Last night I went to see the Kuumba Singers of Harvard College give their annual spring concert. Amid all the gospel music, spirituals, folk songs, dancing, colors, and laughter, it struck me how every single song was about God. Not some pantheistic force or distant deity, but the Christian God who is our “hero” who “came and saved the day” as the Kirk Franklin song goes (which they performed). This particular choir was formed to celebrate black creative expression, which has historically been informed and inspired by the Christian faith. When it comes to choral music, at least, black composers and performers have been unabashed about expressing their faith and their creativity together. I’ve been a part of a lot of discussions about how to engage the culture while keeping the faith. I’ve analyzed this issue a lot. I’ve read H. Richard Niebuhr’s five relationships between the Christian and culture. I’ve struggled with these things in my own life. And yet, when I go to hear choir music such as I heard last night, it all comes together quite beautifully.
Why such beauty? To be sure, it’s because faith has always been a huge part of black history in this country. But it must be more: of all the choir music I have sung in my life, the best music has been sacred. It doesn’t matter whether it was black gospel, classical pieces, Renaissance music, or any other genre. I may have enjoyed singing “Someone to Watch Over Me” in high school choir, but only in the way I enjoy a piece of frozen pizza after I’ve forgotten what Mario Battali’s pizza tastes like.
I’m reminded of a time in high school when my sisters and two brothers and I were asked to sing an ensemble piece at an interfaith fundraising dinner. There would be Muslims, Jews, and people of other faiths there, as well as people of no faith, so we were asked to sing a non-sacred song. We had a difficult time finding anything good that wasn’t sacred, ending up with a Josquin de Prez piece about a cricket’s love story. It was pretty, but the subject matter was uninspiring and even cheesy.
The best choral songs to sing are the ones you want to believe while you’re singing them. Group singing is a communal effort, and it’s an added benefit when you have belief as well as music to bind you together.