Choral concert rings out message of racial justice

Jesse Gilbert (right) and singer Ashley Seldon go over a passage in the music before Gilbert’s choral recital on social justice. Photo courtesy of Jesse Gilbert

It was in her Introduction to Graduate Studies class at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas, that Jesse Nance Gilbert began shaping how she could foster racial justice through choral music.

She wanted to inspire other white allies of equality, provide what balm she could to victims of discrimination and uplift people of all backgrounds. But there were ethical questions to ponder, such as the line between cultural appreciation and appropriation.

Ultimately, Gilbert shaped a program on the theme “Forward to Justice” that became her choral conducting recital. Now, with a master’s degree in choral conducting in hand, the young Bahá’í from the Chattanooga suburb of Soddy-Daisy, Tennessee, looks to take her passion into the professional realm.

The April 10 concert, held in Perkins Chapel on the SMU campus, featured a diverse choir taking audience members on a journey with three parts: “From Pain, Anger and Sorrow,” “Through Hope, Faith and Love” and “We Continue to Work for Justice and Unity.”

Songs ranged from the Gregorian chant “Kyrie” and Felix Mendelssohn’s “Help, Lord” to the 1990s truth-teller “None of Us Are Free” and the anthem “Lift Every Voice and Sing.” Connecting the choral selections were spirituals featuring African American solo or small-ensemble voices.

“Spirituals are really my favorite genre of choral music,” says Gilbert. “I wanted to make sure they had an active presence. … So I inserted spirituals between each of the choral pieces.

“Those helped with the narrative like a connective tissue — sometimes introducing themes of the next piece or reflecting on the piece that we just heard — and ensuring that there was a consistent presence of the black voice.”

All the concert participants were volunteers of varying experience. So most rehearsal time was “devoted completely to the music — learning it and polishing it,” says Gilbert. “But a part of polishing is also talking about the message” so the singing doesn’t just sound good but communicates something.

“So I spoke about the theme probably in every rehearsal. I gave them some insights into every piece — why it was on the concert program, how it fits into the narrative — and we talked about that core message.”

Gilbert laments she couldn’t advertise the concert widely. But about 100 people attended, and they rose in a standing ovation at its close. “Several people came up to me with tears in their eyes and couldn’t really talk,” Gilbert recalls.

The reception cemented for Gilbert the conviction she needs to mount the concert “for thousands of people. I would love to do it again, and I plan to do it again.”

First, Gilbert will be occupied with job hunting. To tide her over she serves as soprano section leader in a church choir and has vocal students.

A long-term goal, she says, is to conduct a Bahá’í choir. The demands of her studies kept her from as much Bahá’í service as she would have liked in recent years.

“I've kind of been holding on more by my fingertips,” she says, “so it’s been really heartening to find the wonderful intersection of my faith and my career in this topic.

“One thing I’ve learned from this is really how you can combine your career and professional life with concepts of the Bahá’í Faith. Any way you find in your field to serve others, it’ll tie into the Bahá’í Faith somehow.”

That includes raising “the standard of choral singing in the Bahá’í community and the standard of musical excellence,” she says, “not just have music as a part of activities but really make it a priority” and have it reflect “a lot of hard work … and a lot of research.”

For Gilbert, it’s all part of a mission to be part of the solution to racial injustice. As the song goes, if one of us is chained none of us are free. She’s taken the first step of many sure to follow.

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