a part of it, to honor the memory of the people who have been killed, and to express our own authentic sorrow and rage at the loss of these lives – lives taken largely by the hands of white people. And we would not want to inadvertently, unconsciously, carelessly or otherwise offend or hurt the people who created this song and who have been fighting for Black lives for years without number.
We did not want to act in a culturally appropriative way. We did not want to exploit the efforts of the song’s creator, or draw attention away from Black lives and struggles and onto some white people singing about it. We did not want the end result to be an enactment of our privilege at the expense of Black artists, activists, and regular people who died unjustly – the specific people we were trying to honor.
Our conversations about this song, and our separate, individual soul-searching processes, lasted a couple of months. We all read everything we could find that might provide guidance, and we reached out to people whose opinions we valued, while doing our best to avoid putting anyone “on the spot” to speak for their whole cultural or racial group. And we finally decided that it felt important to us to work with this song.
We didn’t feel we could ask anyone in the choir to sing the song without giving them the same opportunity to search their own hearts and decide whether it felt right to them. So our next step was to hold multiple conversations with both choirs, giving everyone a chance to weigh in and come to their own conclusions. Many singers did express discomfort, concern that it would be culturally appropriative for us to sing the song, or unease with singing a phrase (hell you talmbout) that expressed a specific ethnic dialect that wasn’t ours. We talked a lot about why we would want to do the song – the impact we would want to have on the audience – our reasons for going into controversial territory that could just as easily been avoided. After several rounds of discussion, we took an anonymous vote. As it turned out, a large majority voted to do the song, with a few people choosing to sit it out.
The discussions were very productive, rich, rewarding, and illuminating. We decided, among other things, that our goals were to help the people in the audience have a personal emotional experience in connection to the loss of Black lives, to offer a moment of art-as-community-ritual, art-as-medicine, art-as-nourishment-for-the journey, to amplify and center the voices of Black artists and activists, and to honor the memory of those people whose names we were asking each other to say.
So, in case they might be useful to your own such journeys as a choir, here are some of the things we did in our effort to meet those goals:
We made conversation and introspection part of every step of the process, from deciding to do the song, to determining how we would actually present it, to inviting audience members to a community dialogue on race during a potluck after the performance. We did our best to hear and respect every perspective, even as we challenged each other to consider seeing things differently.
We asked each choir member to choose at least one of the names spoken in the song, or another of the many names of people who have been killed by racist violence, learn as much as they could about the person, and share that person’s story with the choir.
We hung photos and biographies of each person named in the song in the church where we performed, where audience members could connect with their faces and stories.
We cooperatively created a memorial altar to honor the memory of people who have been killed by racist violence. We invited choir members to contribute artwork, personal writings or special items. We offered ways for audience members to participate by lighting candles or by writing messages on heart-shaped pieces of paper.
We felt it was important to display the names that we were singing so that people could both see the names visually, and join us in saying them if they were so moved. Limitations of the space prevented us from using digital projection, so a group of volunteers from both choirs got together and carefully hand-lettered large poster board signs, with a single name per sign.
In the performance, one singer held the signs at the front of the room, while a second choir member turned them over as each name was spoken. The rest of the choir members were scattered throughout the audience and the back of the church. Our intent was to direct the audience’s attention to the names, not to ourselves.
We cooperatively wrote a spoken introduction to the song, contextualizing it and expressing our reasons for deciding to sing it, our awareness of the sensitivity of the choice, our deep respect for the artists and our commitment to racial justice in America.
We invited local organizations working on racial justice issues to be present at the concert, and to have tables with information for people who wanted to get involved. We also gave audience members the opportunity to donate financially to support the work of the Black Lives Matter movement.
Did we do everything right? I am certain we did not. However, we felt in our hearts that it was a moment in which our calling was to not remain silent. We decided we would go forward by inviting the music to challenge and change us, and I believe it did. Our hope was to create an opportunity for our audience to make a personal and emotional connection with the current crisis of racism and racialized violence in the United States, and also offer them directions for their energy and efforts; and I think we were able to witness that happening, as well.
I wanted to share these reflections about our collaborative process around choosing and performing this song because I believe it’s important that choir leaders and singers engage in sincere self examination when deciding to perform songs from a cultural context other than their own. (I’ve seen some choirs do an excellent job of this, and I’ve seen some dismiss it completely.) It is an aspect of white privilege, at least in the U.S., to be able to pick songs from any nation, culture, tradition or social movement around the world, find or commission a formal arrangement, include them in a program with any other assortment of songs related to a theme, and present them with no, or only very cursory, attention paid at all to the meaning of the song in its original context or the relationship of the singer to that context. I would love to see us stay open to the possibility that our work is more than performance, and that sometimes we may be able to honor the music more by letting it guide us into action.