INTERVIEW: Ysaye Barnwell


Dr. Ysaye Barnwell’s experience extends far beyond the limits of music. It begins with her membership as a rare female bass in the all-female African acappella group Sweet Honey in the Rock from the years 1973-2013. From there, Barnwell was extensively involved in the Civil Rights Movement, singing in, attending and organizing Marches. Today she travels the country, giving lectures and speaking to young activists about how to organize and use singing as a part of their protests. WTBU DJ Allie Miller spoke with her about the Boston Women’s March, African music and her advice for the activists of today.

Allie Miller: I watched your TED Talk from last year and I thought we could talk about your musical career, as well as some of the “vocal community” that you talked about in your talk, which I thought was interesting and pretty relevant for right now. 

Ysaye Barnwell: Sure!

AM: So you are a teacher as well as an artist? 

YB: Yes.

AM: Are you currently teaching?

YB: I teach all the time, but I teach about music, about African American music, mostly.

AM: So you teach about the history of African American music?

YB: I do. I passionately want people to understand the evolution of music from African through to hip hop. I want people to understand that there are two different worldviews when we talk about music. There is a Eurocentric world view, and then there is an Afrocentric worldview. And a lot of times when we use words, we think we are talking about the same thing but we are not. And we approach music from very different places, and I want people to understand that the Eurocentric view is based in a written form, and the Afrocentric world view is based in an oral form, which is o-r-a-l and a-u-r-a-l. And therefore, when we are naturally learning in our world view, you either grow up learning piano or violin or whatever and how to read the notes, or you grow up learning by listening and singing in a context with other people, or drumming in a context with other people. There are no notes involved, no written notes involved, but there’s also a purpose and a function to that music, which doesn’t particularly exist in a Eurocentric world, and that purpose is to document everything that’s going on at the time to connect with higher forces, and to bring the community together. And that may not be the goal at all here in a Eurocentric learning unless you’re in a choir or an orchestra, and your goal is to play well together under the direction of someone. You’ll never find a conductor in African music, it doesn’t exist.

AM: Definitely. So when you make you’re own music, do you make it through this Afro-centric process rather than the Euro-centric one?

YB: Because when I’m commissioned to write things usually, people expect a score, But normally when I teach, there are no written notes involved. Are you coming on Saturday? I’m leading a community sing at 11:30.

AM: What is that?

YB: It’s called a community sing and basically people show up, and you know, in a very few minutes we are a choir with all different parts going and stuff like that.

AM: That’s cool. I noticed in your TED Talk you began by asking the members of your audience to sing together, and I thought that was really interesting. What do you think it is about singing as a group that forms such strong bonds between people?

YB: It’s so important, and it’s so missing today. You know I looked at the Women’s March…

AM: There was no singing. 

YB: Exactly! And if you compare that to the Civil Rights Movement, they sang all the time. Not only when they were demonstrating, but they sang in prison! They sang all the time, and that way, they kind of secured the bond between them. If someone was taken or arrested, that’s how they would let the group know they were still alive. It’s just a big, huge cultural difference. And what I find is, when I hear people trying to lead songs, they don’t really know about a kind of call and response format that would include everybody, so if you sing all these songs with all these words and you’ve never heard the song before, you can’t sing along; you’re listening. So I think one of my missions, and it’s been a mission for awhile, is to increase the number of people who have had a communal singing experience. And in these experiences I’ve tried to give people an example of how you lead a song in a demonstration, so that people understand that, and if they have the courage, they’ll have the tools. It’s very important.

AM: So, as far as being in a communal sing and teaching others, how does being involved in a communal sing change you?

YB: Well, since I’m normally the one leading it, I don’t know that I’ve been changed.

AM: Not even like, maybe in your childhood, from the first time you sang in a group?

YB: You know, when you grow up in your community, you just grow up in your community, you know? And in Black communities, people sing, particularly in church. I think that’s in some ways a problem right now, because younger people, they don’t do church. And even in the Black community where it’s been such a bedrock of culture, it’s not happening so much anymore. So people don’t have that experience of the glue. The civil rights movement, people moved right out of church into the street, and they used some of the same songs that they used in church, and they changed the words. That was a very, very powerful thing. We don’t have that now. We don’t have those kinds of examples. Young people are far enough away from the Civil Rights Movement that they never have experienced it, even on TV in the news. And so I try to talk to young people, and to show that we do the songs, and I get them to put their issues into the songs. So that they know how to do that.

AM: Are you suggesting to them that they make their own songs? Or adopt the songs of the Civil Rights Movement? 

YB: I am suggesting both things. Yes, absolutely. But I want them to understand that the songs that they create can’t have 1,000 words. You need to understand call and response.

AM: How does call and response work? Are the basics of it just like, repeating a simple phrase? 

YB: Yeah so, (singing) “Oh, I’m on my way..I’m on my way. To freedom land…”

AM: (singing) To freedom land 

YB: I’m on way

AM: I’m on my way 

YB: To freedom land

AM: To freedom land. 

YB: That’s call and response. It’s easy, okay?

AM: Yeah! 

YB: And you did it!

AM: Yeah! So do you have any favorite songs? 

YB: Oh man, there’s so many, you know, because they’re actually fun to sing. And that’s important too, because if you’re scared, you at least want to be having fun being scared. It’s like, “This man is going to arrest me in five minutes…” (starts singing) “I ain’t scared of your chains, cause I want my freedom, I want my…” It doesn’t matter if you sing in tune or not; it’s just using your voice to just sort of put yourself out there and confirm what it is you believe, what you think about, and what you honor and to try to share your point of view with somebody else. I give the example, I don’t know know if you ever saw the film “Selma.”

AM: I did, yeah. 

YB: Okay, so I feel like, Ava DuVernay, who did the film, made one major error. And I think that error was she did not show the crowds singing. It was just one voice singing, and you had all these people. And the odd thing is, if you look very carefully, you can see their mouths moving. They were singing. But you didn’t hear them. The reason I think that was a huge mistake is that singing is a part of our history. If you don’t see that in that film, when you know they were singing in reality, that’s a distortion of history. The other thing is that the police who were at the bottom of the bridge, the Edmund Pettus Bridge, they had no idea how many people were crossing that bridge. And so my thinking is that they were probably more afraid than the demonstrators. They singing gave the marchers the courage that they needed to walk into whatever the police were waiting with.

[recording ends]