By Music Director, Savannah Ramsey
This past July, I had the pleasure of attending the Association for Unitarian Universalist Music Ministries annual conference. The sessions are always inspiring, and I love bringing the things I learn back to Kalamazoo to incorporate into our worship. Of particular personal interest was Rev. Jason Shelton’s “Decolonizing Your Music Library” workshop, which focused on the topic of examining the contents of our music libraries in the context of inclusivity and representation.
The workshop was built around a single page containing several ways to categorize the titles that inhabit our libraries at home. It begins with obvious things, such as the title and the composer/arranger of the work, and the year it was published. It goes on to ask if the work was written by a person of color, or a member of the LGBTQ+ community, and more. Rev. Shelton encouraged each of us to come up with our own criteria to add to the material that he provided, as it makes sense to do for our communities.
The purpose of this exercise is not only to help the user organize their library, and perhaps challenge the director to choose more music from diverse composers, but also to begin to “notice patterns,” as he phrased it, in the titles that we own and perform. What message is conveyed by having a library completely dominated by works by a particular demographic? Do the works we perform represent all of the voices that we want to be heard?
Rev. Shelton posed yet more questions: Are the works we know and perform respectful of the origins of the music? Are any of the works arrangements of songs originally written by POC or other marginalized groups? Even if a work is beloved, is an arrangement the best way to showcase it? Could there be elements of the work that are omitted or changed to fit the western ear? Is it worth performing a piece of music if the voice who wrote it is silenced in the process?
There are no right answers, and everything comes down to context, he asserts. He did not tell us what to think about our collections, only encouraged us to look critically at them.
This past year, we had the pleasure of performing Rosephanye Powell’s “I Dream A World,” which is a setting of the poem of the same name, written by Langston Hughes. During rehearsal, it was suggested that we change the word “God” to something more inclusive, in order to represent more of our community. It is always a priority to consider the feelings of the congregation, but we decided to sing the original lyrics, given the historical significance of the poem, and out of a desire to not “colonize” the work by forcing our own perspective onto it.
Consciously programming music by members of marginalized groups is good and necessary work, and it gets easier the more we question the things we think we know, and look outside our own understanding.