Celebrating Black History Month at Frost: Weaving the American Tapestry Together

Etienne Charles in concert. 
By Maritza Cosano

Etienne Charles in concert. 

Celebrating Black History Month at Frost: Weaving the American Tapestry Together

By Maritza Cosano
February is Black History Month. And while many people recognize it and celebrate it in spectacular ways, here at Frost, we do that and then some. Not just because it is an integral part of the history of the United States but because it is inextricably connected with the broader history of the country and the world.

"For some, celebrating Black History Month during just one month is a bit of a paradox," says Melvin Butler, associate professor in the Department of Musicology at the Frost School of Music at the University of Miami. "On the one hand, we sort of single out African American or African diasporic experiences, but what's important to me is that people understand that Black history is American history. The experiences of African Americans are inextricable to the fabric of our country, to what made the United States what it is." 

At Frost, Butler teaches African American Song Traditions. The course examines a mix of the musical traditions of Africa, Europe, and Native American cultures and religion, along with other influences from around the world—kind of like music and culture with an intellectual vibe, consisting of lectures and discussions. 

Students from all fields of study get a taste of that Black history experience, which goes across all kinds of domains of culture—from music, dance, art, food, clothing, language, and sports. And that's interesting, he observes, as he sees himself mainly as an ethnographer, someone who studies more modern-day phenomena. This is another way to say he examines the history of people and customs. His passion for Black history started 23 years ago with his studies in Haiti and Jamaica, which has now become part of the historical record he enjoys teaching about in his classes.

"Back then, I was really curious about the relationship between music making and identity, how people were using music to distinguish themselves from others while at the same time expressing a kind of common, shared humanity," explains Butler. "So, what I found is that in really profound ways, music is tied to a cultural identity that sometimes transcends national boundaries." 

Even in the context of the United States, there are, for example, Jamaican churches or Haitian churches, and the music that people are used to worshiping with is deeply connected to their sense of Jamaican or Haitian heritage.   

As Butler centers on Miami, the second-largest city in Florida, and more specifically on the Frost School of Music at the University of Miami, he touches on its diverse culture and how we are weaving the American tapestry together by honoring some of the most successful music artists of all time. In so doing, not forgetting the music that stemmed from jazz, rhythm and blues, gospel, and reggae music, but aligning that with the multicultural influence that's creating some of the most cultural expressions, especially in terms of music. 

Every February, there is an uptick in the number of concerts and events that recognize and celebrate the contributions of Black people. And while this is done in our everyday activity and interaction—whether in the classroom, stage, arena, or boardroom—the Frost School of Music uses this month as a wonderful opportunity to highlight the contributions of people who have not always been given the kind of visibility they've deserved, particularly in music. 

Two concerts in the Frost lineup of activities that are not to be missed:

  • Finding Joy: A Musical Journey Through the Black Experience, on February 6, at 7:30 pm, at Maurice Gusman Concert Hall. The Black Musicians' Caucus (BMC) has partnered with Frost's School Culture, Equity, and Diversity Committee (SCED) to feature students from throughout Frost, highlighting the contributions of Black composers and musicians.

  • Black History Month Celebration with Frost Studio Jazz Band, on February 7, at 7:30 pm, at Maurice Gusman Concert Hall. Led by Etienne Charles, the concert celebrates the iconic Black contributions to the cultural landscape of the Americas and commemorates critical moments in the history of the movement.

"Black History Month at Frost highlights many facets of the works of art and creators inspired by the African American experience and takes them to a wider audience," says Charles. "The activities also bring the works to a wider audience and raise awareness in our community."   

For those interested in art, there's the Black History 101 Mobile Museum display on February 9, from 10 am to 3 pm, at the Shalala Student Center's activities room, with a presentation at 12 pm, followed by a reception. Founded by Dr. Khalid el-Hakim, the program features a collection of more than 10,000 artifacts of Black memorabilia, which covers the history of the transatlantic slave trade—a segment of the global slave trade that transported between 10 million and 12 million enslaved Africans across the globe. 

From the classroom to concerts and museum exhibitions, Frost School of Music hopes to inspire students to hear and talk about the history of Black music-making, which is tightly connected to other musical forms that we listen to today in the US and around the world. A true testament that there's an intertwining of cultural aesthetics, of values that we learn from one another and borrow from one another. 

Black History Month at Frost lets us understand its negative aspects' nuances and complexities. Slavery, oppression, and suffering are challenging subjects to be discussed. However, they lead us to explore and highlight how African American performers were still able to foster hope through their creative expressions. 

"It's valuable for students and for all of us to know that the music that we enjoy today did not come about without a price, that there is sometimes an ugly legacy that precedes the music that we listen to and hear," says Butler. "But if there's a silver lining, we have these incredible artistic creations and examples of role models who persevered despite all of those hardships. And I think those stories of perseverance and resilience can encourage students now who might be going through things in the present day." 

People like Rosetta Tharpe, an unsung hero in the mid-20th century. Nicknamed “the Godmother of Rock-n-Roll,” she was a guitar player and gospel singer who really never got her due. But she influenced Elvis Presley, and many others.

Jazz musicians like Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, and Dizzy Gillespie. Jazz vocalists like Ella Fitzgerald and singer-songwriters like Stevie Wonder and Prince. These artists were a phenomenon in their respective eras and are still influencing musicians today across various genres, including rhythm and blues, pop, rock, soul, gospel, funk, hip-hop, and jazz. 

"We have the whole year, not just a month, to celebrate that the African American musicians we often highlight during Black History Month have always been a part of the story," concludes Butler.