“Let our stories be told. May our songs be sung. Hear our words be spoken.” These are the hopes of the upcoming performance of BE-SPOKEN on April 30. Exploring the stories of Black people in America through spoken word, gospel, and hip-hop, BE-SPOKEN is a musical work written by Emorja Roberson DMA ’22 and collaborative artist Anthony Walker. Before the performance, we asked creator Emorja Roberson a couple of questions to better understand his inspiration behind the show.
When and how were you inspired to begin working on BE-SPOKEN?
Roberson: I began writing music for my final recital during my Fall 2018 semester. I had no idea what the final project would entail, but I knew it would flourish into a story that would have multiple parts embodying musical elements of the African diaspora.
How does spoken word, gospel, and hip-hop work together in this show?
Roberson: Each movement will encompass a genre of its own. “Let My People Go,” based on extended chords often found in neo-soul, outlines the opening motif and moves to a contemporary gospel groove by the end of the song. Pamela Blair, a poet based out of South Bend, helped to compose the lyrics for “In My Heart You’ll Stay (A Mother’s Lament)” which will involve an exchange between her, speaking the poetry, and Ledisi. The audience will also experience a performance of hip-hop on “Stop Killing Me” with King Chav as the featured artist.
Can you tell us a bit about your special guests? How did you come together for this project?
Roberson: Chavis T Gill (King Chav) and I met at the University of North Florida, where we pledged Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, Inc. (Fall 2010) together. He is my LB, that’s short for “line brother.” It was early on that we noticed we were the two musicians of the line, and someday, we would perform together. It’s humbling to know that it would be one of the most important performances of my career.
My first encounter with Anthony [Walker] was at the 2017 Hampton University Ministers’ Conference. He was playing a solo on the piano, and from that point on, I started following his journey. On June 30, 2020, I sent him a Facebook message to get his number. From there, the rest is history, literally.
One day, I let my friend, Dr. Brandon Waddles, hear my song “Get Up.” After asking who he thinks would sound good singing it, he said “Ledisi.” After that response, I decided to jump off the deep end and invite her to be a guest artist for my recital. My immediate thought was, “Welp, if I’m gonna go big, I’m gonna do it right.”
As an artist, do you have any techniques for nurturing creativity in your life?
Roberson: Honestly, I am inspired by everything. Growing up in the Black church and learning how to think on the fly, the Spirit would push me in directions that led me to immediate creativity.
What led you to pursue the Doctor of Musical Arts at Notre Dame?
Roberson: I grew up in DeFuniak Springs, Florida, where all I did was go to school and church; and you know, sprinkled in with sports from time to time as well. In a small town, church was your fun activity. That was the place where you spent time with your friends outside of school. Music chose me.
As I was nearing the end of my high school experience, I was juggling between digital media and anesthesiology. It wasn’t until I performed in the Negro Spiritual Scholarship Foundation’s Grady-Rayam Project and won first runner-up for the region that I decided to go to school for music.
Two degrees later, I am at the University of Notre Dame pursuing my Doctor of Musical Arts as the first African-American. Why did I choose to do it? Because the department — and University at large — needed to see what Black sacred music looked and felt like. People needed this experience. Black people need to feel that they have space where their music is celebrated and performed. If the school is to bring in more people of color, show them what can be done.
In addition to your doctoral studies, you have a master’s in Sacred Music and conduct the Voices of Faith gospel choir on campus. How has your background in sacred music influenced your work on BE-SPOKEN, if at all?
Roberson: Quite frankly, my experience as a master’s student did not impact this work. The music that I studied as a student was of the Western European tradition, completely opposite of the performance practice of Black sacred music. Voices of Faith is my outlet. That is the closest thing to practicing gospel on a regular basis. As it relates to BE-SPOKEN, I can’t say that either of the two influenced the project.
In addition to composing and conducting, you’re a vocalist yourself. How do you balance these pursuits, and is it ever difficult to maintain time for vocal training?
Roberson: Whew! Balance is something I am still learning. As much as I try to compartmentalize the roles I juggle, it is difficult to separate them. Each one influences the other, and because of that, I’m singing one minute, conducting the next, and before you know it, I am improvising on the spot.
If you could perform with one other artist — dead or alive — who would it be and why?
Roberson: That’s easy – Donny Hathaway. His vocals and his piano chops are a duo. You can’t separate them. The way that he sings his music is heartfelt and you can feel it coming from his soul. He left everything on the stage.
Do you have any advice for aspiring artists, especially those who may be pursuing a master’s or doctoral degree in music at Notre Dame?
Roberson: Do not be intimidated by what you see. Do what has not been done. If you’ve been invited, it’s because you’re wanted. Shake the tradition and be a trailblazer.
A big thank you to Emorja Roberson for his insightful answers! BE-SPOKEN will take place on April 30 at 7:30 p.m. Be sure to grab your tickets early so you don’t miss this poignant performance.