Sunday, April 14, 2019

Tucson, AZ: Respire: Melanie DeMore

Melanie DeMore, Tucson, Arizona. April 2019.


There's no right word to describe some of the effects of gospel music, specifically gospel music rooted in the spirituals of women and men who were enslaved in the United States, whether by law as property, or by action as sharecroppers, for example.

The task of description requires a family of words that begin with 're-' .... to make again.
  • Re-new
  • Re-store
  • Re-plenish
  • Re-fresh
  • Re-inspire

In seeking more such words, I looked up "respire," thinking it simply means to breathe.

I discovered, however, that if I could only use one word to describe the power of spirituals, then respire could be the perfect one, as the literary or archaic meaning is:

 recover hope, courage, or strength after a time of difficulty

Melanie DeMore

Tucson's Threshold Choir hosted the 2019 Regional Gathering this weekend, and engaged Melanie DeMore as the event's song leader.

Ms. DeMore identifies as a "vocal activist." This grabbed me right away. It speaks succinctly of a mission for change through her voice - and the voices of those who came before her, both spoken and sung.

Melanie DeMore, Tucson, Arizona. April 2019.

Get the idea about a "kumbaya moment" out of your head

This is pretty much what Ms. DeMore said.

As also noted in the NPR broadcast, When Did "Kumbaya" Become Such a Bad Thing?" A quote from same:
In current political parlance, Vatz says, a reference to the song is used to sarcastically disparage consensus "that allegedly does not examine the issues or is revelatory of cockeyed optimism." ... Rather than kumbaya representing strength and power in togetherness and harmony as it once did, the word has come to reflect weakness and wimpiness. ... [Kumbaya] has become crystal clear code in the world of politics. As Vanderbilt University political scientist John G. Geer said to Freedman in The New York Times, invoking kumbaya "lets you ridicule the whole idea of compromise."

Ms. DeMore prefaced her conversation about the song, Kumbaya, with asking folks:

Have you ever felt invisible?
Have you ever felt lost?
Have you ever felt afraid?
Have you ever felt alone?
Have you ever felt hopeless?
Have you ever felt abandoned?
Have you ever felt in danger?

Then she explained that Kumbaya comes from the Gullah community off the coast of the Carolinas, people of color who'd been enslaved, who'd been abused physically, emotionally, spiritually, who feared for their lives and the lives of their children, who felt abandoned by the universe.

And that the song was actually an entreaty to God, to "come by here," please. Please look at us. Please see us. Please give us succor.

And then she sang the song:

When I was a child, my mother sang to us Swing Low, Sweet Chariot in a gentle soprano voice. It's always been on my short list of songs that I'd like to be sung at my funeral. Ms. DeMore presents this song in her firm alto voice, as here:

"Leading with love" does not equal soft, gentle, weak

One of the messages I took from Ms. DeMore was this:

You can spread a message of love and community AND you can express firm boundaries about how you expect people to behave around you. There is nothing intrinsically soft, gentle, or weak about love.

The example Ms. DeMore gives (as I interpret same) is the universality of spirituals as a way of expressing one's sorrow, need, and hope.

But to paraphrase Ms. DeMore, as she addressed the gathering of mostly white congregants: [As a descendant of men and women who were enslaved], I have my story to tell. It's not your story to tell for me. But you've got your stories to tell, and spirituals are there for you to do that. To express the stories of loss and anguish in your own family's history. 

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