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Cat Zachary
Catherine Zachary, Communications Coordinator

by Catherine Zachary, Communications Coordinator

In the aftermath of George Floyd’s death this past summer, many musicians across the country and the world found themselves asking “What can I do?”. Here in the department, it has spurred numerous conversations about the way in which we can deepen our commitment to anti-racism in our teaching and in the administration of the department. It led to the creation of a new Mission Statement, a new Anti-Racism Resources page, and this “Do the Work Wednesdays” series. It has guided the conversations around curricula reform. It has shaped classroom discussions and concert programming. Faculty, staff, and students have asked the questions “What does it mean to be anti-racist?” and “What does it mean for musicians?”.

Often, music is categorized as entertainment; think about the tabs on a news site or categories of a trivia game and where you’ll find music filed. But music is more than entertainment. Music comes out of the ideas and collective experiences of the time in which it is created. It can also help shape culture and inspire momentum in social movements. Music, in and of itself, cannot change the systemic racism in our country, but I do believe that it challenges us to understand our biases and see ourselves differently in the world.

In honor of Black History Month, I wanted to share three pieces of music that speak directly to the oppression and systemic racism faced by Black Americans. These three pieces speak on the deaths of unarmed Black men at the hands of the police, the Tulsa massacre of 1921, and the daily microaggressions endured.

But listening is only the first step, what actions do we take after we are moved by the music? Alexander Lloyd Blake, director of the LA-based choir Tonality, discussed this “What now?” in his essay “Art for Art’s Sake: Steps to Prevent Tone Deaf Social Justice Concerts.” He suggests considering three questions when pairing music and social justice efforts, “What is the call to action [of the concert]?”, “What additional voices are involved in presenting [at concerts]?” and “What perspectives are leading the conversation?”. When we consider these questions and do the hard work of answering them completely, we create opportunities for progress.

“Perhaps the marriage of trained musicians and humanitarian organizations is exactly what is needed to spur the much needed energy in this eternal fight against injustices. As artists, it is our unique talents that allow us to reach into the depths of the soul that sometimes remains untouched in these battles for empathy and understanding.” Blake wrote. “Our audience–communities of people who might not ever feel personally connected to the issue at hand–can be brought closer emotionally to the pain and turmoil of the oppressed through our music. It is in my opinion that empathetic discomfort is the only real solution to get those with power/privilege/access to become true allies for other populations.”

After listening to the selections below, what other steps will you take today to help fight racism in your musical community and beyond? How will you get involved?

“Michael Brown. Trayvon Martin. Oscar Grant. Eric Garner. Kenneth Chamberlain. Amadou Diallo. John Crawford. These African-American men–each killed by police or other authority figures–are the subjects of a powerful multi-movement choral work by Atlanta-based composer Joel Thompson titled “Seven Last Words of the Unarmed” followed by Glory from the motion picture “Selma” arr. by Eugene Rogers. The piece was premiered by the University of Michigan Men’s Glee Club in 2015 under the direction of Eugene Rogers, director of choirs and professor of conducting at the University of Michigan School of Music, Theatre & Dance. This is an excerpt of a documentary created in 2016 by Bob Berg and the Michigan Media. For the complete documentary and educational materials, please visit

University of Michigan Glee Club. [University of Michigan]. (2020, May 28). Seven Last Words of the Unarmed by Joel Thompson. [Video]. YouTube.

Written by Laura Karpman for the HBO series Lovecraft Country, “Tulsa 1921: Catch the Fire,” is inspired by Leontyne Price’s performance of Samuel Barber’s Knoxville: Summer of 1915. The juxtaposition of the serene summer evening in Knoxville to the death and destruction of Tulsa is indicative of the biggest monster in the HBO horror series: racism. But there is beauty in this piece as well. The beauty of “catching the fire” of fighting for justice and passing it on. As soprano Janai Brugger told the Los Angeles Times, “There is that pain element but also — you’ve got to have hope. Otherwise, what are you fighting for? You’re fighting for that hope, that things can change, that people will start to come together. That’s what I felt it’s bringing to light. Now’s the time to use that fire within us.” Read more about “Tula 1921: Catch the Fire,” composer Laura Karpman, and soprano Janai Brugger in “About Janai Brugger and that Song from Lovecraft Country” from WQXR New York Public Radio and “To remember Tulsa, ‘Lovecraft Country’ went the extra mile: writing an opera” from the Los Angeles Times.

Recommended for our Anti-Racism Resources page by Teaching Professor Jeanne Fischer, who met composer Jonathan Woody at the University of Maryland while she was studying for her doctorate, this piece examines some of the myriad microaggressions faced by Black musicians every day.

TEXT (Song of Solomon / main text compiled by Reginald L Mobley):

Nigra sum, sed formosa filiae Jerusalem nolite me considere quod fusca sim, quia decoloravit me sol. sicut tabernacula cedar, sicut pelles Salomonis. (I am black but beautiful, O daughters of Jerusalem, do not look down on me though I am dark, because the sun has darkened my skin. like the tents of Cedar, like the curtains of Solomon.)

You are so exotic, I bet you sing spirituals very well. When you stood, I was shocked, you should play in the NFL, I’d hate to run into you at night, you should smile more. Would you open the hall for me? I thought you were the janitor. When you opened your mouth, I expected to hear “Ol’ Man River.” It’s not jungle drumming, Play it like a…

Nigra sum sed formosa.

Jonathan Woody. [doctorfate77] (2019, May 7) Nigra sum sed formosa: A Fantasy on Microaggressions. [Video] YouTube.

A few suggestions for ways to get involved today:

  • Follow Colors of Classical Music on Instagram and help amplify these stories of BIPOC musicians.
  • Join Protestra, a “coalition of classical musicians who protest injustices & raise awareness through benefit performances.”
  • Support musical organizations like Tonality, a vocal ensemble whose mission is to deliver authentic stories through voice and body to incite change, understanding, and dialogue.
  • Sign the Black Voice Matter Pledge, a pledge of anti-racism in choral music.

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