Tuesday, February 26, 2008

How Can I Keep from Singing?

Over the course of nine days of teaching recently, I had a number of occasions to open and close sessions. One of my favorite choices for drawing the energy together for this purpose is to have the group sing (not listen to someone else singing; having everyone in the room sing together). It's not about hitting all the notes and delivering a virtuoso performance—it's mainly about showing up, and putting yourself into the attempt. I just love the right-brain release and unity achieved by people joining voices.

Today I want to write about how I got in trouble for the songs I chose.

I have eclectic tastes and a fairly narrow range of notes I can negotiate without sounding like a pubescent frog. So when I find a song I like (and can sing) I add it to my repertoire. In all, there are probably a couple dozen songs I choose from when asking a group to sing. Among the ones I selected during the recent nine-day period were Zippety Do Dah, an African song called Soma Guaza (phonetic spelling; I've never seen it written out), and a Calypso song written by or for Harry Belafonte, We Come from the Mountain, who debuted it on Sesame Street. Someone witnessing my selections criticized me for cultural appropriation and racial insensitivity. Ouch!

The gist of the criticism was that I was white and these three songs came from non-white cultures. I did not have permission to use these songs and it was presumptuous of me to sing them without it (never mind the challenge of where one would go to get such permission). It was, for my critic, yet another example of the mindless abuse (my critic did not suggest that I was choosing these songs with intent to abuse, hence "mindless") that people of privilege unwittingly engage in all the time.

Well, there's no question that I'm white and have oodles of privilege (in addition to my skin color, I'm an older man, well-educated, articulate, comfortable in front of groups, grew up in a stable family with both parents, have good health, a wife and two kids, no debt, and a blog). I further agree that cultural appropriation is a real thing. For example, if I were using the African song to sell Coca-Cola, I think that would be an example. Or if I were mocking Harry Belafonte I believe that would be culturally insensitive. But I wasn't doing either of those things.

I was singing songs that I love. Songs that have touched my heart and which I hoped would touch the hearts of others when I led them. Do I know what the person who wrote the songs meant by them? No. I only know what they mean to me, and what I hope their singing might mean to my group. Does my good intent protect me from the possibility that someone might take offense at my singing? No again. But then, I wouldn't have a guarantee of safe passage even if I wrote the song myself. People take offense for all kinds of reasons and you'll never be able to anticipate them all (Note: that doesn't mean you shouldn't pay attention, or make an attempt to anticipate what might be upsetting; I'm only making the point that there are no guarantees). What may be honoring diversity to one person may be cultural appropriation to another.

In the end, I think the best you can do is two things: a) to the extent possible, do everything with a good heart; and b) be available to hear and discuss it whenever someone has a bad reaction to something you said or did.

(To be clear, it's a different matter if you know someone is likely to be triggered by a thing before you do it. Then you have to ask if you're being provocative [
perhaps subconsciously]. Just because you have the "right" to do a thing doesn't mean it's smart. And it would be hard to make the case that it was a sensitive thing to do.)

Even though I introduced the African song with a brief statement about my good intent and how I found the sing inspiring even though I didn't know its origins, my critic held the view that white people simply shouldn't sing songs that come out of non-white culture. While I can see how that would be safer, it seems a profoundly sad choice to me—walking away from touching and sharing things you love and find inspirational because someone might have a reaction. Mind you, I'm not pretending that I'm leading sacred rituals arising from cultural pathways in which I am not initiated. I am simply singing—engaging in a universal human rite, more ancient than writing or agriculture. Like dancing or eating together, it is part of our primal vocabulary as social animals, and I am loathe to narrow my options.

I have made the personal choice to keep singing, knowing that my voice and my choice will not always land well, regardless of my intent. In those moments, I'll have to take responsibility for hearing about others' upset, so that the song I meant to be a bridge does not become a divide.

1 comment:

S.L. Bond said...

I think it's sort of a balancing act. On the one hand, when a piece of art goes out into the world, it takes on a life of its own; the people who experience it have a right to form their own relationships with it. On the other, I can imagine that if I saw a Christian leading a group in singing Jewish liturgical music, with no understanding of its meaning or origins, I might want to punch her in the face, no matter how good her intentions.

However, I too find it depressing and unnecessary to deprive people of sharing works that inspire them, so long as they're doing it respectfully.