During the last week of July I was in Arlington, VA and Washington, DC participating in the Unitarian Universalist Musician Network annual conference. I have been part of UUMN for twenty years or more, first as the UUA liaison to that organization; later as part of the publishing team that developed the publications “Singing the Journey” and “Las Voces del Camino”; and now as the organization’s Moderator.
This year the choral clinician was Brian Tate, the composer who wrote many songs that are a key part of UU music repertoire for our congregations and choirs: “Where Do We Come From,” “We Are One,” “Gate Gate,” and many more. Brian, who is white and resides in Vancouver, British Columbia, has been called out as someone who has appropriated the musical styles and rhythms of African Americans, Africans, and many other racial and cultural traditions as well. People generally love to sing his music, and it’s sold well. But there is this nagging question about whether the music is ‘borrowed’ a bit too much from cultures (others would say ‘stolen.’)
It’s a tough debate: rhythms and styles are not copyrighted, and if there is attribution of the source of the music, is it all right? These questions and more came to the floor for plenary conversations at the UUMN conference, and the discussions we had were painful, difficult, and focused on the way white people experience this music and these cultures. People of color who were part of the UUMN conference had a separate conversation, facilitated by the UUMN conference chaplain (who identifies as a person of color).
Later in the conference we worked with Yara Allen, a remarkable singer who is part of Rev. William Barber’s (see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/William_Barber_II
) leadership team for the North Carolina NAACP. Her knowledge of songs of the civil rights movement, the freedom struggles, songs about environmental damage and more, are extensive. She shared history of the music and taught us how to sing these songs with authenticity and energy. It was a remarkable experience to be with her and to see her in action on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial for an interfaith sing. UU percussionist Matt Meyer conducted another plenary, discussing – with a panel – the ways in which white supremacy impacts our ministries and our relationships. Those present for the conversations were not only music ministry professionals but also ordained ministers and religious educators, and some who sing in church choirs.
This is painfully difficult work to be engaged in. It is life…life right now, in an increasingly diverse world; carrying forward work and ministry in our congregations and our schools and our communities; it is about how we relate to one another and how we think about power structures in society. I am glad that my colleague, Rev. Susanne Intriligator, is focusing on some of these issues during her summer sermons. I am glad that a team of Follenites continue to focus on how this congregation can further engage in the ongoing work and rewards of becoming an anti-racist and multi-cultural congregation.
Yara Allen, in her seminar with us at the UUMN conference, reminded us of the song, “Eyes on the Prize.” The song reminds us: “If there’s one thing we got right, it’s the day we started to fight. Keep your eyes on the prize, hold on.” Through song, through words, through action, we must hold on, keep marching and walking and laboring to achieve equity and justice…this summer and in the months and seasons to come. This is good ministry for people in church and people in communities…adults and youth and children, all of us, together. Let’s hold on and never take our eyes off this prize.
Interim Director of Religious Education