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!


7 responses to “taking a cue from Kuumba

  1. I’m just wondering, was Kuumba started as a non-religious but spiritual organization? Or was it Christian initially, but became secularized over the years?

    If the former, then great. But if the latter, I find that kind of unfortunate. Remeember before ‘Veritas’, it was ‘Veritas, Christo et Ecclesiae’.

    But I agree, Kuumba is a great community, and it’s wonderful that you’ve enjoyed its community! =)

  2. Why exactly would it be unfortunate if Kuumba started as Christian and then secularized over the years? How would that de-legitimize Kuumba’s core beliefs? What negative impact would the inclusion of a Christian framework have on Kuumba members believing in things like merit, inclusiveness, morality, and humility?

    It’s frustrating to me that so many liberals are disparaging towards Christianity (and Rob, this isn’t directed at you at all, especially seeing as I don’t even know you). As soon as something’s labeled “Christian,” it’s now labeled “conservative,” “fundamental,” and “anti-science.” Why can’t people just appreciate some Christian values as being good general life lessons — “thou shalt not steal” is a pretty good one to start, no? — and not think about their newfound political implications?

    (FYI, I’m actually Hindu, not Christian, I just really like Kuumba haha)

  3. First off, I want to say that I also LOVE Kuumba. They spew hot fire at concerts and the teary-eyed feeling after seeing them do what they do is a feeling I know well. Keep it up.

    My concern with Kuumba is it remaining a Black organization. Will it? There is a fine line to draw between being inclusive to non-Black members and being overrun by non-Black members. I fear that Kuumba is going further in the latter direction. I’m not sure what religious affiliation Kuumba was started under but it IS a Black community group at Harvard College.

    I also want to acknowledge the fact that, for the larger (read: White) student body, Kuumba is kind of the “I’m friendly to Black people” or “I’m conscious of Black issues” student group at Harvard. A lot of the non-Black members in Kuumba are great people that I know and admire but the image of Kuumba as this multiracial, happy and singing hodgepodge of African Diasporic music (especially spirituals) persists and conjures up images of MLK marching with White leaders and singing in the ’60s. Just wanted to throw this out there.

    As far as the Christianity thing, I have many problems with Black people and “Christianity”. Once again, these will be relegated to a future post. All in due time…

  4. hi sarika, the question is moot. after reading the kuumba site, it looks like the purpose of kuumba was initially and still is a black/african focus.

    the common misunderstanding is that ppl mistake “merit, inclusiveness, morality, and humility” and just generally “being good and making the world a better place” as what Christianity’s about. to a Christian all those things mean nothing if we do not also say that “Jesus Christ is Lord”.

    i do believe that people should be allowed to choose their faith, that a society should allow religious freedom so that people can choose. but as a Christian i’m not going to lie to you, of course i believe my faith is the true faith. but i respect the right of people to choose, to have free will.

    the reason why it would be unfortunate if any organization started out Christian but secularized over the years would be that the main focus of the faith would have been lost. this is only a value judgement on consistency, and Kuumba has been consistent with their ideals since their inception, something to be greatly applauded.

    to jersey slugger, is it so bad for black ppl to be associated with Christianity? MLK Jr was most definitely a strong Christian, and his writings on faith which aren’t discussed in school, are regularly quoted in sermons in the New York and Boston churches i attended. the struggle of the Jews out of Egypt has to have been the inspiration for the Civil Rights movement, no? i look forward to your post on this issue, i’m very interested.

  5. Jersey slugger has a point about the difference between being inclusive and being over-run by non black members. I don’t feel the issue is the presence of the non blacks though. The problem is that many black people at Harvard no longer care about building the type of community that Kumba “seems” to build.

    Kumba “states” their mission is celebrating the creativity and spirituality of black culture. I have heard much about kuumba visiting schools showing inner city kids there are black people at places like harvard, learning about and teaching black history and culture. Things that don’t happen much in public schools anywhere. My question is why aren’t black people at Harvard as committed to making this happen as all these other folk joining? If Kuumba stops being a black organization, it is the fault of black people who stand by and let it happen – making noise instead of taking ownership. Can Kumba accomplish its mission without them?

    Get up Stand up

  6. My problems with Blacks and Christianity are complex but the short version is: (1) Blacks in Africa or the Americas did not convert to Christianity of their own volition; it was violently forced on them as a superior alternative to their “backward” religious and spiritual ways, (2) it has been historically used to keep Blacks docile and lying in constant wait of some sort of messianic leader (like the Jews in Egypt) and therefore disempowers the collective by placing the utmost importance on the individual, and (3) most adherents to Christianity tacitly or explicitly accept a dirty-blonde, blue-eyed, White image of Jesus that is easy to swallow though historically inaccurate.

    MLK was a strong Christian, yes. But he either disregarded points 1 and 3 above or was completely oblivious to them (which I consider highly unlikely due to his intellect and level of education) and largely was deemed as the messianic leader mentioned in point 2 while not being able to truly identify with many of those he purportedly led due his class background.

  7. wow… you really believe this don’t you.

    i think when black people see Jesus, they see someone who went through what they went through. who suffered in prison, who was persecuted for crimes he did not commit. who values family, community, the meekest of this world.

    one may be forced to learn the bible or attend hurch during the more unfortunate times in history, but coming to Christ is a completely free act of choice. by definition one cannot be Christian without choosing to do so, without saying “Lord is sovereign” and believing wholeheartedly in it.

    and if you look back on the historical motivations to free slaves and later give blacks equal civil rights, it was brought about by Christians, both black and white, who understood the importance of the second of the two most important commandments stressed by Jesus. 1) you will worship only One God and no other idols 2) you will love your fellow man/woman as you love yourself.

    finally please note people of any real religious conviction will believe that their faith is the true faith. the american secular view that all religions are equally valid i find very offensive. for me to belive that, i would no longer be Christian.

    i’m still in shock, because the black-american experience is very much a Christian story.

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