Uniting Voices Chicago Connects to the African Diaspora in Black History Month Concerts

Modern-day traditions such as Black History Month and Juneteenth center the cultural roots of the African diaspora, and serve as a time of remembrance, solidarity, and celebration of our lineage. The origins of Black History Month can be traced back to 1926, when historian Carter G. Woodson and the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History established the second week of February as “Negro History Week.” Over the years, the celebration grew in popularity, and in 1976, President Gerald Ford officially recognized February as “Black History Month.” Since then, it has been celebrated annually in the United States and Canada, with a variety of events and activities to honor the contributions and accomplishments of African Americans.

Many events that were crucial to the formal recognition of Black History Month took place in that 50-year span — most notably the Civil Rights Movement. Organizing and protests were certainly foundational to the success of the movement, but art was also a form of political expression and communication, helping to mobilize and inspire a generation of activists to fight for racial equality and justice.

Uniting Voices Chicago was founded in 1956 as a direct response to the Civil Rights Movement. Originally named the Children’s Chorus of the First Unitarian Church of Chicago, the youth choir program was formed to celebrate the racial and economic diversity of the city. During the 1950s, a significant number of Black people relocated to Chicago, causing the city’s Black population to grow from less than 10 percent to nearly 25 percent in less than a decade. This rapid influx of Black people strained racial tensions in the city, and it wasn’t long before Chicago became a major center for activism during the Civil Rights Movement.

Uniting Voices Chicago -- Photo by Kyle Flubacker

Uniting Voices Chicago — Photo by Kyle Flubacker

Uniting Voices Chicago provided the children of the movement with a healthy outlet and a learning environment that cultivated empathy and respect across racial lines. Since then, the organization has expanded and now includes free in-school and after-school programs that serve over 4,000 children from low-to-moderate income households.

Continuing its focus on unity, the organization’s upcoming Black History Month Concert Series will bring together several aspects of the African diaspora. Two concerts, which take place at the Chicago Symphony Center on Feb. 27 and 28, will present music from West Africa, Black America, and the Caribbean in the spirit of their central theme — sankofa.

“Sankofa” is an Akan Ghanaian word meaning “to return what was lost.” For people of the African diaspora, the transatlantic slave trade stripped away their languages, religions, and customs; much was lost as a result of the systemic repression of cultural identities, but the influence of those cultures remains. The mass displacement of enslaved people from West and Central Africa to the Americas also resulted in distinct cultures intertwining — borrowing from and interacting with each other to form something entirely new.

In an effort to return what was lost, the diversity of musical traditions on the program symbolizes a convergence of cultures. “Uniting Voices Chicago purposefully creates programming like its Black History 365 Imperative to honor truth and legacy, center the voices and educate the minds of all youth, and uplift the profound expertise of culture bearers,” says Lonnie Norwood, the conductor and Director of Africana Studies. The concerts will feature multi-talented guest artists whose expertise spans the gamut of the program’s offerings. Uniting Voices Chicago will be joined by renowned soprano Audrey DuBois Harris, whose repertoire encompasses opera, classical, jazz, oratorio, sacred songs, gospel and inspirational hymns. They will also welcome Sekou Conde, whose prowess on the djembe fully showcases the remarkable capabilities of the instrument.

Uniting Voices Chicago -- Photo by Kyle Flubacker

Uniting Voices Chicago — Photo by Kyle Flubacker

Pieces that were vital to the Civil Rights Movement, such as “Lift Every Voice and Sing” and “We Shall Overcome,” are featured on the program. Both songs served as symbols of hope for activists, protesters, and the community. In recognition of civil rights issues in other parts of the world, the ensemble will also perform “Courage, My Friend,” a song written by student freedom fighters who were imprisoned in South Africa during the apartheid era.

While a significant part of the concert series is about celebrating history, it doesn’t shy away from making modern connections. This year marks a milestone in Black music: the 50th anniversary of hip hop. An ode to the genre will include selections from Tupac, Queen Latifah, Public Enemy, and Kendrick Lamar. Highlighting the rise from counterculture to a global phenomenon is a testament to the resilience of hip hop artists and provides a contemporary entry point for audiences to engage with the lineage of Black music.

In their Black History Month Concert Series, Uniting Voices Chicago is building upon a legacy of education and advocacy by giving young people the opportunity to create art in a thoughtful and meaningful way. Through these performances, voices from across the African diaspora are able to show the individuality of their music, while highlighting their deeply rooted connections.


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