Harvard’s Eileen Southern Initiative Celebrates Music of Black Americans

On April 7-9, 2022, the Eileen Southern Initiative and Harvard’s Radcliffe Institute hosted a weekend long event titled “Lift Ev’ry Voice: Celebrating the Music of Black Americans” to honor the 50th anniversary of Eileen Southern’s groundbreaking book, The Music of Black Americans.  The event included concerts, lectures, an online exhibition, and a community sing. Even though I sat in Harvard’s Sanders Theater on Friday night for almost four hours, there truly wasn’t a boring moment – the entire event was as entertaining, fun, and joyful as it was educational and intellectually stimulating.

The weekend began on Thursday with the online webinar “Black Music and the American University: Eileen Southern’s Story,” which served as an introduction to the work of Southern and her vast influence on musicology. Southern was the first Black woman to receive tenure at Harvard, and she served as the chair of the Afro-American Studies Department from 1957-1979. All of the speakers could not seem to overstate how monumental Southern’s book has been for those studying the music of Black Americans.

Eileen Southern--Photo courtesy of the Radcliffe College Archives

Eileen Southern–Photo courtesy of the Radcliffe College Archives

Friday night began with a pre-concert discussion moderated by Emmett G. Price III, with Felicia Barber, Rosephanye Powell, Marques L.A. Garrett, and Devon Gates discussing their individual discoveries of and relationships with the work of Eileen Southern. The panel explained how the book not only gave them additional reference points for Black composers working within traditionally academic idioms, but it also gave them a frame for how to approach jazz and folk music in the setting of academic musicology. This led to a conversation about the music taught at HBCUs versus predominantly-white institutions. But among the most illuminating points of the discussion was when Price asked each participant to respond to the phrase, “Black music as intellect,” which prompted a general consensus that in academic contexts, people of color are expected to be experts on Black music, in addition to being experts on “traditionally accepted” music in academia.

The rest of the evening consisted of various choirs taking the stage one after the other, but to begin (and to end), all of the groups performed Donald Lawrence’s “What A Time” together. Next, the Kuumba Singers of Harvard College performed two arrangements by Sheldon K.X. Reid. The latter of those two pieces included solos by Renese King and Theodore Hickman-Maynard, both of whom earned mid-solo applause and not one, but two separate standing ovations from the audience. No solo went without recognition, and no song ended without rapturous cheers from the entire audience. I don’t think I’m being hyperbolic with the word “rapturous” – the entire evening was truly a celebration, not just of Eileen Southern, but of the joy of community music making in general.

Vocalist Renese King performs with members of the Kuumba Singers--Photo by Michele Stapleton/Office for the Arts at Harvard

Vocalist Renese King performs with members of the Kuumba Singers–Photo by Michele Stapleton/Office for the Arts at Harvard

The first half of the program closed out with two songs performed by the Harvard-Radcliffe Collegium Muusicium, the second of which was a world premiere by current Harvard student Devon Gates. “Mediation on 1 Corinthians 13” began with a duet by Francesca Remigi on percussion and Gates herself singing. This introduction, full of melismatic vocal runs and atmospheric finger tapping on the drumset, gave way to lush harmonies bouncing around the choir. Gates has a great compositional voice, and choirs looking for young composers to commission should take note.

The standout performance of the evening was a collection of songs performed by The Aeolians, visiting from Oakwood University. There was a palpable sense of energy in the room as The Aeolians took the stage at the end of the intermission. Truly every member of the choir was a full body performer, laser focused on every detail of every song. Their set was extremely well rehearsed, performed from memory, and was at times more akin to a rock concert in the group’s seamless transitions from song to song. In arrangements like “Locus Iste” and “Hold Fast To Dreams,” the group employed subtle and well-timed dynamic changes that continued to illuminate and recontextualize the music they were performing. Their set ended with conductor Jason Max Ferdinand giving an emotional speech, announcing the end of his decade-plus tenure with the group, before leading the choir in one of his own arrangements, “There Is A Balm In Gilead.”

Rosephanye Powell conducts the world premiere of her work “Quiet Revolutionary”--Photo by Michele Stapleton/Office for the Arts at Harvard

Rosephanye Powell conducts the world premiere of her work “Quiet Revolutionary”–Photo by Michele Stapleton/Office for the Arts at Harvard

The final performances of the concert were by the combined choirs singing commissions by Marques L.A. Garrett and Rosephanye Powell. I could not have imagined a better way to end an evening full of fantastic music and performances than to have everyone in the room singing together on new pieces celebrating the joy of music and performance.

The entire weekend of “Live Ev’ry Voice” was a fantastic experience. Even if the concert itself may have been on the long side, I would gladly return for a repeat performance. Everyone was engaged at the highest levels and it showed throughout all performances and discussions. The material was interesting and informative, but it was also fun. Academic music making in this context can often feel like going to class, but “Lift Ev’ry Voice” was a reminder that music can be as joyful and celebratory as it is intellectually challenging.


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