After exploring its many exhibits, a large crowd of community members took their seats in the center of the California African American Museum. They watched as vocalist and composer Imani Uzuri, who was donning a long and colorful dress, approached the microphone with a tambourine in hand and began to speak.
“Who thinks they’re here for a concert?” Uzuri asked.
Many of the crowd members slowly raised their hands, while others murmured to one another.
“Well, you might be disappointed,” Uzuri responded, shaking her tambourine. “This is a teach-in and sing-along.”
This was the opening for the Revolutionary Choir Salon, an interactive musical event held last Saturday afternoon in South L.A. The event was a part of the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s “Power to the People!” festival at the Walt Disney Concert Hall, which celebrates music that inspires activism and social change.
After her opening, Uzuri invited attendees to sing a series of freedom and protest songs of resilience with her. In addition to teaching them the lyrics, Uzuri invited the crowd to discuss the history and meaning behind each song they sang together.
“A lot of [Uzuri]’s song choices were tied to historical routes based in the U.S. South,” explained Alexandra Mitchell, the Manager of Education and Public Programs at CAAM. “The traditional spirituals are very much still tied to Southern vernacular and Southern culture.”
The southern origins of the songs were complemented by CAAM’s new exhibit that examines the history and art of the American South. The exhibit was presented in conjunction with the sing-along event, displaying artwork of all mediums from artists who have been historically excluded by the mainstream art world.
To kick off the afternoon of singing, Uzuri started with the liberation song, “This Little Light of Mine.” She spoke the lyrics into the microphone and invited guests to echo the words back to her, encouraging them to close their eyes and connect spiritually with the lyrics.
Though the attendees were hesitant to sing at first, they eventually began to follow Uzuri’s lead as their slow and quiet melody quickly progressed into a loud chorus of voices. People began to clap their hands and sway to the rhythm, while some even sang into the microphone for a solo when Uzuri passed it around.
“This is revolutionary choir,” she said while motioning to the people in the room. “You are the revolutionary choir.”
Rebecca Henry, a South L.A. resident, said she enjoyed the liberation songs because they encourage people to stand up and come together for larger movements.
“These kinds of songs help to motivate people, so in these kinds of times it helps to unify people and to motivate people as to what their cause is,” Henry said. “It’s greater than just you. These songs help motivate groups of people to move and take action.”
Uzuri travels around the country teaching freedom songs, also known as spirituals, to people in honor of the African American voices who sang them during the 18th century. Many spirituals originated during the slavery era in the American South, quickly becoming an important aspect of African American culture at the time.
Freedom is a popular theme within spirituals, leading some to classify them as “protest songs.” According to the United States Library of Congress, there is also speculation that spirituals were used as a secret form of communication on the Underground Railroad.
Uzuri said that while it is impossible to know all the names of those who originally composed the spirituals, by continuing to sing and share these songs, people can promote similar messages of social change, power and protest in the modern world.
Nancy Popp says she plans to do just that. An organizer for the Los Angeles Tenants Union in Northeast L.A., Popp attended the event to learn freedom songs, which she says she’ll use in her own activism.
“It just reminded me of the power of collectivity,” Popp said. “We’re looking to incorporate more chanting and songs in our civil disobedience. I’m interested in how we can continue it based on the current issues in our world.”