Before giving the floor to renowned composer and singer Ysaye Barnwell, Calhoun College Master Jonathan Holloway suggested the audience join in to sing one of her most popular songs, “Wanting Memories.” To the surprise of the many students who know him as a history professor or master, he kicked it off with the bass harmony.
Barnwell, a member of the African-American female a cappella group Sweet Honey in the Rock, addressed about 30 students at a Calhoun College Master’s Tea Wednesday. Barnwell, who sings bass, took the opportunity to tell students about the power of music, a point which resounded with many in the audience.
“Music is essential,” Barnwell said. “It’s how you document your life.”
Barnwell said she has been singing in Sweet Honey in the Rock since 1979, a few years after its founding in 1973. She described the vital role that music has played in understanding the human experience, citing the Civil Rights Movement as an example.
She told the group of attendees that music even plays a role in pubic health, which she discovered while pursuing a postdoctoral degree at Howard University. Through lyrics to their songs, mine and textile workers have been able to describe diseases brought on by their occupation with surprising accuracy, she said.
Barnwell said the deeply personal nature of music can make composing for other performers difficult.
“Ordinary people use music to understand who they are,” Barnwell said. “As a composer, I have to put words in someone else’s mouth.”
Barnwell said she had a difficult time composing music for a middle school choir. In order to create the most relevant arrangement possible, Barnwell said she employed a style of music she strongly disliked — hip-hop. While she believed that it was a valid form of music, she decried the use of misogyny and racism in its lyrics.
“I don’t listen to a lot of music these days, and hip-hop is last on the list,” Barnwell said.
Nevertheless, Barnwell said she arranged the song and centered its lyrical focus on words. She said she paired the style of music with clean and inspiring words to send a message against the use of hateful lyrics in urban music.
Barnwell said she has also utilized the power of music to foster community. While she recognized the importance of established performance groups, she said there was something special about singing without auditions and rehearsals.
“Singing is for everybody,” Barnwell said. She came to tears at the when the crowd of people, many of whom were familiar with her music, once again began singing “Wanting Memories,” which she composed after the death of a friend’s parent.
Micah Hendler ’11, who helped bring Barnwell to the University, said he agreed with her sentiment. Hendler, who organizes events at Yale in which any student can come participate in an evening of singing, said he was emotionally touched after the spontaneous song, describing it as, “one of the most moving experiences of my life.”
Natalie Willis ’13 said she agreed with the positive effect of the tea.
“It made me happy to be in a room full of Yalies singing,” Willis said.
Several groups on campus sing music composed by Barnwell, including a cappella groups like Shades of Yale and Something Extra.