Shaping Black History – RPC Music Notes, Sun 2 Feb 2020

Wes’ sermon today, “Stirring the Pot” interrogates the always interesting, and never entirely simple question of what the church has to say to the Halls of Power. This aligns neatly with the topic of Black History, observed in Canada each year during February, and more locally in the treasure trove of Spirituals in the repertoire of the RPC Choir.

Before going further we must remind ourselves that the Spiritual, with its simple faith, undeniable passion, and infectious rhythm, is tainted goods.
It symbolises, yes, faith, hope and resilience under torment and enslavement, but also a colonial Christianity imposed upon those abducted from their homelands and then abused and exploited in the service of their abductors’ wealth and pleasure. Moreover our modern choral and hymn appropriations of these remarkable songs of work, of faith, of subversion and of celebration not only tames their violent and oppressive past for our consumption – it domesticates them, again, for our pleasure, and our inspiration.

Through the Spiritual’s complex cultural journey from the slave ships and pens of white Europe and America to the (currently, though not always historically) all-white Choir Loft of RPC runs that remarkable vessel of all things human, music. As our country struggles to come to terms with its own dark past, we of European descent have become accustomed to speaking, writing and publishing land acknowledgements. As western music has made its own cautious steps into the riches of melody, rhythm and ceremony that characterises the music of our First Nations, I feel a different sort of acknowledgment, with an eye to other appropriations of the past, may be in order:

As we hear, study, arrange and share the music of those we have oppressed, be they the African, Asian and other we enslaved, the First Nation we robbed, the Celt we conquered, or still others from across the world we share that we have failed to welcome into our bounty and instead may hold in suspicion and fear, we reach across time and space to you and your descendants:

We acknowledge that the melodies, harmonies, rhythms and genres we share are the traditional and sometimes sacred property of others. We hope to do so with the permission and blessing of those from whom they have come, both knowing the darkness of our shared past and committing to a just world in which all people and their songs are held as sacred, and in loving respect.

A draft music acknowledgment for consideration – C. Dawes

If you are reading this online or through social media, please weigh in with the discussion I hope will emerge from this idea.

If you are reading this at RPC on Sunday February 2nd, or will attend any of our services this month, we hope to offer in our full survey of the Spirituals we are fortunate to share in this way, not just beautiful and inspiring music from a tradition that we love. We hope also to offer up our sorrow for the injustice and atrocity locked into its history, our commitment to a just world that treats all people and their songs with due love and respect, and our wonder that somehow through God’s work a great evil gave us music of great beauty that inspires the faith we share.