taking a cue from Kuumba
Golis just offered a gladdening reminder of how Cambridge Common is building a community—and an un-clannish one at that. In a similarly hopeful spirit, we might examine other student enterprises that help us envision, in practical and ideological terms, the kind of communities we want to take part in shaping. Case in point: The Kuumba Singers, Harvard’s famous and beloved Black Diaspora choir, founded in 1970 to provide a sense of unity and belonging for the very few Black students matriculating at the time. In a few significant ways, Kuumba represents the antithesis of some of the problems of individualism, elitism, and privilege we’ve been discussing with respect to final clubs and Harvard in general. Allow me to break it down into a four-part harmony of sorts. (more in expanded post)
1) Merit. As a choir, one of Kuumba’s primary aims is to sound good. Simple enough. And by in large, it overwhelmingly succeeds (Sheldon, the director, and other highly-trained musicians may sometimes disagree on a technical level, but judging by the number of audience members who leave performances with tear-stained, beaming faces, I think it’s clear that Kuumba holds it down). What’s amazing about Kuumba’s success is that while it has an explicit interest in evaluating the objective talents of its members and accepting or rejecting applicants based on their merit, it chooses not to do so. Kuumba does not hold auditions, so absolutely anyone, be they seasoned church soloist or screechy shower singer (we all know who we are), is free and welcome to join the choir as a Kuumbabe (the affectionate moniker for Kuumba members).
Clearly, this does not mean that Kuumba lacks any merit criteria. On a sub-group level, the Brothers and Sisters of Kuumba hold auditions, and of course the soloists have to try out to earn their parts. Like the structure of most student organizations, too, members are elected to serve in leadership positions, which is merit-based insofar as if you’ve never volunteered to carry equipment or done something else above and beyond just showing up for rehearsals and shows, all the charm and good looks in the world are not going to get you elected. But these mini-hierarchies are contextualized within a group whose permeable boundaries and welcoming attitude make the choir’s renown and prestige all the more impressive.
2) Inclusiveness. As Kuumba demonstrates, low or nonexistant barriers to entry do not necessarily jeopardize overall quality. And while this may be a function of the choir's structural requirements of a few amazing soloists coupled with large harmonizing groups that can accomodate weaker singers, we can nevertheless interpret Kuumba's decision to balance the need to attract vocal talent with a commitment to openness as a virtue unto itself. Furthermore, Kuumba’s inclusiveness extends beyond its no-auditions-necessary policy and has resulted in an inspirational diversity of membership that warrants recognition, especially given our recent discussions of the difficulty of creating a multicultural, welcoming Women’s Center. Kuumba is one of the most solidly multi-ethnic organizations I know whose purposes do not explicitly include promoting diversity or studying international relations. Kuumba continually makes concerted efforts to help members who do not identify as Black feel comfortable and appreciated in the choir. While upholding a commitment to honoring, learning from, and continuing the struggles of the Black Diaspora, Kuumba uses Black culture and creativity to build a community that transcends racial boundaries without degrading the authenticity of its roots.
3) Morality. As a non-religious person raised faintly Jewish, until joining Kuumba I thought my days of singing about Jesus had ended along with elementary school Christmas concerts. Kuumba is undeniably infused with a very strong Christian spirit—not only in the lyrics of its songs, but in the tradition of ending each rehearsal by joining hands in a circle as members offer praise for joyous occurrences in their lives and request prayers for challenges. But in Kuumba, Christianity is a felt presence, not a prerequisite for inclusion. No one is trying to indoctrinate or convert you. True, the members who identify with Christian faith may have a different connection to the songs than non-believing members like me. But what everyone in Kuumba is there to celebrate is not a religion, and not even a people, but a living, ongoing history of struggle, survival, and triumph—a history in which Christianity has been a significant source, though not the only source, of spiritual strength—and a history Kuumba continues to shape. Unlike Harvard, Kuumba does ask its members to make moral choices about how to best serve their communities—an ethic so important to Kuumba that it’s even embodied in the choir’s name. From the Kuumba website: “In Swahili, ‘kuumba’ roughly means creativity, though the literal meaning is more subtle: it is the creativity of leaving a space better than you found it.” Kuumba’s version of moral individualism stresses unique contributions to a greater community, not uniqueness or personal success for its own sake.
4) Humility. On an individual personality level, perhaps, not all Kuumbabes are terribly modest (I know a couple, in fact, who definitely aren’t). But for some reason, Kuumba seems to bring out this side in people. And since humility is a quality that I for one could stand to see more of around here, it’s worth asking how Kuumba cultivates them to the extent it does. Maybe it’s because singing makes most people feel pretty vulnerable (and if you are the one who screws up the note or lyric for the soprano section, you’re obliged to raise your hand mea culpa style). Maybe it’s because the choir as a whole values hard work and practice just as much as—if not more than—innate virtuosic talent (a rare outlook in a culture that tends to view genius, artistic or otherwise, as an inborn gift to be capitalized upon rather than a hard-won strength that needs nurturing and development to reach its potential). Even the soloists of Kuumba are surprisingly modest about their talents; rather than defining or overshadowing the songs, solos aim to enhance them. I think Toni Morrison captures this phenomenon beautifully when she says:
"There must have been a time when an artist could be genuinely representative of a tribe and in it; when an artist could have a tribal or racial sensibility and an individual expression of it. There were spaces and places in which a single person could enter and behave as an individual within the context of the community. A small remnant of that you can see sometimes in Black churches where people shout."
And finally, in my experience, one of the most rewarding elements of Kuumba is this: there is something incredibly humbling and simultaneously empowering about being a small voice that contributes to such a rich, enormous sound. A friend of mine who plays in the Kuumba band put it another way. When I asked him whether he ever gets stage fright, he replied that he used to, until he realized that “It’s not about me; it’s about the music.” Not exactly a sentiment one might expect to hear from oft-ambitious, hyper-individualistic Harvard students.
Despite holding the uncontested title of Biggest Kuumba Groupie, I recognize that Kuumba isn’t perfect. Like any group, it has its own issues with negotiating gender, race, class, etc. Some of these issues can be very sensitive and difficult to work out. For instance, the kente cloth stoles singers wear during performances feature different design patterns for men and women, so it’s possible that a gender-queer Kuumbabe might experience some discomfort during wardrobe selection. Problems of cultural imperialism may also arise, as some non-Black-identifying people might appropriate Kuumba as a form of social capital, while Black students may join as a misguided means of 'proving' their own race consciousness. But while Kuumba may not find simple solutions to these endemic social problems (and it would be unreasonable to expect it to), it has managed to get a whole lot of things right. In aiming to understand and reinterpret the roles of individualism and elitism in Harvard organizations, with ample appreciation for the vicissitudes inherent in forming and maintaining student communities, we can enjoy a respite from criticizing the status quo to engage in the equally important exercise of appreciating examples of alternative possibilities.
On a somewhat lighter note, if you now find yourself hankering for some Kuumba soul, visit this marvelous Civil Rights Movement website by the History Channel, which features some of their recorded songs. When you get to the homepage, look under Primary Sources and click on Music (Songs & Lyrics). “Hold On” is one of my favorites—guaranteed to give you chills. Enjoy!