Decolonizing Oral Tradition Singing: A Choir Dialogue
Updated: Jun 24
In the weeks since George Floyd's murder by Minneapolis police officers, various conversations have sprung up on the topic of anti-oppression work in the context of our choirs, which are not currently meeting due to covid-19. I wanted to make parts of those conversations public, in case the dialogue underway can serve as a learning tool for more than just our small community of 100 Wisconsin singers and contribute to our shared learning as musicians and leaders everywhere. This post is a living document and will be updated as our conversations unfold. I hope that by making it public, our commitment to anti-oppression work through singing can be made clear and upheld by our wider community. I am a cisgender white woman sharing my own opinions and insights with a mostly white membership in the following thread as we work things out together, and I welcome feedback, corrections, and challenge from readers on anything I share. May these reflections sharpen my personal commitment to running an anticapitalist business and organization seeking to make my own work obsolete, and contribute to liberation for all.
An open letter to Resound Choir:
Dear People of Resound,
Last week, I invited the womxn of Morning Glory Choir to a zoom conversation on white supremacy and reflection on the current widespread anti-oppression uprisings, which I know many of you are a part of. What I took away most clearly from our conversation is, once again, how much there is to learn, as well as a sense that now is the time to deeply examine everything about the organizations we are a part of. For me, this is an especially timely invitation now that I seem to be in the midst of a very long involuntary sabbatical.
Currently, it's a fact that in Viroqua and Madison alike, we are a mostly white community of choirs. From our beginning, we have centered queerness and anti-oppression work as an organization. Last year, after receiving an invitation from POC in the wider singing community via a document called "Who is Community Singing For?" we implemented the first steps of specifically anti-racist infrastructure in the form of taking on an anti-racist identity and adding a scholarship fund with a reparations element. Our first season with this more explicit identity brought a subtle shift in energy in the group. We didn't get to see that shift play out fully because of the pandemic, but I'm hopeful that the choirs will be able to continue in the future and we will have a chance to create a robust, inclusive community.
To be clear, I think it is totally fine that black people do not want to mass join our singing groups. My knee jerk white person reaction to these problems sometimes sounds like "we need to attract more BIPOC to our groups!" But stepping back, I think fostering antiracist institutions does not mean creating a forced sense of integration. In fact, as a mentor-friend reminded me, that approach can feel entirely toxic to black people. After all, what I really want in my heart of hearts is for BIPOC to feel totally safe and comfortable whilst doing whatever they damn well please, because systemic oppression is abolished. I think there are ways to engage this work and have it be okay for people to gravitate toward certain micro-cultures, worlds within worlds, where they feel most comfortable and at home. And after all, having more black and brown people in choir is not going to end systemic oppression.
I truly believe in the power of song as a way to come together and cultivate change on a cellular and cultural level, and in many ways, believe our choirs are already doing a good deal of anti-oppression work in the way they are currently functioning. To share a little history, the choirs exist in the way they do in part because of a need I felt a few years ago to create an alternative option to "community singing" as I experienced it. At the time, I found myself increasingly uncomfortable with the degree of cultural appropriation, sexism - most commonly expressed in 'church lady syndrome' -as my mentor put it, crunchy 'we are all one'-ness, aka covert white supremacy, and a seeming inability to meaningfully address any of these problems within the culture. Recently, there have been efforts to decolonize community singing, which have been amazing and very educational for me.
Obviously there is infinite work to be done both in our choirs and in community singing as a whole, and there are fundamental questions aplenty to be addressed like, why is it that mostly white people come to this space? Are we supporting collective liberation with our community? How can we do so more directly and explicitly? Are these spaces BIPOC would feel safe and even excited to be in? If not, why so? These are the questions I'm asking as I create a self learning curriculum for my unexpected 'sabbatical'. Since there are many covert and surprising ways white supremacy plays out in communities created by white folks, I reckon I will never run out of things to be learning as I continue to steward this community!
I welcome this discussion to continue here for anyone who wants to offer perspectives and feedback, or share resources for further learning.
Thanks for instigating this conversation Annie. It's good to recognize and temper the urge for forced racial integrationism. While I can't speak to the question of whether Resound and community singing are spaces BIPOC feel safe or excited to be in, Ido have a perspective on why mostly white people join. To me, the songs and common conversation topics seem to come out of a particular subculture that's predominantly white. I'm not sure if there's a name for it, but over the past year, when talking to friends about the singing groups I'm part of in Madison, I've used the word "rural bohemian" to describe the songs and subculture. The songs seem eurocentric and back-to-the-landy in content and style: allusions to rural home, village, and/or outdoor life; revering root vegetables; enacting playful critters, etc. These topics aren't exclusively "white", but, to me at least, how they are talked about, sung, and appreciated is very rural bohemian, thus attracting a large number of white or light skinned privileged people. That's not necessarily a problem. I think a big reason alot of folks come to Resound is to sing these types of songs, and for the emotional effect they have. As someone who never heard the word 'nettles' or sang songs like the ones we do at Resound, I've found the experience to be delightfully insightful: I get to participate in a subculture with norms and values different than my other life contexts. But that's just it. Resound and Madison community sing groups are part of a particular subculture, which is important to acknowledge. Just like how punk and hip-hop attract certain racial groups, have varying musical expressions, aesthetics, value different material cultures, and have different areas of appreciation.
As the choir director, you are significant in crafting the narrative and providing the musical direction of the group. Your interests and talents guide us. And they guide us very, very well. It would be interesting to see where shared leadership between people of different musical interests and talents could take Resound. Who would come. What we'd sing. How we'd gather.
Thank you SO much for this insight, shared in the spirit of genuine dialogue! I laughed out loud while reading it, your thoughts are so spot on. I want to speak to what you're saying because it's so key, and am interested to hear other folks' perspectives as well.
Your take on this subculture and why it is made up of mostly white people 100% mirrors my own understanding, and honestly, is a helpful check on where we're at as a group. You see, up until recent times and still in many community singing circles around the country, it was/is very common for groups of almost exclusively white people to very heavily draw upon BIPOC-heritage music, including songs said to be vaguely 'African', songs originating from enslaved people, black gospel, Native American 'chants', and all number of blatantly appropriated traditions. I was just organizing a binder of music I got in one of my songleader trainings from a few years ago, and a large percentage of the music in that thick binder was from one of the above categories.
So for me, as a baseline for attempting to decolonize oral tradition music, I want to make sure to share from my own personal context and culture as much as humanly possible, which includes pretty much what you described - European-origined music and songs generated from my mostly white, rural culture. Sharing beyond that at this point would feel inappropriate and uncomfortable for me. I know some choir leader colleagues feel differently about this.
To be clear, my own experiences singing under the leadership of South African and black American song leaders have been some of the most ecstatic and precious musical moments of my life. I personally long to sing this music too, and sometimes I desperately want to teach songs from these traditions if I have permission. Maybe I will one day, but not after a long period of reflection and active effort to decolonize this form of sharing music.
You're so right that as the choir leader, what I choose to share makes the culture. You can probably tell, but a lot of what I bring musically comes from my passion for nature connection and earth repair education, with song being a wonderful tool to engage both of those things. The fact that you learned what nettles are through choir is precisely what I'm going for :) I think because white people in recent history have been particularly disconnected both from nature and a sense of village in this modern, capitalism-driven, largely disconnected world, I think white people who have discovered this is a problem crave and need the kind of community we have in choir more than anybody else.
It sucks in many ways, but because BIPOC have been so marginalized by this very capitalist, patriarchal, heavily colonized society, many communities have stuck together and maintained a cultural identity and sense of 'village' in a way white people have not. It shows up in the music world in the incredibly vibrant group singing cultures black people have pretty much always had access to in their communities through time - from the culture of work songs during slavery times, the amazing music of black churches, the hair-raising civil rights singing movement, anti-apartheid singing, and so on.
White folks, who live in a cultural vacuum themselves, have felt the juiciness and aliveness of black music and wanted it for themselves for generations (look at jazz, blues, rock, even folk music generated by black folks and taken and capitalized on by white people), thus all the appropriation |that is becoming less common| in community singing. My guess is that black people observe this, and want to stay the hell away, because watching one's oppressors steal what's beautiful about your people is probably really painful and violent. A point to drive home is that, looking back through history, it seems so clear to me that it's white people who have lost group singing, which is why it's mostly white people interested in showing up to a cultural movement to reclaim it. Of course, losing our collective song is just a mere reflection of the way we as white people have lost our connection to the land, to village, community, meaningful ritual + culture, and general identity in the world.
To me, the problem is not - why aren't more POC involved in community singing? But, are white people actively decolonizing the way they engage with music, educating themselves in the realm of antiracism, and creating meaningful, anti-oppression rooted subcultures of their own so we don't continue to enact violence against communities of color? As I learned from Iranian-American music activist Lydia Violet last summer, so long as white spaces have nothing juicy and culturally rich of their own, we will have nothing to share and offer in cultural reciprocity and can only steal from other cultures.
I see the community singing movement and our choir as a place to look at these dynamics, grieve, generate something new, and self-repair so we don't have to take from and continue to harm oppressed peoples. I think you're right that choir could look really different with BIPOC collaboration and leadership and the thought of what could happen thrills me. I do also think that the space choir already provides to cultivate more connection to the land and each other, is super important decolonization work on its own, and is work that POC are super invited to both as participants and leaders / influencers. I would love to, for instance, make weekly space for POC choir members to share songs from their people that they carry. How awesome would that be? But part of me thinks it would be a loss for our community if we completely did out with this particular niche of a space we've been cultivating already in service to a potentially forced sense of integration. (I also think I'd have to move to the city to cultivate the genuine relationships necessary to "diversify" and majorly grow the business aspect of the choir if it was going to support other leadership, all of which seems like outer space right now since we are literally unable to gather indefinitely.) But hey! I'm happy to have my mind changed / opened to what's possible!
Thanks again for the thoughtful dialogue. So much to think about here, and I welcome all further thoughts / feedback.
(More responses below)
Community Choir Colleague from America:
I appreciate you bringing this forward for us to consider and I’ve been doing much pondering on my own on how to choose the songs I sing and teach in light of the issue of cultural appropriation. I’m looking forward to our Zoom discussion.
However, as someone whose own musical roots are steeped in all kinds of traditional music, I don’t think it’s fair to say that white folks have nothing to offer or that we live in a “cultural vacuum.” There is a lot of traditional music that does come from the experience of white coal miners, railroad workers, women’s rights activists, poets, sailors, cotton mill workers, and centuries-old songs from Europe written by people who struggled for justice and a better life. Wherever there is struggle and reasons for rejoicing, there is song. Maybe I am out of step with others, but many of these songs feel pretty juicy and culturally rich to me.
Totally. "White people" have culture and music to share, for sure, and it sounds like you were lucky enough to grow up steeped in the real, lived richness of those traditions. Sadly, I personally grew up in a white America completely void of any meaningful singing culture of any kind. A lot of the old traditions you're naming unfortunately have not carried over in an embodied way into mainstream modern life as far as I can tell. I am pointing to black music traditions from other times too, of course, but there are still many places in the world today where communities of black and brown people burst into mind blowing oral tradition style song whenever the moment calls. The only white-dominated space I have experienced that in is within our emerging community singing world.
Perhaps I should clarify that when I'm referring to "whiteness" as I talk about it here, I'm referring specifically to the cultural void that "whiteness" in and of itself implies, that many people really do live in. Just the word 'whiteness', in all its vagueness, speaks to a loss or absence of cultural heritage. As you point out, there are some musical heritages that are still vibrant and based in specific cultural identities like Irish-Ballad culture, Balkan music, Appalachian bluegrass, etc. and those are the traditions I want to personally be learning from and helping other people who identify with those lineages have access to. But I wouldn't call those traditions "white" traditions since whiteness inherently refers to a void, even if they are primarily made of up light-skinned, Euro-origined people.
Also, with a lot of early American music from some of the traditions you cited, we run into the problem of heavily racist and sexist lyrics, which make them questionable sources of appropriate cultural exchange. (Of course there's lots of sexism in traditional music of all kinds! Music is just a reflection of culture afterall.)
In general, I think if we didn't live in a cultural vacuum, we wouldn't feel the need to borrow so much content from oppressed peoples for our own modern rituals and sense of meaning, which to me is quintessential to white new age spiritualism and many subsets of community singing culture, which often go together.
As you undoubtedly know, questioning cultural appropriation and naming the harm done to BIPOC folks through music does not erase contributions from "white" musical communities of other times, just as saying black lives matter is not the same thing as saying white lives don't matter. Unfortunately, because of power dynamics and systemic racism, white folks have long fetishized music from oppressed people over exploring and cultivating their own cultural roots. As a student to some of those traditions, I agree with you that what can be found there feels juicy and culturally rich. It's why it's mostly what I sing these days! Let's keep working to shift these dynamics in our communities! Thanks for engaging in dialogue!