Baruch Whitehead, associate professor of music education, received the 2014 Martin Luther King Jr. Peacemaker Award on Jan. 18. Members of the Greater Ithaca Activities Center and the Community Dispute Resolution Center give out one award per year to recognize individuals and organizations that work nonviolently for social change.
Whitehead has worked at Ithaca College since 2002. He currently directs several music groups both on campus and in the community. In his career, he has given presentations on race and diversity in music for state and national conventions, and he recently wrote a chapter on the role of music in the civil rights movement for the collaborative book series, “Music and Conflict Transformation.”
Online News Editor Jack Curran spoke with Whitehead about his work in the community, the MLK Peacemaker Award and the importance of music in the civil rights movement.
Jack Curran: Tell me a little about the music groups you direct.
Baruch Whitehead: I work with the Dorothy Cotton Jubilee Singers, which is a community-based group. I started it because I wanted to preserve the nature of the Negro spiritual, so we do mostly the repertoire of the Negro spirituals, but we do other African-American spiritual music.
JC: What is the goal of your music groups?
BW: My goal is to bring together the community because I feel like Ithaca is a unique area that really supports these groups. So with the jubilee singers, I try to have a racially mixed group. Even though we do sacred music, we’re not affiliated with a church or anything, so I have Jewish people, I have gay people, I have straight people. Anyone who loves that form of music is more than welcome to audition.
Then there’s the VOICES Multicultural Chorus, which I’ve been directing for almost 10 years now. We strive to bring in music from around the world. Again, it’s to spread music and bring people together. This semester, we’re concentrating on a new piece by one of our members called “Moses from Quran.” We really want to use that to promote understanding of Middle Eastern culture.
I basically use music to tear down walls. I think it’s the power of music that lets you put your guard down. If you were from Japan or China, and I knew a folk song, and I start singing it — and this has actually happened to me — that just breaks down the doors, and then we’re able to communicate. Music is not necessarily an ethnic experience, even though we have ethnic music — it’s more of a human experience.
JC: Why do you think you were chosen for the award?
BW: There are so many people that do so many good things, so how does my music make me a peacemaker? I don’t know. I try to connect with people, I try to listen, I try to bring people together. Those things are important to me, and I try to look at the equity issue in our community, to make sure that music is accessible to all, particularly the children.
JC: Could you talk a little about the role of music in the civil rights movement?
BW: I think music in particular is an avenue that can stir people’s souls, give them courage where there’s no courage, give them hope where there’s no hope, and it does this in a non-threatening way. When we sing “We Shall Overcome,” while someone is beating you in the head, somehow that gives you strength to take that blow without striking back.
The music of the civil rights movement wasn’t a soundtrack of a movement; it was the movement. Without the music, the civil rights movement would have been very different. I describe it as a new wine in old wineskin; they took the spirituals, which had their roots in the suffering of African-Americans in this country, and they gave them new words.