The Annual Dr. S. Allen Counter and Dean Archie C. Epps Winter Concerts
Friday, December 1st and Saturday, December 2nd, 2023 | 8pm
Harvard Memorial Church
A MESSAGE FROM KUUMBA CO-FOUNDER, DENNIS W. WILEY '72
Dear Kuumba Singers,
Congratulations on your Half Century Celebration! When a group of Black students, primarily from the Harvard-Radcliffe Classes of 1971-1974, gathered around a baby grand piano in a second-floor lounge of the old Freshman Union Building on a cold November night in 1970, who could have known we were laying the foundation of an enduring Harvard institution that would survive and thrive for over 50 years?
In the wake of the 1968 assassination of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Black students on predominantly White college campuses across America were caught up in a growing movement of Black Power and Black Pride. We were determined not to be swallowed up by the dominant culture, but to carve out our own spaces in these alien academic surroundings where we could proudly and unapologetically assert our Black identity, retrieve our lost history, and release our suppressed creativity.
Inspired by Professor Hubert Walters’ “History of Black Music” class that he taught in the spring of 1970, classmates and Kuumba co-founders Fred Lucas and I—with support from the newly established Afro-American Studies Department and Afro-American Cultural Center—dedicated the following summer to exploring how Black music could become a more integral part of the Harvard experience.
From this emerged a group known simply as “The Gospel Choir,” which was never called the “Harvard-Radcliffe Gospel Choir” because, in that day and time, we were less interested in broadcasting our association with an elite, White university than we were in declaring our solidarity with the Black Church and the Black Community. The name “Kuumba Singers” was eventually chosen by the choir because, while expressing our identification with our African Heritage, it also conveyed the genius of Black people through the creativity of Black music.
I shall never forget when Fred and I met with Professor Walters and secured his commitment to become the choir’s first director. I shall also never forget when a young, effervescent, first-year Radcliffe student named Marilynn Sasportas joined Fred and me in contacting and encouraging folks to attend the very first rehearsal.
When I think about what Kuumba means to me, the first word that comes to mind is creativity; the second is family. Kuumba, for me, is a creative family that offers a variety of Black music, including African Folk songs, Negro Spirituals, Traditional and Contemporary Gospel, Master Choral Works, and original compositions. Its creativity is expressed not only through musical variety, but also through artistic innovation. That is why Kuumba concerts may include poetry, dancing, drama, visual arts, slide shows, instrumental music, and other forms of artistic expression in addition to singing.
Kuumba’s progression over the past 50+ years reminds me of the extended definition of the Swahili word, “Kuumba”: “To do always as much as we can, in the way we can, in order to leave our community more beautiful and beneficial than when we inherited it.” Beyond the wildest imaginations of your founders, Kuumba has evolved to become one of the most racially and ethnically diverse student organizations on the Harvard campus. As long as you never forget your roots and always remember your original purpose for being—to celebrate Black creativity and spirituality through song—I know you will continue to leave the space called Harvard, as well as the community and, indeed, the world that surrounds it, better than when you inherited it.
So again, congratulations, Kuumba Singers. You make your predecessors proud. May the same God who brought you through these 50+ years in the wilderness lead you to the Promised Land of growth, prosperity, and success for many more years to come!
Yours in the struggle,
Dennis W. Wiley '72, MDiv, MPhil, PhD
Kuumba Founder, 1970
Kuumba (v., Swahili): to create.
The Swahili word "kuumba," meaning “to create," embodies the choir's mission: to express the creativity and spirituality of black people through song and other art forms such as dance, poetry and spoken word. The Kuumba Singers explore and share the rich musical culture of black people through spirituals, gospel, African folk songs, and contemporary music.
Black music is a manifestation of the black spirit - it speaks to our every emotion. Moreover, black music helps sustain and direct our culture. It reminds us of our past situation in this country, makes us mindful of the present, and gives us hope and guidance for the future.