Speaking the song, spreading the word, lifting the people: The reimagination of community through vocal music activism
Smith, Arlette Miller
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This study examines the development, transmittal, and reimagination of community as a form of resistance in African American women's vocal tradition. It proceeds through a series of linked critical essays that together comprise an herstorical-to-contemporary analysis of Black women as resistors in chattel slavery, the abolition, colored club women's and civil rights movements. The study culminates with a critical examination of two vocal community models: AKOMA (ah-ko-ma), an African American women's gospel choir located in Rochester, New York and Sweet Honey in the Rock--a nationally recognized African American women's a cappella ensemble. Incorporated within the body are theories and techniques from cultural, womanist/feminist, social movement, identity and ethnomusicology studies, as well as archival texts, literary criticism, historical analysis, personal narratives, and creative prose. The theoretical framework centers a number of interdisciplinary approaches including, but not limited to, a qualitative research design that comprises ethnography, participant observation, interviews, and data collection. The essays are organized thematically around two over-arching constructs, community and resistance. In Part 1 of the dissertation, chapters two and three develop those principal themes. Both community and resistance are identified as recursive strategies within an established activist tradition and are further defined through voice and standpoint theory. Part 2 examines resistance as vocal activism in the contemporary African American women's singing groups, AKOMA, and Sweet Honey in the Rock. I argue that although there is no monolithic Black female experience, empowerment through community is forged within the shared oppression (Horton) of a common Black herstory; that community as a place of survival, respite, spiritual uplift, kinship, and resistance forms the shared core values for how contemporary cultural resistance is reimagined; and, finally, that reenvisioning community through the specific strategy examined in this study--vocal music activism--requires exterior and interior coalition building, as well as the analysis of vocal music as a form of sociopolitical messaging.