Students celebrate black history through song

Posted on Feb 17 2017 - 8:01am by Olivia Morgan

Black History Month, since 1976, has been an annual celebration of achievements by black Americans and a time to celebrate the integral role African Americans have played in U.S. history. So, this month our very own Director of Recruitment & Retention @jarvisaurus1 plans to honor the contributions of African Americans through music. Each week, he plans to post a video of a traditionally African American hymn and give the history of that hymn in the context of black history. "Precious Lord" was written by Rev. Thomas A. Dorsey in 1932. Known as the "Father of Black Gospel Music," Dorsey combined African American church hymns such as those by Methodist minister, Charles A. Tindley (1851-1933), with blues and jazz. This "worldly" combination was not without controversy at first, but set the tone for gospel music for decades to come. His song "Precious Lord" became the most famous of the many gospel strains he wrote. Martin Luther King Jr. drew inspiration from this, his favorite song. It was sung at the rally in Memphis the night before the civil-rights leader's assassination. He also loved singing with the amazingly talented, infamous @blackwitekeyz #UMissBSU #OleMiss #umblackhistory17

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When Jarvis Benson and Leah Davis uploaded a three-minute video of themselves singing the traditionally African-American hymn “Precious Lord” in celebration of Black History Month, they never expected its view count to reach the thousands or for its impact to reach so far across campus.

They just set up a camera in front of a piano in the music building and sat down to showcase their musical ancestry. Davis, who said she had previously uploaded similar videos of herself singing and playing the piano, said people have begun to approach her about their online performance. Even in their newfound recognition, however, they say it’s important to remain focused on the history of the songs themselves.

“It’s not about just the voices or the piano playing,” Benson, a sophomore from Grenada, said. “I want the community to focus on the stories of these writers and composers and people that sang these songs prior to us.”

Benson and Davis, who are both members of the University of Mississippi Gospel Choir, got their start in music through the church. Benson said he can’t remember a time when he wasn’t singing with his family. The second video in his month-long series, uploaded Sunday, features his younger sister harmonizing with him on “Mary Don’t You Weep.”

Davis, a freshman pre-med psychology major, is also from a musical family. She’s the daughter of a music minister in a non-denominational church in Tupelo. Church, Davis said, is an integral part of African-American culture.

“Music is really what carried our generations before us,” she said. “It’s really how we became united as a people.”

She finds her inspiration in those who have come before her, including her father.

“I always thought, ‘I want to be like Daddy,’” Davis said.

Even though she looked up to him as an amazing musician, he always challenged her.

“When I started to play the piano, he always told me, ‘I want you to be better than daddy,’” Davis said.

Now, after 12 years of piano playing, she said he still encourages her to reach for more through her collegiate studies.

Benson also draws inspiration from his elders and their passion and unconditional love.

“They’ve worked their entire lives to build this foundation that we can live on.  It’s so inspiring to know that you’re related to those people,” he said.

“Just to see the people that have walked before you and their wisdom is amazing,” Davis said. “So this month, we celebrate–even though we celebrate black excellence every day, but this month is special to look back at how far we’ve come and just to remind ourselves of who we are.”

The videos have been excellent opportunities for Benson and Davis to explore the history of African-American hymns. While preparing the first post of “Precious Lord,” Benson learned that this was Martin Luther King Jr.’s favorite hymn. He’s enjoyed exploring the complexities of black history through the project.

“There’s so much more depth to blackship,” he said. “So much more than we know.”

“We all are affected by black history,” Davis said. “And it’s not something that’s just in the past; it’s a very present thing.”

The duo said they hope these videos will educate and encourage the community to learn and celebrate black history beyond the month of February.

“You learn something new every day, and it’s not to make someone feel inferior to someone else. It’s just to help someone to realize that the more you know about others, the more you can understand them,” Davis said.

Terrius Harris, president of the University of Mississippi Black Student Union, said he reached out to Benson, who its the director of recruitment and retention, to highlight what he was doing through the BSU’s social media.

“I know that Jarvis has such a passion for this, and you can definitely see that through his singing and the songs that he chooses to use,” Harris said.

Harris said the first video brought him to tears and was a welcome relief to his Facebook news feed.

“You see a lot of bad things on social media, and a lot of tough conversations happening on social media, but when I saw that video, it really touched my heart,” he said.

Harris’ response has been typical of the community, which has celebrated the video garnering more than 6,000 views and 100 shares from Benson’s Facebook page.

“I think that’s just the best part, feeling the love from the community,” Benson said.

The comments range from general praise to revelations of how the songs have personally touched lives.

“My favorite comments are the ones that say, ‘That was my grandmother’s favorite song,’” he said, pointing out that he most enjoys seeing how deeply the hymns are able to connect with people.

“The purpose of it was not just to show off and say, ‘We’re good singers.’ It’s to reach people,” Davis said.

Seeing comments like “this blessed me” and “this helped me a lot” is evidence of the spiritual outreach the duo hoped to use its gifts for with this project.

Benson, an international studies student majoring in Spanish, will be studying abroad next year, but Davis said she may take the reins of the project.

“I would love to keep it going next year,” she said. “I think it would be awesome.”

Davis said she also hopes to get a wide variety of people involved in the future of the project.

“I have had people who have told me that before this, ‘I’ve been so afraid to sing’ or ‘I’ve been afraid to say something about Black History Month,’” Davis said. “And that’s the coolest feeling, to feel like you’ve had a part in inspiring someone to use their voice.”