On March 3, Geneseo alumna Ysaye Marie Barnwell led students, faculty and local residents in a Community Sing in the Union Ballroom to celebrate the legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr. and the civil rights movement.
Barnwell graduated from Geneseo with Bachelor and Master of Science degrees in speech pathology in 1967 and 1968, respectively. She went on to earn a Doctor of Philosophy in speech pathology from University of Pittsburgh in 1975 and a Master of Science in Public Health from Howard University in 1981. Through all this, Barnwell remained heavily involved in the community and in music.
In 1979, Barnwell joined Sweet Honey In The Rock, a Grammy-winning all-female African-American a cappella ensemble. Barnwell has also been commissioned as a composer, arranger, author and actress on many projects including choral, film, video, dance and theatrical endeavors.
Barnwell explained the tradition of singing in African-American culture, noting that from the age of slavery to the present, music has served a purpose. "The civil rights movement was a singing movement," Barnwell said.
"It's through music that everything we knew was passed on," Barnwell continued. "Lyrics will tell you what it was like to be enslaved."
Barnwell started the sing with a comically confusing warm up to get everyone loosened up and laughing. As the evening went on, the songs became more complex and the audience was split into vocal groups. For two and a half hours, nearly every member participated, adding voices to each section and creating layers of melodies.
Songs addressed more than just the efforts so often associated with King. Barnwell integrated themes of justice, poverty and race into the music.
Audience members enthusiastically learned their respective parts, singing in rounds and harmonizing as Barnwell wove their vocals together.
"I was expecting a real sense of unity among the campus, and that's what it was," said senior Fiona Harvey. "I felt I was back at home; it was the church feel."
"It brought back memories of when I played an instrument," said senior Mekal Ogbeab. "It let me use a side I don't usually get to use."
Barnwell left participants in high spirits by wrapping up the evening with a harmonious rendition of "Amazing Grace."