My senior year in high school, I earned a place at our state’s All-State Choir Concert. Full disclosure: even then, I was a pretty good tenor. Tenors are rare, good tenors even more so; I was pretty much a shoe-in. The director was Jester Hairston, whose music we performed. Readers of a certain age will remember Sidney Poitier singing “Amen” in the movie “Lilies of the Field.” What they don’t know was Pointier couldn’t sing worth a damn, and it was Jester Hairston’s voice–he wrote the piece—dubbed in. Hairston, a black composer, primarily of spirituals, was a charismatic fellow, and we, all white kids from South Dakota, gladly sang his works and loved every minute of it—and him–even though we were hopelessly white—but talented—kids trying to sound Black. That didn’t seem to bother Hairston one little bit, nor did it bother the audience.
It seems we lived, in the early 70s, in a very different America, one that now appears to have been far more tolerant than America, or certainly academia, circa 2020, as Carolyn Shaver at Campus Reform explains:
An African-American student at Western Michigan University called out her school’s mostly white choir for what she calls cultural appropriation.
Shaylee Faught, a music major, attended a choir performance, called, ‘Spirituals: From Ship to Shore,’ at Western Michigan University for class credit on February 19. The performance was put together and produced by John Wesley Wright, an African-American professor of music at Salisbury University in Maryland. On February 20, Faught posted a Snapchat video of her disapproving facial expressions during the event on Twitter, with the Snapchat caption reading, ‘Y’all don’t know how mad I am.’
‘As a member of the audience, a student in attendance was concerned about what she experienced. She made those concerns known on social media and sent an email to WMU leadership. We take these student’s concerns very seriously.’
No doubt. It’s the woke thing to do.
‘So apparently Western Michigan University thinks it’s ok for WHITE peoples to sing negro spirituals while the instructor talking bout ‘these songs don’t belong to one race.’ They sure as hell DO,’ read the video caption.
Faught’s tweet has over 2 million views and was retweeted 32,000 times.
Other users commented on the tweet, expressing the same disgust for the recital.
One user, M. Rasheed, commented, ‘They WANT us to hate them.’
Another user wrote that ‘white ppl are culture vultures.’
“Culture vultures.” Cute.
Faught also posted the videos on her Instagram page on February 21, commenting: ‘As a BLACK female sitting there having white people stand in the aisles singing about slavery and segregation made me UNCONFORTABLE [sic] to say the least.’
‘This isn’t entertainment. It’s our history and the cultural appropriation was NOT there. And to make it worse, the instructor was BLACK. and he had the audacity to say that spirituals ‘belong to everybody they don’t belong to one race’,” Faught went on. Faught continued, saying that she had written a letter to the dean, as well as other university officials.
Furthermore, she asserted that “Negro Spirituals need to be reserved for people of African descent.
Faught, of course, wants the director banned, and wants a black veto over any future presentation of “her” culture.
I found the concert offensive because people singing sacred songs out of their culture is inappropriate,’ Faught told Campus Reform. ‘For the fact of the matter that no matter how much you learn about it you will never feel it like we feel it and you will never truly connect with it. The manner in which the concert was presented was as if everything was for fun and entertainment and a joke and I simply did not see it that way.’
‘Western just needs to do a better job of practicing cultural appropriation and there needs to be more mindfulness about controversial topics such as culture in the future,’ she added.
It is hardly surprising a hyper sensitive special snowflake would be woke on a college campus these days. What might be at least mildly ironic is that the snowflake in question is a music major, and I write this as the holder of a degree in vocal music.
It now appears that even a black director cannot program spirituals unless every singer is black, and/or without the express permission of people like Faught. Avoiding cultural appropriation seems a matter of democracy, but if that’s so, doesn’t democracy override culture?
Let us, for the purposes of this article, put aside the general idiocy of “cultural appropriation.” I like Mexican food, though I can’t say I have nearly as a great an appreciation for Mexican folk music. If Faught is to be taken seriously, she has entirely deconstructed music education, for there can no longer be music appreciation classes, which have traditionally been a part of the required curriculum of any competent, bachelor’s degree program.
By Faught’s lights, “music for non-believers” as college music faculty tend to call such classes, must now be carefully racially/culturally segregated, and perhaps, even more finely parsed. Take George Frederich Handel. Those that know his name know he is perhaps most famous for “Messiah,” of which the “Hallelujah” chorus is only a small part, though anyone that has sung “Joy To The World” at Christmas has sung Handel’s music. But this is a real problem, because Handel was a German, famous for composing Italian Opera, continuing to do so while living in England. By singing Handel’s works, which I have done more times than I can remember, I “appropriated” not only German, but Italian and English cultures, or, being a basic white guy sort of European mutt, was I non-offending? Any vocal music major, which I presume Fraught may be, must also have sung Handel, and in so doing, was appropriating all of that, with the white European, Western musical tradition thrown in. On top of that, if she writes music notation, she is also appropriating white European, Western culture, and particularly that of Johan Sebastian Bach—also a German–who pretty much finalized music notation as we know it today. He was the greatest organist of his day, and the organ has black and white keys. When he played the black keys, was he appropriating Faught’s culture?
In her music studies, Faught, if she is to be consistent, must disqualify herself from much of the music curriculum foisted on her by white, male composers and musicians. There goes anything composed in Latin, for not only would she be appropriating the language of an oppressing empire, but white people’s music and white people’s religion as well. She certainly wouldn’t want to appropriate anything from the Renaissance once sung by castrati, would she? The psycho-sexual implications are mind-boggling.
If white people cannot appreciate or perform spirituals, with their at least somewhat unique harmonies and syncopated rhythmic structures, how then can Faught be allowed to use the compositional techniques, harmonies and rhythmic structures of anything but? How can she perform any spiritual not handed down by oral tradition, any spiritual that uses the white man’s notation scheme? The mere thought of her appropriating my musical tradition makes me unconfortable.
Let’s not even consider the lyrics of songs, many taken from the poetry of many cultures/nations, even the Bible. Can a non-Christian quote from the Bible without culturally appropriating it, including all the cultures, beginning with the Jews and Aramaic? And can anyone sing a song with a scriptural text if they’re not Christian? Can a non-Catholic sing Gregorian Chant, a non-Italian—Roman–sing in Latin? Are all percussionists appropriating African drum culture? If so, which tribe, which tradition, or is it all of them? What has become of the American mixing pot or the salad bowl, or are we to devolve entirely to bloody tribalism? Handel once got into a mid-performance orchestra pit fistfight with a friend over the finer points of conducting, but if we come to blows over music, does that mean we’re appropriating Handel again? German culture mixed with English pugnaciousness?
Isn’t music, like math, supposed to be a universal language? But then again, “catholic” means “universal,” so we run into trouble again.
Delving a bit more into the weeds of music, one of the most common chord progressions, common to rock/pop music, is I-IV-V-V7-I. Is Faught, apparently a person of African descent, allowed to use that chord progression, or would white musicians be unconfortable with that too? Is the study of music history any longer possible?
One would hope those in charge of Western Michigan University would kindly encourage Faught to get a grip on herself and try to get a life. One would also hope those supervising her in the pursuit of a degree in music would do the same, and should she be unable to work and play well with musicians past and present, strongly encourage her to find a less stressful field of study.
Sadly, I suspect mere existence will continue to be challenging for Ms. Faught. Blue jeans were invented by a white guy, as was most of the technology in cell phones, and let’s not even get into everything Tesla had a hand in inventing. Presumably, she’ll be giving those up, if she hasn’t already? Oh well. She can always fall back on: “Nobudy knows, dah trubul Ah seen…”