Emorja Roberson — current Sacred Music Notre Dame doctoral candidate — commissioned poem by South Bend resident and The Poetry Den founder Pam Blair for his evening-length oratorio BE-SPOKEN
As if Sacred Music Notre Dame (SMND) graduate student Emorja Roberson DMA ’22 weren’t already accomplished and deeply connected to the South Bend community, he doubled down with his latest project. The artist is currently leading rehearsals for BE-SPOKEN, his original oratorio. The work includes the song “In My Heart You’ll Stay (A Mother’s Lament),” from a poem by Pam Blair, a prolific artist and leader within South Bend’s poetry community. The premiere of BE-SPOKEN spotlights a duet: Blair reading her poem and the 2021 Grammy winner for best traditional R&B performance, Ledisi, singing from it. The lament is the first of two songs by the powerhouse vocalist, actor, and author. Collaborative artist Anthony Walker and Christian hip-hop’s King Chav are additional featured performers. BE-SPOKEN is Saturday, April 30 at 7:30 p.m. at the DeBartolo Performing Art Center. Presenting Series tickets are $25 regular, $15 for students.
In commissioning a work by Blair for inclusion in his degree recital, Roberson didn’t know she was a long-time Ledisi fan. He did know he wanted the combination of Blair’s text and the voice of the woman who portrayed Mahalia Jackson in 2015’s Selma to help propel the oratorio’s narrative arc about the Black experience in America. Blair wanted the same in what has become a coup and a first for her and Roberson.
Roberson is SMND’s first African American master’s graduate in vocal performance. With BE-SPOKEN as his degree recital, the baritone will also become the graduate program’s first African American recipient of the doctor of musical arts in choral conducting degree. Known as a gospel artist, he concentrates on African-American repertoire. The new work is a departure, including a full choir, string quartet, five-piece band, and narration, all performing at different points throughout the evening.
Roberson drew on both his academic and lived experiences in writing the work. He spoke first to the creative milieu, saying, “When I got here, I noticed that classical music could be done differently. It could have more influence than what I was accustomed to hearing. That was through J.J. [Wright DMA ’17] and Emerson [Eads DMA ’18] who did his recording, “A Mass for the Oppressed,” which is something I still keep dear to me because of him just including me. When I saw that could happen, I was like, what can I do to make this moment memorable?”
Roberson began writing while a research associate in 2017–2018, initially struggling with the concept. “I wanted to make sure that I had ‘Let My People Go’ as classical to have some gospel. But I wanted to get away from what people normally think of when a Black person is composing. I knew what an oratorio was but wanted to make this modern.”
Then, as a Black man, Roberson found he was well primed for the modern cultural moment that was about to happen. “I put it away for a little bit, honestly. And after George Floyd, I picked it up again and said, ‘Okay, let me revisit some of these thoughts now.’”
Those thoughts also turned to the 2021 launch of his BLACK@ND podcast, which, along with conducting area choirs, increased Roberson’s influence on- and off-campus. “I started to see the social climate, where we were and where we are, and how I can put this together in a piece that speaks, not only from my lens but from the lens of another Black man or from a mother who may have lost a child or from people who are supporters, who are allies. So, I have different songs that come from different angles.”
Songs include Roberson’s unique take on the gospel mainstays “Let My People Go” and “It Is Well.” Original compositions include the overture, performed by the Washington, D.C.-based Walker, Ledisi, and Blair on “In My Heart You’ll Stay (A Mother’s Lament)” about a child lost to violence, and the lament’s response “Stop Killing Me,” featuring Roberson and Florida’s King Chav. Ledisi also performs a selection she is choosing. Other guest artists include Chicago gospel powerhouse Donishisa Ballard and HarRell D. Young. Each captures the voice of the characters they create, propelling the oratorio’s story.
With firsts come questions about legacy. Roberson said, “With gospel, there is an educational experience, and then there’s a spiritual experience. For us to bridge the gap, there needs to be someone on stage who is of the tradition, teaching, and leading people. I want my legacy to be that Emorja gave people this space to learn.”
BE-SPOKEN with Emorja Roberson DMA ’22 is made possible by the Teddy Ebersol Endowment for Excellence in the Performing Arts and the Sharon A. Devine Endowment for Excellence. Additional support is provided by Sacred Music Notre Dame, the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies, and Multicultural Student Programs and Services.