Hampton, the latest film in Kevin Everson’s and Claudrena Harold’s Black Fire Series, will have its U.S. premiere at the Black Star Film Festival in Philadelphia on August 4th.
Set in the late 1970s, Hampton follows Black Voices, a gospel choir based at the University of Virginia, as it prepares for a performance in Hampton Roads, embarks on a two-hour bus ride to the concert venue, and then returns to campus after a triumphant performance. With a particular focus on the bus driver (Sandy Williams IV), the film captures the wide range of processes, relationships, emotions, and formal gestures operating in African-American gospel music. It also aims to convey the deep cultural meanings sacred music hold for people of African descent in America.
The script for Black Voices draws inspiration from the gospel aesthetic, as well as interviews of two UVA alumni: Chavis Harris, a charter member of Black Voices, and the late Debra Saunders-White, the former president of North Carolina Central who attended UVA between 1975 and 1979. In their interviews, Harris and Saunders-White detail the centrality of Black Voices in helping them navigate the challenges of the University. In explaining why he and his colleagues selected Black Voices as the choir’s name, Harris pointed to the cultural ethos of the Black Power era, as well as the political atmosphere of UVA. He noted: “There were times, like if you were walking on the grounds at night and you were an African American male, and if you were studying and decided to take a break and take a jog like students do all the time, you were probably going to get followed by the university police and stopped.” Such encounters intensified Harris’ and other black students’ desire for institutional spaces that would not simply challenge white racism, but also affirm their humanity. In many ways, Black Voices was such a space not just for those in the choir, but also those students who appreciated gospel as an art form. This was the case for Saunders-White (pictured below), who conveyed to us the story of Black Voices’ bus trip to Hampton, relating how the University’s decision to allow the choir to use one of its buses was the first time she felt as if she actually “belonged” to the University.
In focusing on Black Voices, we draw attention to a larger development in U.S. religious and music history. Across the nation, from Indiana University to the University of Virginia, African American students integrating predominantly white colleges and universities during the late 1960s and early 1970s formed gospel choirs as a way to advance the art form of gospel music, maintain certain cultural traditions, and strengthen themselves spiritually. The names of these choirs ranged from Black Voices to Black Awakening (Virginia Commonwealth University). These ensembles performed spirituals, traditional hymns, as well as the latest hits from the most popular gospel choirs and artists of the day.
Undoubtedly the most successful college choir to emerge from this cultural moment was Minneapolis’ Sounds of Blackness. Formed by Russell Knighton in 1969, the Sounds of Blackness was first launched on the campus of Macalester College in St. Paul. Initially called the Macalester College Black Voices, the ensemble was diverse in sound and membership. Including college students, alums, and local residents, Macalester’s Black Voices would expand under the leadership of Gary Hines, who became the director in 1971, and eventually become one of the most popular local acts in the city. Starting in the 1980s, the group expanded its repertoire and began to perform more theatric musicals that centered on the African American diverse experiences. Their two most popular musicals were “Music for Martin” and “”Soul of the 1960s.” Their musicals caught the attention of several of Minneapolis performers, most notably, James “Jimmy Jam” Harris and Terry Lewis. In the 1980s, Harris and Lewis received national fame for their work with Prince, their membership in the band, the Time, and their production work for such acts as S.O.S. Band, Human League, Cherrelle, and Alexander O’Neal. Harris and Lewis garnered even greater notoriety in 1986, when they produced Janet Jackson’s hit record, Control. To increase their autonomy as well as put on new acts, the production tandem started their own label, Perspective, which would be distributed by A&M records. There were a number of talented acts in Minneapolis, but the tandem decided on Sounds of Blackness as their first signee. Harris and Lewis had no prior experience in the gospel world, but they welcomed the opportunity to work with the group.
The wisdom of their decision would be apparent to all upon the release of SOB’s Perspective debut, The Evolution of Gospel. Jam and Lewis shared the production duties with Gary Hines, who handled the spirituals and more traditional gospel sounding tunes like “Ah Been Buked” and “I’ll Fly Away .“ The record yielded three top 10 songs: “Pressure,” “Testify,” and “Optmistic”— all produced by Harris and Lewis.
Though typically viewed in isolation from the larger world of African American cultural politics, the historical significance of choirs like Sounds of Blackness and UVA’s Black Voices cannot be fully understood without considering the work of other black artists and writers engaged in the process of reevaluating and redefining the meaning of black sacred music and its place in the black freedom struggle. In many ways, African American students’ sacred endeavors complemented the intellectual pursuits of scholars like Horace Boyer, James Cone, and Pearl Williams-Jones.
Image by Uzo Njoku
These scholars viewed gospel music as an integral component of African Americans’ ongoing quest for self-definition in a nation that routinely denied their humanity. Williams-Jones, in particular, led the way in challenging writers to consider seriously the religious music of African Americans in their discussions on the black aesthetic. “If a basic theoretical concept of a black aesthetic can be drawn from the history of the black experience in America, the crystallization of this concept is embodied in Afro-American gospel music.” No longer, she maintained, could black arts writers concern themselves solely with secular forms of black cultural expression. “In order to establish a black aesthetic definition as applied to black art forms, the implications of the black gospel church and the music associated with it should be brought into focus.”
Echoes of Jones’ arguments appear in the works of several black cultural artists, from Cannonball Adderley (“Country Preacher” and “Walk Tall”) to Donald Byrd (“Pentecostal Feeling” and “Cristo Redentor”) to poet Nikki Giovanni, who celebrated the black church as a “great archive of black music.”
As we have done in all of our film projects, we hope to capture the how local and national histories are intertwined. We also hope to provide additional opportunities for our students to further develop and express their artistic gifts and craft, work collaboratively with colleagues across Grounds, and contribute to the retelling of UVA’s rich history. The film’s participants included students from Professor Everson’s cinematography classes as well as students from Professor Harold’s History and Black Studies courses. Several members of Black Voices also participated.
We envision Hampton as building on our previous work, which includes Sugarcoated Arsenic, We Demand, Fastest Man in the State, 70 kg, How Can I Ever Be Late, and Black Bus Stop.
The link for tickets for the Black Star Screening: https://www.blackstarfest.org/shorts12/