Village Presbyterian Church highlights Black musicians in virtual course on history of spiritual songs

Village Presbyterian Church in Prairie Village is hosting a monthlong series called "Black Music Matters" to provide education on scriptures and spiritual songs surrounding slavery, freedom and the African-American experience. Evelyn White, pictured above, will be one of the featured guest musicians. White is a pianist and music educator in Georgia. Photo courtesy Evelyn White.

In the wake of a nationwide movement sparked by the death of George Floyd, Village Presbyterian Church in Prairie Village is offering a virtual class on the stories of slavery, freedom and the African-American experience, through the lens of spiritual music and scripture.

The monthlong series “Black Music Matters: Scriptures and Music of Slavery and Freedom” begins Wednesday, Sept. 9, and will occur each Wednesday throughout the rest of this month. Co-taught by Rev. Rodger Nishioka and Will Breytspraak, the course features special guests who will aim to impart their perspectives and experiences as Black musicians.

“If we’re going to say that Black lives matter, then their history matters, their culture matters, in a way that is very real as the lives they live, and not just canned neatly in a way that we want to fit into a sort of white-dominated worldview,” said Breytspraak, director of music ministry at the church.

“We want to explore their culture in a way that helps us understand, and so as director of music, it’s important to me that when we sing spirituals, that we understand the experience that goes with those songs. They’re not just beautiful, they’re not just intriguing, but that we understand the experience,” he said.

The course, among other topics, will explore the scriptures and songs slaves would sing as they were forced to work in the fields of the American South. Course-goers will be able to share in discussions about the personal meanings of the scriptures and songs discussed, learn more about the African-American experience and gain further understanding of the genres of music that grew out of African-American spirituality.

Brandon Waddles, a composer and educator, will also join the series as a guest musician. Photo courtesy Village Presbyterian.

Guest musician Evelyn White, a lifelong pianist and music teacher at Cobb County Center for Excellence in the Performing Arts in Georgia, said she believes that all art, particularly music, opens the minds and hearts of listeners to be more receptive to new experiences, particularly those in the Black community.

“I really do believe that through the arts, we are able to communicate so many different things, and I think that we’re able to understand each other through the arts,” White said. “People interpret it in different ways, but at least there is a willingness and an openness to want to understand.”

White said spiritual songs reveal “the true African-American experience” for those listening.

“When you can understand this music, you know a lot,” she added. “The moment the soul is pricked, it’s over. I think society as a whole might experience it more through music; it’s so accessible. Through the blues, jazz, R&B, people feel the spirit and the soul of the music. It touched them in some way.”

Other guest musicians include Darian Clonts, a vocalist from Atlanta, and Brandon Waddles, a conductor, composer, pianist and educator whose musical career has taken him across the country. Open spots for the course are available to register online.