Singing Justly

People often ask how we can sing songs justly from traditions that are not our own. Singing an-other* people’s music can be an expression of appreciation and respect. It can also be an act of cultural misappropriation, or even a violation against the people who created the song. How then do we sing justly? Here are three principles to consider:

  • Be attentive to context and relationship. Learn about the place where the song comes from. Include that place and its people in our prayers, bulletins, sermons, in community actions, in our mission projects.
  • Be accountable in relationship. Find out if there are people from the song’s community in the congregation or surrounding community. Invite them to share in the leadership of the song. Ask someone from the song’s community to teach the song to the choir and congregation—and pay them! Tangible actions deepen practices of accountability.
  • Be open to transforming relationships. Singing justly changes us. Singing justly means building relationships with communities near and far that are connected to the songs we sing. How do our actions for justice connect to what we sing? This is not easy work. It involves an ongoing commitment to learning, sharing, building relationships, taking risks, and being uncomfortable. The way we do things might be challenged, changed, and transformed in the act of receiving learning from an-other community.

(* Néstor Medina suggests using an-other instead of “other” as a way to humanize relationships and challenge otherization, particularly of people who are from marginalized communities. Néstor Medina: “Jürgen Moltmann and Pentecostalism(s): Toward a Cultural Theology of the Spirit,” in Love and Freedom: Systematic and Liberation Theology in the Canadian Context, ed. David John C. Zub and Robert C. Fennell (Toronto: Toronto School of Theology, 2008), 113.)

Becca Whitla, is the professor of practical ministry and the Dr. Lydia E. Gruchy Chair in Pastoral Theology at St. Andrew’s College in Saskatoon, Sask. This article is largely based on her blog “Singing Justly,” which you can find on the Gathering Worship website. You can also read more in her book Liberation, (De) Coloniality, and Liturgical Practices: Flipping the Song Bird (Palgrave McMillan, 2020).