A choir at a Michigan university is embroiled in controversy after a Black student complained about them group singing Negro spirituals during a recital.
Shaylee Faught wore a look of disgust as Western Michigan University’s predominately white choir sang “Wade in the Water” and other songs during a Feb. 19 show. The senior music major couldn’t leave the show because it was for class credit.
Instead, she posted clips of the performance on Twitter to express her disapproval.
It went viral, garnering more than 1 million views. The show, titled “Spirituals: From Ship to Shore,” was produced by guest artist and Salisbury University professor John Wesley Wright, who is also Black. According to Faught, he declared the songs “don’t belong to one race.”
Faught and others on social media begged to differ.
“This is not the move. They probably feel so good about themselves,” wrote one viewer.
“Chiiiilee wtf do they think they doing, This the top of damn disrespectful,” wrote another.
“It was primarily white parents and students, and you’re trying to get the audience to join in and sing and it felt so wrong,” Faught told The Western Herald student newspaper. “I was heated just sitting there. It felt like it was all for entertainment and this is not for entertainment, this is part of somebody’s culture and history and you have no idea what it means.”
She sent a letter to WMU officials detailing her objections to the show. Even though the show was produced by a Black creator, Faught believes the show crossed an important boundary.
“While I understand the importance of education, I think there is a fine line between appreciation and appropriation, and the concert last night seemed very inappropriate,” read an excerpt acquired by WKZO.
Faught also explained how the show affected her as a Black woman.
“As a black woman, Negro Spirituals are apart of my history and my culture, and it signifies the struggle and hardships my ancestors went through,” she added. “The way the program last night was portrayed is that it is all fun and games and is merely entertainment.”
At least observer of the dust-up had a different perspective, saying in part in the comments section of The Western Herald: “‘Live and Interactive!’ is a concert series designed to educate and expose audiences to cultures and art forms we may never have been taught about before, through the demonstration and invitation to participate and get a better understanding and appreciation for the style. All of the songs involved and performed were given extensive historical context and explanation as to why the scholarship and preservation of these styles is essential to American culture itself.”
In a statement to the press, WMU said it was “honored” to have Wright as a guest.
“The public concert and weeklong series were an opportunity for students of any background to understand a critical part of U.S. history, a part of history that is probably not talked about enough in the general population,” WMU stated. “This concert, this series, reflected what inclusion is all about.”
School officials have not spoken to Faught directly, but the statement said the school takes “the student’s concerns very seriously.”
“WMU’s vice president for diversity and inclusion reached out to the student within hours of receiving the email and set up a meeting with her and with the dean of the College of Fine Arts for early next week,” the statement continued. “This student’s perspective is real and it is important. It is one among many different perspectives.”