• Mosaic Theater

Marie and Rosetta Four Times Through - Maya Cunningham



I had the privilege of recently serving on the post-show discussion panels after four resounding performances of Marie and Rosetta over the past two weekends. I was told that I made Mosaic Theater Company history - I am the only scholar to have been featured on panels for one production so many times. I did not know of my record-breaking status when I enthusiastically volunteered. The panel topics were so compelling that I just had to sign up. Opportunities to engage in public discussions about such topics as cultural appropriation and boundaries between the sacred and secular in African American music-culture are extremely rare. These issues are often only relegated to scholarly texts, university lecture halls, graduate seminar sessions and perhaps a documentary or two every few years.

As an African American women scholar, it was a privilege to take part in these discussions. It is often the case that for performances of African American music, Euro-American scholars are exclusively called upon to give the official “interpretation” of the performance. I am sure many of these scholars have the best intentions. And things being as they are in our country, since in 2004 blacks made up only 7.1 percent of all doctorates awarded to American citizens (Journal of Blacks in Higher Education, 2018), it is more likely that Euro-Americans scholars might inevitably be called on to participate in many ‘scholarly’ discussion panels. For example, let’s say there is a blues festival that features African American blues musicians from the Delta Mississippi. I have heard that neither the musicians, nor members of the community, are allowed to speak for the music. The festival organizers often invite officious scholars to deliver their lofty orations about the meanings of the music, that are often incorrect because of their outsider positionality to the culture for which they are speaking. I am happy to report that this was not the case with Marie and Rosetta’s post show discussion panels. I was privileged to be one of many African American scholars and culture bearers who spoke from both a scholarly and cultural insider perspective on the complex issues connected with the life and music of Sister Rosetta Tharpe. After all, I came to ethnomusicology for the purpose of speaking for African American music because I was greatly disturbed by the glaring lack of diversity in the scholars who were publishing on and speaking for Black music. With this in mind, it was particularly refreshing to share the stage with several other distinguished African American music scholars, artists and cultural leaders from the Washington DC area.

The Testimony of Rosetta and Marie

After each show we, the panelists and audience, were asked by the discussion moderator, to share out one-word responses to the musical. Mine was ‘testimony.’ Testimony is a word that is often used in many African American churches. To ‘testify’ means to tell what God has done on one’s behalf. The speaker tells how God came through on healing a disease or preventing a foreclosure. Sister Rosetta, as depicted by Roz White, referenced this term in the musical. She admonished Marie Knight that she had to ‘testify’ out loud at the concert that evening a song that she composed about her conflicted feelings on leaving her children to tour with Rosetta. In some African American denominations, like the Church of God In Christ (COGIC), there is an entire service set aside for church members to share out their testimonies called ‘the testimony service.’ I have also seen portions of a regular Sunday service reserved for ‘testimony time.’ To testify, members stand up and sing a song that is connected with the story that they are going to tell. One song that references this practice resounds in black churches from all denominations on many a Sunday morning – When I look back over my life, and I think things over. I can truly say, that I’ve been blessed, I got a testimony…I got a testimony. The choir sings the ‘response’ I got a testimony, clapping in sync and fast on the upbeats (1 -clap- 2 -clap – 3-clap – 4 clap). The organ is walking a bass line. The song leader offers melodious ‘calls’ that share the specifics of his or her story, leading the congregation into ecstatic ‘high praise’ breaks during which the Deacons and Mothers of the Church typically stand up, point their fingers forward and shout amens, hallelujahs, and thank you Jesus! Testimony. And I can tell from their gospel infused vocals and playing, even from their very body language used to perform Rosetta and Marie’s gospel songs, that all six of the black women involved with this musical would have participated in and led such testimony songs at many points in their lives. The spirit and soul of the Black church is infused Sister Rosetta, Madame Marie and the women who helped to bring their story alive – Roz White, Ayana Reed, Ronnette Harrison (piano) and Barbara Gaskins (Guitar).


The testimony that they share is the story of African America. The hardships, the trails, the victories and the overcoming. All six women embody the story of the Black church, the first and most long standing African American institution. The African American church began through the Hush Harbor tradition. Hush harbors were secret meetings held at night by enslaved African Americans all over the South, usually deep in the woods. They would praise, preach, pray, sing, and often plan escapes at hush harbors. Wet quilts hung over branches, or large pots, would be used to muffle their sounds. The spiritual Steal Away makes reference to these meetings: green trees a bendin’, a sinner stands a tremblin’. They would bend tree branches to indicate the direction of the designated meeting place, or to create a ‘harbor’ or ‘arbor’ that would help to conceal the secret worshipers. Sister Rosetta’s gospel-blues filled singing and playing testifies of this part of the African American experience.

Sister Rosetta came out of the Church of God and Christ (COGIC). As of 2018, the COGIC denomination has produced some of the most legendary gospel artists in contemporary times – Kim Burrell, Donnie McClurkin, Karen Clark Sheard and other Clark sisters, including their legendary mother Mattie Moss Clarke. And before these, COGIC gave us Sister Rosetta. COGIC is a denomination known for its exuberant worship traditions. It is COGIC worship that gives us the ‘happy dance’ a kind of foot shuffle driven by the upbeats of a song like “I’m a Soldier in the Army of the Lord,” that any visitor might observe on any given Sunday. COGIC is also known for the “squall” or shout preaching that marks African American Christianity. The songs heavily feature the tambourine. What we hear most of all in Sister Rosetta is the COGIC vocal culture. From choirs to soloists, it is unbelievable – the power, emotional expressiveness and mellifluous quality of the singing tradition is why we have a Sister Rosetta Tharpe. I must also say that to completely understand Sister Rosetta’s singing, one must go outside of the bounds of traditional ethnomusicology or anthropology. Ethnomusicologists often use phrases like ‘religious practice’ or ‘spiritual tradition’ to describe music cultures connected with religion. It should also be known that ethnomusicology, a small branch of anthropology, is infamously atheistic, and is therefore itself a belief system or ‘culture,’ so to speak. I know what I am going to say next is controversial, but I must say it from my own positionality as an African American cultural insider. Anyone who is coming from an atheistic perspective will never fully understand the African American Christian worship tradition from which Sister Rosetta comes. In Sister Rosetta’s culture, God is real, and the Bible is taken seriously. Praise through song is not merely a cultural exercise, but a very real way of expressing devotion to God and to enjoy a relationship with Him. It must be understood how thoroughly African American culture has been shaped by these beliefs in order to fully grasp the source of the emotional intensity of Sister Rosetta and Marie’s music.

On the Panels

Discussion panels are like performances – they never happen the same way twice. Contributing to the panel discussions, especially to the first one, was for me, a relief. I came into ethnomusicology partly because of the egregious cultural appropriation of black music in the United States, and because of the way black music has been treated historically in scholarship, particularly regarding the issue of its origins. To be more specific, historically, there are some scholars who have dedicated their careers to disproving African American musical ingenuity. They have actually assigned a Euro-American origin to core black music forms like spirituals and bebop jazz. I can only surmise that such conclusions stem from these scholars’ belief in the inferiority of people of African descent, and their ignorance of African culture. The well-known Ghanaian ethnomusicologist, Dr. J.H Kwabena Nketia states the solution to such confusion:

…it has become clear that abstracting the crystals of ethnic musical identity from a melting pot requires extremely refined techniques and certainly detailed knowledge of individual African societies and their music…thus the study of African roots must go side by side with the study of the music of Africa (Ethnomusicology and African Music: Modes of Inquiry and Interpretation, 2005:322)

He is saying that one must be an Africanist and African-Americanist in order to truly understand the complexities and origins of African American music. In a way, with my research focus on analyzing the African retentions of various forms of black music, my goal in the field is to reclaim black music from the body of scholarship, and subsequent consensus, that assigns the origins of African American music to Europe or even European America. Yes – my mission is Cultural Reclamation. And towards this goal, I could actually feel my soul sigh in relief when I was able to contribute to my first panel which was titled “Race and Rock ‘n’ Roll: Whitewashing of Black Musical History.”

The discussion included two other scholars – Dr. Saïs Kamalidiin and Rex, a musician and educator. It was moderated by Paige Muller. Dr. Saïs Kamalidiin is an ethnomusicologist, Director of the Center of Ethnomusicology at Howard University and longtime professor in the Department of Music. Rex is an African American rock musician, arts educator and museum professional. I enjoyed their responses to Paige’s questions – questions that are rarely voiced in public. One such question was this: “How did rock and roll music, a genre rooted in black traditions, and many of whose earliest stars were black, come to be known and understood as the natural province of whites?” This line of inquiry is directly related to Sister Rosetta Tharpe because she, an African American, created what we now know as ‘rock’ guitar or even more generally, ‘rock n roll.’ Yet, she is very rarely acknowledged as having done so. Those who copied her, the Elvis’ and Johnny Cash’s, receive all of the accolades. In response, we, the discussants, gave honest and unapologetic answers. Dr. Kamalidiin referenced the power, and assumed privilege, that slave owners asserted over black people who they viewed as their property, including the black body and the black culture, and how such assumptions continued into the Jim Crow era.

I simply said that racism is about power. Elvis, a white man, simply had more power than Rosetta, a black woman. Certainly, in the 1950s, when black women were by and large assigned, in American visual culture, through the US education system and through employment discrimination, to a servant role to whites, usually as a domestic worker, it would have been unlikely for Rosetta to be given the proper power and prestige as the creator of rock and roll. I remember as I was growing up my grandmother expressing her anger at the way culturally biased record companies would assign their own white singing groups to ‘cover’ the popular songs of black groups – with no licensing agreements in place or royalties paid. This practice is depicted in movies like Dream Girls and The Five Heartbeats, and points again to the question of racism as power. The record companies responsible for this simply had the corporate wherewithal, and the white artists the cultural capitol, to do such things with impunity. Therefore, an Elvis simply ‘appropriated,’ or to say it more plainly, stole, Big Mama Thorton’s You Ain’t Nothin but a Hound Dog. He blatantly imitated Sister Rosetta’s guitar style and stage mannerisms. He died rich, as the “King of Rock and Roll,” with his legacy enshrined in Graceland, and Sister Rosetta and Big Mama Thorton both died poor, forgotten and buried in unmarked graves.


Of course, the white artists who engaged in the theft of black’s intellectual and cultural property did not do so alone. Towards this point, Paige also asked why and how white audiences could enthusiastically receive African American music from a white performer, while rejecting the black musicians, and generally the black people, who created it. This is accounted for by what we today call ‘white bias.’ When Paige asked this question an image of a record cover from The Five Heartbeats movie immediately flashed into my mind. Records made for black folks by black musicians were called “race records” from the early 1900s and into the 1950s. During the 1950s and 1960s, some black rhythm ‘n’ blues (R & B) music groups attempted to make “cross over records.” These were black music albums that were marketed and sold to white consumers. Motown records was apparently consumed with this mission in the 1960s. The Five Heartbeats includes a telling scene about this practice. While the group is on the road, Phil, a representative from their record company, Big Red’s Records, arrives with their first “cross over” album. Instead of featuring the group’s five smiling brown faces on the cover (as was planned), the record company placed on the cover an illustration of a white family at the beach. I do not have time to go into a deep analysis of how the picture recontextualizes the group’s name and the album’s title, in a kind of bazaar minstrelsy. But this example presents the answer to Paige’s initial question. Reflecting very real practices at the time, this fictitious record company marketed black sounds using white images to white consumers who held this preference. This is an example of white bias. A white performer, be it Elvis, Christina Aguilera or Adele, producing black music sounds embodies the same paradigm. Such issues are disturbing and offensive. I can only imagine the frustration and pain that my grandmother and the people of her generation experienced. And this is not to say that the Beatles, Eric Clapton, Van Morrison and Joe Cocker did not engage in the blues aesthetic to create some fantastically creative, expressive and beautiful music. I am glad they did. However, none of the good music of the classic rockers stands outside of the historical racial and power constructions of the modern world. Let’s face it, folks – this is the country, the global system, that we were all born into. Nothing will heal if we do not talk about it.

I am sure that it is apparent that I am very invested in the topic of that first panel. But know that the other topics were also interesting. The next three discussions covered “The Musical Dynamics of Rosetta and Marie,” “Women Trailblazers in Popular Music” and “Gospel and the Blues: Where the Sacred Meets the Secular in African American Music.” I am sure you can guess that these topics were like candy for the panelists, who ranged from cultural leaders, like Sunny Sumpter, Director of the DC Jazz Festival, Dr. Saïs Kamalidiin, who I mentioned before, and Dr. Maurice Jackson a historian and professor at Georgetown University, who just published a book called DC Jazz: Stories of Jazz Music in Washington DC. We shared stories of little-known women music innovators, talked about blues played in Juke Joints and gospel in black churches, debated about the role of women instrumentalists in jazz and discussed the vocality of Sister Rosetta’s gospel-blues guitar. The truth is that an academic response to the music of Sister Rosetta Tharpe and Marie Knight could warrant dozens of books and hundreds of talking hours. Our post-show discussions were just a start and will hopefully inspire more soon to come.

Maya Cunningham is pursuing an MA/PhD in ethnomusicology at the University of Maryland, College Park. Cunningham holds a Bachelor of Music in jazz studies from Howard University and a Master of Arts in jazz performance from Aaron Copland School of Music at Queens College. Her research interests are in African-American and Southern African traditional music and identity. She is also an expert on jazz vocalists and jazz history. In April 2017 she launched Ethnomusicology In Action, which is a project of Themba (Tem-ba) Arts and Culture, a non-profit organization. This project includes the Ethnomusicology In Action Curriculum Project, a professional development program that uses research in Black music and culture to empower African American children with robust music education curricula that teaches them about their history, culture and traditional music. As a part of this project, Cunningham launched a radio show on WOWD 94.3 FM called Music In Culture: Sounds of the Black Experience that airs monthly.


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