Black History Month and Royalties for Spirituals

At First Baptist Church of Rochester we, like most churches, pay for a license to be able to sing and perform the music we feature in worship. From the fees we pay, distribution companies contract with writers and composers who wrote these beautiful pieces that enliven our time together. This is one part of the way that composers of sacred music make their living. In some cases, the families of deceased composers are still able to benefit from the work of their beloved through this compensation often called, “royalties.” It is right and good for those who have provided such beauty to be compensated for their life’s work. What then do we make of those who never were compensated for the gifts they’ve given the church, but whose music still adds to our worship?

Spirituals are pieces of music written by enslaved Africans as a way of coping with and resisting the evils of slavery and perhaps even finding hope that transcended the horrors they were forced to live. Long after their names have been lost to time, we still perform and sing their music in worship. The source of some of the music that may bring us hope in our time and connect us more meaningfully to one another and to God is given to us by those who never were able to collect compensation for their gifts.

We as a congregation, and we as a society will never be able to correct the evil of slavery nor this one component part thereof, but we do have an opportunity to make a statement by our actions proclaiming that we believe it is unjust to benefit from what was taken without payment and to support efforts to make sure the future is brighter than the past.

In the month of February, Black History Month, we will feature the work of Black artists at various points in worship. That gives us opportunity to begin a new practice going forward even beyond this month. Whenever we sing a spiritual in worship we will take up a special offering to cover the royalties that were never collected on that piece of music. Whatever we collect we will forward to the William Warfield Scholarship Fund, a national organization that is “dedicated to providing financial support and encouragement for African American students to attain success in the field of classical vocal music,” in the memory of singer, actor, music educator, Rochester’s own William Warfield.

In so doing, we join other churches who have already begun this work. To read more about the genesis of the project, view the United Parish in Brookline page. To read more about the William Warfield Scholarship Fund, find information here.

To contribute to the royalties fund use the FBCR contribute page and select the “Royalties for Spirituals Fund” or send a check with “Royalties for Spirituals” in the memo line to the church office.

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