Thoughts while singing Motown alongside #BlackLivesMatter / by Melanie Ida Chopko

"The duty of privilege is absolute integrity." - John O'Donohue

Many of you know that for the last year or so, I've had the immense pleasure of teaching beginner singing classes for adults at Berkeley's Freight & Salvage. And one thing I've seen over and over is that one of the quickest ways I can support them in re-accessing the sheer joy of singing is through the world of Motown music. On the first day, I watch an entire room of nervous adults instantly shift to swaying back and forth, closing their eyes, singing and smiling, as soon as Marvin Gaye comes through the speakers. Or Stevie Wonder, or Nina Simone.  

And, being a white woman teaching classes filled with a majority white students, it feels irresponsible to sing, learn and teach from this content without speaking to the larger context of what my black brothers and sisters are clearly articulating within the #BlackLivesMatter movement. I'm obviously by no means an expert on this subject, I have only my experience and thoughts to share on an immensely complex topic. I'm not writing this to simplify anything. It's merely a humble the invitation for all my fellow white singers to have a deeper conversation on how our love of music really does require of us to dismantle the institutionalized racism that permeates this country, and within ourselves.

I want the singing of this music to be an invitation to witness and honor the incredible history of black artistry in America, showing yet another way my life is inextricably linked with people that look very different than me. I can't really imagine my life without the music that has articulated and accompanied nearly every great emotional process I've ever had. What great love has not been cherished while belting the words to Stevie Wonder's "You are the Sunshine of My Life?" What wedding has not included a lip synch of Etta James' "At Last?" It reminds me of one of my favorite quotes from writer Zora Neale Hurston (Their Eyes Were Watching God): "Sometimes, I feel discriminated against, but it does not make me angry. It merely astonishes me. How can any deny themselves the pleasure of my company? It’s beyond me." 

Sometimes I think racism is a sort of cultural schizophrenia, fracturing and dividing those natural emotional and interpersonal connections, overriding it with statistics, and lump sum identities. 

It's not that Black Lives Matter is highlights something new happening in American culture - it's merely more clearly articulating and documenting the unacceptable legacy of violence against people of color in this country. And what I want for my students to feel on a new level how much these lives matter - how the loss of these men and women is an interrupted family tree of cultural richness that has shaped the country and, I would argue, music throughout the entire world. To feel viscerally the level of squandered genius of all the lives lost in the school-to-prision-pipeline, lives lost on a street.

I think the invitation of Black Lives Matter is to honor that legacy institutionally - this culture shouldn't just matter inside my heart and head, but in the structures that form my world, the structures that form government, schools and neighborhoods.  I want to bring that identity, that legacy, to the forefront as my culture begins reassigning priorities and resources. I want to my singing of Motown to live alongside my singing and listening to all those other songs, stories and assertions of black culture in America today.

And I want ALL those songs in the air around all me.

PS. And, if you want to start singing, my a new series of my class begins November 7th, here at the Freight.