Sing it

Kuumba offers a first-year student music, community and "paperless learning."

By Ian Askew ‘19

A couple weeks ago, as I was waiting at the airport for my flight back to Boston, I thought about what I was returning to. I tried to think of the lessons I had learned over last semester and how I could apply them to my next round. But the highs and lows of the past several months began to melt into one long memory. I couldn’t quite put my finger on the lessons I had learned, but somehow knew I was ready and that I had plenty to look forward to. My second semester as a Harvard student would start on a good foot. I would be spending my first week back with The Kuumba Singers.

When I first came to campus I knew what I liked but not what I wanted to do. I liked music, black history and activism. I also knew I was going to need support and friends who I could count on to ease my transition into college. I didn’t expect to find all of this in a choir.

Kuumba SingersKuumba is a one of few home-bases for me at Harvard, a space where I can return to energize myself and spend time with friends.

When folks back home ask what extracurricular activities I do, I often jokingly respond that I haven’t yet walked into a room where they could tell me to leave. This was especially true of Kuumba. I didn’t comp, apply, punch or audition. I walked in, sat down and was immediately welcomed. Kuumba continued to welcome me week after week, feeding my love of music and affirming my blackness. The community was always ready to embrace new people and new audiences.

Kuumba had reached out to me, and this semester I wanted to help reach out to others. I did this with the group’s winter tour, or Wintour, which takes place annually during Winter Session, the week of workshops, elective classes and activities before the spring semester gets rolling. This year’s tour consisted mostly of performances for students in elementary and middle schools in the Boston area. Over the course of the week, I traveled with a small group of singers (less than a third of the usual choir size) by bus and train to each gig, learning the length of the red line and the importance of warm socks.

A number of choir alums had invited us to perform at the schools where they teach. They were excited to have black Harvard students performing for their students, who are mostly black and Latino and don’t always see places like Harvard represented by faces like Kuumba’s.

We took the opportunity to teach the students about the history behind the music we sang, how we all worked together and what our blackness means to us. The choir members talked about their voice parts, where they were from and where their people came from (often Haiti, as it turns out). And, of course, the students had lots of questions. Kuumba Singers

“How far away is Harvard?”

“Can you be any race to join Kuumba?”

“Can you dance?”

They often opted for statements.

“I want to go to Harvard!”

“I like the drums.”

“My cousin goes to college.”

Fielding the full curiosity of these students, the blurring division between audience and performer became increasingly clear to me. They were learning from us, from their teachers and from their peers. I was learning from them, their teachers and from my peers. When one student asked how we sang with such confidence, I responded that I had just finished learning a particular song right before that performance. I had learned it from the singer standing right next to me. In fact, that’s how I learned a lot of the songs we sang.

The pride with which I admitted this made it clear to me that this often paperless learning process was not a quirk of Kuumba as much as the direct practice of its mission.

Kuumba is not only a performance choir, but also a community built on collective learning, exploring and support. Wintour wasn’t “community outreach.” It was teachers and students of all ages opening their arms, minds and mouths to each other, ready to give and ready to learn.

With images of those bright and eager young students in my mind, I have entered my second semester ready to give and ready to learn.