Campus & Community

Spirituals Project concert brings music back to the protest movement

On Feb. 22, the same night the civil rights-themed “Selma” vies for best picture at the Academy Awards, the Spirituals Project Choir – part of the nonprofit Spirituals Project organization based at the University of Denver — will be paying tribute to the era in its own way.

In the first of three upcoming concerts celebrating the 50th anniversary of the voting rights campaigns in Selma, Ala., and the passage of the federal Voting Rights Act of 1965, the ensemble travels to the Lakewood Cultural Center to present “Singing for Freedom: 50 Years Since Selma,” a special concert featuring special guest artists Jonny 5, of local hip-hop group the Flobots, and local youth ensemble the 303 Choir. Other concerts — with guest artists yet to be announced — are scheduled for March 22 at the Broomfield Auditorium and April 11 at the Aurora Fox Arts Center.

Some of the songs to be performed at the concerts have grown out of a collaboration among the Spirituals Project, the Flobots and other community members who want to bring music back to the social protest movement.

“In the past, especially during the civil rights movement, freedom songs were so important,” says Arthur Jones, founder of the Spirituals Project and a dean at the DU-based Colorado Women’s College. “What has happened is that in recent social movements, there’s almost a complete absence of any kind of communal singing.”

So Jones worked with members of the Flobots to create No Enemies, an initiative that stresses the importance of music at marches and other protest events. Singers and poets young and old meet to share songs ranging from old spirituals and civil rights movement staples to new songs and chants born from the “black lives matter” movement.

“People learn all these songs and we have kind of a repertory of music, and then when something happens — if there’s a protest at the Capitol, or for the Marade on the Martin Luther King holiday — we have a whole bunch of people that we send out and they’ll make sure that people sing and chant,” Jones says. “It takes a lot for people to interrupt their regular lives and go out into the streets and march, and people get discouraged and they get frustrated. When they’re able to sing, when they’re able to put sound in the air, it brings them together. It inspires them, and it also really focuses their actions so people don’t get out of control. It’s an incredibly powerful force, but most people don’t appreciate it. It is very difficult to imagine the civil rights movement of the 1960s without the singing.”

Founded by Jones in 1998, the Spirituals Project is committed to preserving and revitalizing the religious folk songs created by African-American slaves. For his role in the endeavor, Jones was honored Jan. 16 at Metropolitan State University of Denver’s 24th annual Martin Luther King Jr. Peace Breakfast. The event recognized leaders who continue King’s legacy through their dedication to social justice and community activism; Jones was honored along with Metro State student Zachary Berger and staff member Katherine Miller.

“The nomination was made by one of my former students so it was a surprise,” says Jones who also is a clinical professor of culture and psychology at Colorado Women’s College. “To hear that I had gotten the award, it was really very nice.”

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