Significance of Black History Month on Choral Music

Significance of Black History Month on Choral Music

In the music world, so much of the musical influences and genres that we have today have come from Black composers and musicians, but how has that shaped the way we look at and perform choral music?

Let’s first look at the world of spirituals, some of the earliest songs of those who were enslaved. The spirituals provide us with raw emotion, whether it be joyful or sorrowful. These songs were how they communicated with each other, how they knew that possibly someone was there to come and set them free. Spirituals also provided direction; songs like “Wade in De Water” and “Follow the Drinking Gourd” all helped those in the Underground Railroad on their way to possible freedom.

In a world that seems to be big on cancel culture, these songs and expression of emotions is something that should not be on the chopping block. As choral conductors, we tend to shy away from programming music that we are not comfortable with. Most of the time that means sticking to music from dead white men because that’s simply what we know. Our goal, or at least my goal, is to shy away from that strategy. It starts with spirituals and it starts with programming music by Black Composers. The resources are out there for us to be successful: teachers, colleagues, and choirs; yet, some are weary to program a spiritual.

I always tell my community choir this: we can appreciate without appropriating. If spirituals were not meant to be programmed, Jester Hariston, Moses Hogan and Stacey V. Gibbs would have not composed the music. Most of the modern choral music would not be here today without spirituals. This February, many of the main pieces of music you will hear the choir sing will be by Black Composers, will be spirituals, and/or will have lyrics by black poets. Join us on this journey as we explore some of the greatest choral music composed.

Jakob Swetland is Orange Coast Unitarian Universalist Church's Director of Music Ministries. He can be reached by email at

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