A Conversation with Kathy Bullock: Celebrating Choral Music By Black Composers
DR. KATHY BULLOCK: I invite you to come and share the joy as we celebrate this profound music coming from these phenomenal composers, feeling ourselves as agents of change in the world around us.
HELEN LYONS: Dr. Kathy Bullock, Professor Emerita of Music at Berea College in Kentucky has been leading workshops all over the world since her retirement: in the US, the UK, and West Africa, and she's here in Vermont this weekend.
BULLOCK: My focus is on African American and African music. My purpose is using music as a way to connect us, as an avenue for healing, for uplift, and inspiration - because we can surely use it!
LYONS: Kathy's enthusiasm is infectious, and she'll be sharing that enthusiasm by leading an all-day choral workshop on Saturday, May 13th at the Malletts Bay United Church of Christ in Colchester. The workshop, titled Black Lives Matter Commissioning Project, began in the UK. Here, Kathy gives us a little background on the project's genesis.
BULLOCK: The Natural Voice Network, it's a grassroots organization of hundreds of choirs from all over England and Scotland. They had heard about and seen what happened to George Floyd, the terrible murder, and stopped for a minute and began to reflect on how they could make a positive difference moving forward. And with that, the thought came that this organization has used Black music for so many years, but no one ever received any payment for their contributions. The two song leaders there said, wait a minute, let's pay this forward, let's do a project where we'll invite four black composers from the United States and four from the United Kingdom to come together and each compose a song for community choirs, and then we'll perform them.
LYONS: I'd love to hear about some of the composers and the pieces that are involved, and also, is this workshop for anyone, even beginners?
BULLOCK: Absolutely! It's open to anyone who wants to learn about the music and sing some songs! It's a nice range of styles in terms of challenging, to some that are very easy, you could learn them in two minutes: ”Say Say Yes” [is by] social activist and music activist, Melanie de More. There are some that are much more complex: Michael Henry writes one called "Callings and Pictures," and it has these various voices that come in and out, telling stories and reflections about incidents that have happened in the Black community. Arnaé Batson, who's a Grammy Award nominee and a member of Sweet Honey in the Rock, the fantastic singing group, she's also a songwriter and song activist. She'll be joining us on Zoom. So there's a range of it and there is something for everybody! Yes, it's all absolutely participatory. We will talk about the concepts of Black music appropriation and appreciation from the perspectives of the composers themselves. When we think of Black people, Black composers, there's tremendous diversity, not only in the music that they provide and compose, but in how they perceive their music to be, and the role of music, it's not monolithic...Sometimes we can sing in ways and connect very deeply in ways that would be more difficult or challenging to do just by talking, or walking past one another, or that might never happen.
LYONS: You've already held this workshop a couple of times: in the UK back in October of 2022 a few weeks ago in Guilford, Vermont. What has the reaction been for you, the composers, and the participants? What message do people come away with?
BULLOCK: We all felt and people shared that we were part of something that was greater than ourselves. It's more of a movement, not just a few songs being learned. For hundreds of years, Black music has been sung, but those who have created the music have either been ignored or they have been buried, and the acknowledgement was not there, or it was taken and other people given credit for it. You cannot really talk fairly and accurately about American and US popular music without talking about Black music being either the source or strong influence in the creation of it. And so now to look back and say - or to look forward and say, we are purposely going to invite these black composers to share from their experiences and honor those before who had no voice - or little voice - or acknowledgement - it feels profound. It's one where we sit a minute in awe and say, "Wow, this is really special. It's special and I'm a part of it," and we're moving forward in a way that feels really fresh and affirming.
LYONS: Join Kathy Bullock and some of the composers from the Black Lives Matter Commissioning Project for their choral workshop, Saturday May 13th from 9:00am to 4:00pm at the Mallets Bay United Church of Christ. To find out more and to register, head to vtcucc.org/blmchoirworkshop.
BULLOCK: Just come and get a taste of it, it'll be marvelous. We're gonna have a time y'all!