From gospel concerts to cultural tours, African-American organizations in D.C. are finding ways to celebrate Black History Month virtually as the coronavirus pandemic continues.
The annual celebration began in 1926. In 1976, it became a month-long celebration.
Howard University’s gospel choir is among the groups that have stepped onto the virtual stage to engage with audiences. Celebrating Black History month must go on, said choir alumna and administrator Kristen Taylor.
“The celebration of our music and our story is something that’s a part of who we are every day,” she said. “For us, February is every month, but we are especially excited to celebrate Black History Month this year.”
The annual concert is a celebration of the African-American experience in music and will showcase a guest choir from the United Kingdom.
"Let Freedom Sing" is usually performed in January to honor the birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., but Taylor said they decided to move it to February because “the timing was right” as the country faces the “double pandemic” of COVID-19 and racism.
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“We have to be responsible with the legacy that’s presented to us,” Taylor said. “ I think that’s really what has led us to be able to push through these incredibly difficult and peculiar times to be ambitious enough to create virtual programming.”
Taylor said it’s been difficult trying to fully function during the pandemic; from rehearsals to concerts, everything has been affected. But at the center of it all, Taylor reminds her members of the importance of community and the responsibility singers carry to fulfill the choir’s mission.
With hundreds of arts organizations in D.C., another group is "stepping" its way onto the virtual stage.
Step Afrika lays claim to being the first professional company in the world dedicated to the African-American tradition of stepping.
The group employs more full-time artists of color than any other organization in D.C., founder and executive director C. Brian Williams said.
The organization has promoted African-American music and culture for more than 25 years and also is celebrating Black History Month virtually.
“It’s absolutely important that audiences of every stripe, color and creed know Step Afrika,” Williams said. “We have to do a better job of really learning and making sure we understand the history of natives, Latinx and women’s history, and really having a broader look at who and what makes up America.”
Step Afrika is a touring organization, but due to the pandemic, it had to cancel its shows and lose more than $1 million in revenue. Leaders are now relying on the generosity of the community to get behind the organization.
“I encourage everyone to support art organizations,” Williams said. "We’re the ones that document and preserve the culture and bring it to the people, and we want the artists to survive this.”
The organization will be releasing never-before-seen footage from one of its most celebrated performances, “The Migration: Reflection of Jacob Lawrence” in honor of Black History Month. The footage focused on African American music and history is online starting Thursday on Step Afrika’s Facebook page and YouTube page.
The two-time Grammy award-winning Washington Chorus is celebrating Black History Month with a short music film led by its newest artistic director, Eugene Rogers.
Rogers is the Chorus’s fifth artistic director and is leading and directing the chorus remotely from his home in Michigan. He leads about 150 members virtually and he said it’s been a challenging but rewarding job.
“Covid hit the month I got announced for this job, so I have been literally leading the group mostly from Ann Arbor on Zoom,” he said. “I do a lot of smaller group rehearsals playing from my room to D.C.”
The chorus will release “Cantata for a More Hopeful Tomorrow”, a 23-minute short music film that traces a journey from despair to hope for an African-American couple impacted by COVID-19. The film will feature Black soloists, composers and directors, and will be available for purchase on all streaming platforms on Friday, Feb. 26.
The Washington Performing Arts and Choral Arts are also making their way to the virtual stage.
For the 12th consecutive year, Washington Performing Arts’ gospel choirs and Choral Arts Chorus are partnering to blend their voices to create a rich musical tribute to Martin Luther King Jr. called “Living the Dream...Singing the Dream.”
Artistic Director Michele Fowlin said moving to virtual platforms has been “inviting,” as they’ve been able to allow people from all over the world into their space.
“It is so awesome that we could really open up these boundary walls now,” Fowlin said. “People from all over the world can look into our rehearsal spaces and see what it is that we're doing.”