The Negro Spiritual Royalties Project

On Sunday, October 31, the United Parish in Brookline ​launched a brand new racial justice initiative centered on the musical legacy of enslaved African Americans. We will begin the practice of collecting "royalties" ​for the African American, or “Negro,” Spirituals we sing in worship. (Negro Spirituals is the term most commonly used by Black Americans and historians for this body of music. The term itself makes many white Americans uncomfortable, but I believe the discomfort is a necessary part of the process.) Unlike other hymns and worship music, Negro Spirituals were not published until after the names of their creators were long forgotten, if they were ever even known. The​y are ​both ​witness to the horrors of slavery and racism, ​and witness​ ​to a ​merciful​, faithful​, and just Christianity​ which we still aspire to live into today. As an artform, Negro Spirituals are the unacknowledged intellectual property of​ the enslaved Africans in America. Many of these songs were eventually written down, and have become the source of literally countless musical arrangements and compositions published and sold to churches, schools, community choruses, orchestras, bands, and all manner of musical organizations. 

The enslaved people who first gave voice to the Spirituals are not known by name, but their songs are. “This Little Light of Mine,” “Honey in the Rock,” “Swing Low Sweet Chariot,” “Deep River,” “Every Time I Feel The Spirit,” “Nobody Knows the Trouble I've Seen,” “There is a Balm in Gilead,” “Were You There When They Crucified My Lord,” “Go Down Moses,” “Wade in the Water,” and many others, are songs that still speak to us and through us, and they make us want to sing. They are many of the ways we learn about grace. 

Now, whenever we sing Negro Spirituals at the United Parish, we will collect an offering that will support the development of young Black musicians. For the next two years at minimum, we have chosen at Hamilton-Garrett Music and Arts, in Dorchester, as the recipient of the royalties collected. Now imagine if churches, schools, and music publishing companies started to pay even a small amount in royalties to organizations like Hamilton-Garrett? Sheet Music Plus, just one of the many music distributing companies in America, lists 33,000 different arrangements of Negro Spirituals. What if music publishers and distributors began automatically paying a 10% royalties fee for all the arrangements of Negro Spirituals that they sell? For individuals, the cost would be miniscule, but the cumulative financial outcome could be huge. Even if the individual payments are small, little by little, this practice will become an instrument of a larger quest for restorative justice.  

About the Spirituals, Frederick Douglass said:

When on their way, the slaves would make the dense old woods, for miles around, reverberate with their wild songs, revealing at once the highest joy and the deepest sadness. They would compose and sing as they went along, consulting neither time nor tune... I have sometimes thought that the mere hearing of those songs would do more to impress some minds with the horrible character of slavery, than the reading of whole volumes of philosophy on the subject could do.

Enslaved Africans and African Americans left behind a legacy of breathtakingly beautiful music. They soothe, inspire, break down walls, protest indignities, preach the gospel, show us how to pray, and lead us in the path of righteousness. On Sunday, October 31, please bring a small gift to put in the offering plate during our 11am worship service so that we can start on this musical journey toward racial  justice and healing together.

Read a blog post from Minister of Music Susan DeSelms

Read the article in the Brookline Tab, November 2, 2021

Read the article from GBH News, November 16, 2021

Read the sermon transcript or listen to the audio recording or watch the worship recording on our YouTube channel from October 31, 2021.

If you'd like to contribute to this initiative, please donate here.

Contact Minister of Music Susan DeSelms at susan@upbrookline.org.

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