Church pays 'royalties' for use of Negro spirituals in worship

The Chancel Choir of United Parish in Brookline rehearses. Photo courtesy of the church.

February 11, 2022

“This Little Light of Mine” 
“There is a Balm in Gilead” 
“Were You There When They Crucified My Lord?” 
You’ve sung these hymns in church countless times.
You know the words by heart. 
You hear the melodies in your head. 
What you don’t know is who wrote this amazing music. 
The names of the enslaved people who created these beloved hymns (and many others) are lost to history. These masterful composers received no credit and certainly no payment for their enduring creations. 
Susan DeSelms, who serves as minister of music at United Parish in Brookline in Massachusetts, said the feelings of the mostly white congregation, choir members, and herself, around using this music were always “complicated.”
“I've always stood by my decision to use [Negro spirituals], because they're legit music … beautiful, faithful, spiritual music,” DeSelms said. “I've always felt like it was honoring the music itself to sing it. I would never want to keep it from people. It deserves to be out there.” 
But knowing neither the composers nor their descendants earned their due for this work made how to use it respectfullyin worship “a nut to crack” for DeSelms.
That was the genesis of Brookline’s Negro Spirituals Royalties Project. Since Sunday, Oct. 31, 2021, the church has been collecting an offering, or “royalties,” whenever Negro spirituals are used in worship. To launch the project, spirituals were used each week that November and December.
The royalties, $10,000 from the church so far, go toward supporting Black musicians. (Other groups and individuals have also contributed to the project).
Specifically, the church donates the now monthly offering to Hamilton-Garrett Music & Arts in Roxbury, MA. The mission of the non-profit, affiliated with the Historic Charles Street A.M.E Church, is the “celebration and preservation of Black music.” Its flagship program is a music academy for youth. In a statement, they wrote:
“The majority of our students in the Hamilton-Garrett Music & Arts Academy are descendants of the enslaved Africans from whom these Negro Spirituals originated. Given that many of the students who enter our Academy cannot afford music lessons, it is with the funds that we receive through this initiative that we can provide full scholarships and financial assistance to our students. Our partnership with the United Parish in Brookline began as a small idea and iscontinuing to grow and flourish in both communities.”
The church has committed to making the donations to Hamilton-Garrett for two years “without question,” DeSelms said, then will re-evaluate and decide how to move forward. The practice of collecting royalties is one that she expects the church will continue in perpetuity.
“I hope that [Hamilton-Garrett] can grow and have the resources they need to serve more kids,” DeSelms said. “I hope that we can build a relationship with the church, and that we can foster relationships and trust between a Black church and a primarily white church.”
DeSelms, raised Methodist and the daughter of a church music director, organist, and composer, has a PhD in organ performance and choral conducting from Boston University. 
“Susan is a fantastic, wide-ranging musician, who consistently shows genuine, faithful intention about how our music-making spiritually nourishes both our musicians and worshipers — whether a full Mozart Requiem with 18-piece orchestra in Sunday worship, or Leonard Cohen, Hamilton and Black-Eyed Peas with our youth, and everything in between,” said United Parish’s senior pastor, Rev. Kent French.
Along with the Negro Spirituals Royalties Project information available on the church’s website, DeSelms said that she is working on information to share with congregations that would like to replicate this project in their own communities. Contact her.
“[Susan’s] vision for this remarkable, innovative project is both Spirit-led and justice-driven,” Rev. French said. “She’s made it simple by design, so that any congregation can implement it.”
DeSelms said her goal is to see the practice of “paying respect where respect is due and money that nobody ever thought to pay” expands beyond churches to educational institutions, music publishers and recording artists — “everybody,” she said. 
“My biggest hope is that this becomes something that, around the country, is recognized as a really beautiful way to start to heal divisions and to build trust between black and white communities,” DeSelms said.