After a two-hour discussion on April 11 during the Founder’s lunch, it was decided that Shut De Do, a song written by Randy Stonehill, would be removed from the repertoire for many reasons, but ultimately because it was discovered that the song was not in keeping with the Shades mission. Along with Amen/We Shall Overcome, Shut De Do was a signature song of the Shades repertoire since its inception in 1988. For 27 years, the song was performed with great sentiment at the end of each concert. It was a song that unified Shades alumni across the years. I was there in the room moderating the discussion, which took place between members of the current Shades group, recent alumni, and older alumni who joined us via conference call and skype, and through written opinions that were read during the meeting. It was a civil and respectful discussion, but definitely and rightfully charged with emotion.
When researching the song to write an introduction for a Shades performance, students Shirley Paxton-Fofang and Abdul-Razak Zachariah found the following video of Randy Stonehill performing Shut De Do. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wjq1-_RnL-w The video is demeaning and insulting not only to people of Caribbean descent, but also to anyone who believes in the accurate, unbiased portrayal of all members of the human family. Randy Stonehill not only makes fun of the Caribbean accent, but even worse exoticizes Caribbean peoples, calling for the audience to “go native” and to “regress and unlearn many things,” in order to sing the song and be closer in some way to a distorted black noble savage aesthetic that is oversimplified, falsely lauded, and symptomatic of an ignorant world view. The students also found this blogpost below critiquing the song and the performance, which comments on everything from the “false attributions of the song to Caribbean folk music or African American Spirituals” to the simple fact that “Stonehill is making fun of Black Caribbean culture.”
Originally Shut De Do was adopted into the repertoire in 1988 with the understanding that it was a “Caribbean folk song.” The song resonated with me and the other founding members of Shades, and it represented vocal music of the diaspora that came from outside the US. It was a joyous and familiar melody that we sang with great affection. In 2009, the Shades Alumni Family published a book called the African Diaspora Playlist, where Shades alumni commented on music of the diaspora whether or not it was in the Shades repertoire. During this time, there was a lot of research done on songs of the diaspora, and I discovered that Randy Stonehill was indeed the composer of Shut De Do. The song was not a Caribbean folk tune, as we were led to believe back in the early days. This information was published in the African Diaspora Playlist, but the uproar really came with the discovery of this video with Stonehill’s controversial words and attitude.
The Mission of Shades
The Mission as stated in the original constitution of signed in by the Founding Members in the spring of 1989 states:
“Shades is an a cappella singing group conceptualized and reflective of the ethnic musical backgrounds of its members. Our purpose is to provide an authentic portrayal of our various traditional and contemporary ethnic music for the Yale community.”
That Mission statement has evolved into the mission articulated on the current Shades of Yale website http://www.shadesofyale.org/about-1/
“Shades is a co-educational a cappella group founded to celebrate music of the African Diaspora. It is our objective to offer a unique, musically excellent, and spiritually enriching performance experience to audiences at Yale University and beyond. Drawing from the diverse backgrounds of our members and the oral traditions of blacks in America, we strive to portray authentically the depth and complexity of the black experience. In addition to mastering the style of our music, we develop an appreciation of its history and roots in order to educate audiences about our musics lineage. We acknowledge and accept that we are endowed with both the responsibility and the privilege of giving a voice to the voiceless, and we aim to do so through the richness of our repertoire, with its power to inspire and unite us and our audiences.”
“Authentic portrayal” and “depth of the complexity of the black experience”—these are two phrases from the mission statement that were indirectly and directly referenced during the April 11 discussion. Randy Stonehill’s song (and the false depiction of Caribbean culture imbued therein, as evinced by this video) position Shut De Do squarely counter to the authentic and complex portrayal of the black experience that Shades strives towards.
Other Salient Arguments
Though everyone found the Stonehill video offensive, there were arguments were presented on April 11 as to whether on not the song should be cut from the repertoire. I have not attached names to these arguments, though alumni reading this article should feel free to identify themselves and build upon there comments.
Some saw value in keeping the song for the following reasons:
“black identity is and will ALWAYS be misappropriated, misunderstood and commercialized. This misappropriation and misunderstanding has been a glaring thread running through the fabric of our country since its formative documents in 1776. … Justin Timberlake and other artists do this and have become commercial successes. … Grammy nominations, especially the nominations of Iggy Azelea, sparked discussions around misappropriation of black music and the superficial ways that artists attempt to align themselves with black culture in superficial ways. … Black artists now misappropriate and misunderstand themselves in the music industry … So, in my opinion, removing Shut de Do on the basis of Stonehill’s performance of the song in a YouTube video is not a strong enough argument to warrant removal of it from the Shades repertoire. If this were so, the current group as well as alums would have to eliminate music in the repertoire performed by artists who misappropriate the black experience and our multi-faceted black identity and culture. The list would be endless.”
“I think this is an “inadvertent” example of how people of the diaspora have taken phrases, imagery, etc. that were intended to be demeaning (or thought to be demeaning by those with a need to debase others in order to feel like they are worth something) and turned them into a thing of beauty. I remember when we learned Shut De Do and the rendering was absolutely beautiful, dignified and something one could take pride in as a person of diasporan descent.… In my opinion, this discovery can be used as a teaching point. Shades’ rendition is awesome and uplifting from a diasporan perspective and sadly, much of diasporan was birthed out of pain and discrimination – although clearly not like this. … So I vote to keep it, and I will still love Shades if people need to let it go.”
“deciding to disavow the song, a foundational portion of our group’s history, would be analogous to cutting ties with a family member after discovering that s/he is “only half” related to us (not that such occurrences don’t routinely happen). … I’ll spare everyone a theological analysis of the lyrics, but I believe many of us generally agree that the song reflects Shades’ individual and collective journeys of overcoming … the current group could use this discovery as a teaching moment, perhaps with a predominant focus on racial/cultural reconciliation.”
“Just removing the song altogether would be the easy way out, which is not what Shades is/was about. Removing it would give a whole lot of power to a person whose real power is not that he has a video on youtube, but that he can be an object lesson on 1) how not to be racist and 2) how to fight against that which seeks to misrepresent you. It could be Shades’ opportunity to reaffirm its original cultural justice agenda. #Imayhavemadethatphraseup”
“I feel strongly that shying away from the complex history of racial/ethnic representation would be a mistake. However unpleasant, even painful, this discovery was, it is important to discuss it and not hide it away. SDD was our signature song for what it meant to the group as Shades came into existence, and what it has meant to pass a legacy down. (It’s also a fun song to sing) Personally, I think we should not abandon the song. I think we own it’s history and re-claim it as part of who we are.
Frankly, it’s about time there’s some reverse cultural appropriation. … In the case of at least one male group on campus, their decision has been to hide away the fact that their early predecessors sang Southern ditties with blatantly racist lyrics, extolling the pacific memories of African American slaves toiling in the field labor as a backdrop to missing home. … For that group, I understand why the songs are not sung. They can’t be redeemed and recuperated with explanation because that group does not have the mission or the charge that Shades does to represent voices (music, cultures) that we do. … My vote, to the extent an alum has one, is to keep SDD in the repertoire, and ask the current group to craft the right statement of explanation that should go with it. … a full-blown statement of learning about discovery and re-appropriation.”
Some wanted to cut the song altogether for the following reasons:
“Frankly, the history of American music, perhaps of music in general, is filled with problematics, black, white, or whatever else. We could probably have a discussion about every song in Shades repertoire that is not US American (and maybe even those that are) – how we frame them, how we perform them, how well-informed we are about them, authenticity, pronunciation, what prejudices we bring to those decisions. … So it’s not a question of ensuring that every song is squeaky clean because nothing is – it’s a matter of figuring out whether or not the music serves (our mission/purposes) …In this particular case, I’m not convinced that it does serve sufficiently.”
Some folks not quoted word for word here expressed the following:
(1) Stonehill’s video as a kind of betrayal, that a song once loved so much was discovered to have such bias behind it. A betrayal too painful to get past.
(2) The idea of cultural rubrics was raised and who gets to define different ethnic groups, and that Stonehill’s performance was a mockery of Caribbean culture to be eliminated from the repertoire.
(3) The argument was made that it would be difficult to use the song as a teaching moment when (1) there was little or no time in the performance to communicate such a complex issue, (2) some of the audiences do not speak English and so the musical performance and the words/melody were all that they might take away with them from a single performance.
(4) Why should we waste energy and time trying to fix Stonehill’s misappropriation with a re-appropriation, why should we clean up his mess
(5) Wouldn’t it be better to find an actual Caribbean folk tune that we felt was an authentic depiction of Caribbean peoples and culture
This ends my long blog entry. I wanted to keep the events surrounding the removal of Shut De Do straightforward and clear as to how it transpired, but I realize that there are many related issues that should be discussed. Also, I hope I quoted everyone properly, feel free to chime in and correct me if I misquoted you.
I would like to point that the mission of the Shades Alumni Family (to foster excellence, learning, and global understanding
in all people through the power of music in particular the music of the African Diaspora) is different from the Shades mission. This blogpost is an opportunity to keep the conversation about music of the African Diaspora going beyond the undergraduate group and into the world beyond. This blog is an invitation to engage in a conversation about race, misappropriation, cultural rubrics, music of the African Diaspora, etc. I welcome all comments and require only that all comments remain respectful, free of obscenity, and free of hatred. Titilayo Ngwenya
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