Dr. Ysaÿe M. Barnwell
2014 Choral Arts Humanitarian Award Recipient
Transcript from Dr. Ysaÿe Barnwell’s speech at Living the Dream…Singing the Dream, the 26th Annual Choral Tribute to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. on Sunday, February 16, 2014 at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts.
Good evening. It’s an honor and it’s a joy for me to be present at this celebratory concert and to present the 2014 Humanitarian Award. In 2004, Choral Arts began honoring individuals who embody Dr. Martin Luther King’s spirit: his spirit of reconciliation, his spirit of peace with justice, his spirit of sisterhood and brotherhood. Let us recognize now, previous awardees, some of whom are with us tonight, some are not able to be here tonight, and some have gone on to glory. As I call the names of the awardees who are here this evening, would you please stand so that we may acknowledge you? I call the name of Dr. Dorothy Irene Height. I call the name Marian Wright Edelman. Congressman John Lewis. Julian Bond. Charlayne Hunter-Gault. Harris Wofford. John Doar. Dr. Bernice Johnson Reagon. Norman Scribner. President Nelson Mandela.
Tonight, the Choral Arts Humanitarian Award is presented to Dr. Ysaÿe Barnwell.
Dr. Barnwell’s long life work as an internationally renowned performer, composer and educator has led to the joy of music making for and with people from all walks of life. As an educator and master teacher, Dr. Barnwell’s vocal community workshops bring together singers and those of us who really aren’t such good singers, but all share in the awesome experience of letting their uncommon voices blend for the common good. Dr. Barnwell is a composer of countless amazing and grace-filled songs. Tonight, after the intermission, you will hear a set of her stirring compositions, including a selection that was commissioned for this very celebration in 2003.
Our sister Ysaÿe Barnwell is probably most known as a long time member of Sweet Honey in the Rock, the all women’s a cappella group founded by Dr. Bernice Johnson Reagon, that extraordinary a cappella group that is rooted in African American history, herstory and culture. It is Dr. Barnwell who pioneered Sweet Honey in the Rock’s inclusion of a sign language interpreter in the ensemble. Dr. Barnwell says that there are four axioms that have proven significant in her life. Hear them: to whom much is given, much is required. As one door closes, look, another door is about to open. She says to us that everything matters. And finally, say yes. Please join me in acknowledging the extraordinary work, I dare say the righteous work, of Choral Arts 2014 humanitarian awardee, Dr. Ysaÿe Barnwell.
DR. YSAŸE M. BARNWELL
I am overwhelmed. Really, truly overwhelmed. When I saw the list of people who had been awarded before me, I couldn’t believe my name was being added to the list. Thank you, God.
I would like to thank the Choral Arts Society and the Washington Performing Arts society for this event. And especially Norman Scribner, because it was his idea. It was his idea that this city could be brought together in a harmonious way. And so for years now, in honor of Dr. King, this organization, these two organizations, have been bringing us together, bringing these fine singers and choirs together. You see them now, blue and black and children, but after intermission, they will be all mixed up together. It’s symbolic, it’s metaphoric. It is the way we hope that this city will come together in larger and larger ways.
And so I am grateful to be honored in this way and grateful that small steps get recognized. I say that because, you know, I really think it’s important for those of us who sing and don’t sing to come together. And so now, instead of talking for a long time, and I did have notes, but I’m going to leave them alone. I would like for you to sing at the Kennedy Center. I’m stepping over here. Are you ready?
I love that. I have to figure out how to divide you up. I’m going to teach you four songs. I have just a few minutes to do this, but I think you know most of them. The first one is “Glory, Glory, Hallelujah.” Yes? [singing] Glory, glory, Hallelujah. [to audience] Thank you. Come on. [singing] Since I lay my burden down. Oh glory, glory hallelujah, since I lay my burden down. [to audience] Okay. That’s song number one.
[singing] I woke up this morning with my mind stayed on freedom. I woke up this morning with my mind stayed on freedom. I woke up this morning with my mind stayed on freedom. Hallelujah, hallelujah, hallelujah. [singing with chorus] This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine.
[to audience] This song, this next one is going to be the choir’s part. And then I’m going to divide the whole balcony in half. And you all will be the “glory, glory, hallelujahs.” This half of the balcony will be “This Little Light of Mine.” This half of the balcony will be “I woke up this morning with my mind set on freedom.” Choirs? [singing with chorus] Every time I feel the spirit moving in my heart I will pray. [to audience] They know it. Okay.
So this is called a quodlibet, which means two or more, three or more melodies, all going at the same time. Which means you sort of have to listen and you sort of have to watch so that we can make this work. Okay. I already assigned you a song. You’re “Glory, Glory.” You will begin. Are you ready? [singing] Glory, glory, hallelujah, since I lay burden down. Glory, glory, hallelujah, since I lay my burden down.
“Woke up,” where are you? Wait a minute. Wait, wait, wait. Which side has “Woke up”? As in, “I woke up this morning with my mind.” Are you ready? Yes? The lights are in my eyes, you’re lucky I can see you. Okay. All right. We’re going to start again. Then I’m going to bring them in. Then I’m going to bring in “this little light” and then “every time.” So don’t stop singing. Alright, here we go.
[singing] Glory, glory, hallelujah, since I lay my burden down. Glory, glory, hallelujah [Sings new verse as audience continues “Glory, glory”] I woke up this morning with my mind stayed on freedom. I woke up this morning with my mind stayed on freedom. I woke up this morning with my mind stayed on freedom. Hallelu, hallelu, hallelu. [Sings new verse as audience continues “Glory, glory” and “Woke up”] This little light of mine, I’m gonna light it shine. [audience starts clapping rhythmically]. This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine. This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine. Let it shine, let it shine, let it shine. [Sings “Every time I feel the spirit” and audience joins] Every time I feel the spirit moving in my heart I will pray. Every time I feel the spirit moving in my heart, I will pray. [to audience] One more time. [audience continues “Every time I feel the spirit” as Barnwell sings the 4 different verses.] [to audience] Big ritard!
Give yourselves a big hand! Thank you all, I will see you all in just a few minutes. And thank you all again for this amazing, amazing honor.