University Black Chorus harmonizes community


Photo courtesy of @uiblackchorus Instagram

The Black Chorus Signature Voices get ready to sing the national anthem and the song Lift Every Voice during the men’s basketball game against Purdue on Jan. 17. The RSO has been on campus since 1968.

By Azucena Gama and Fizza Hassan

As she ascends the director’s podium, Dr. Ollie Watts Davis, professor in FAA, she can feel the anxious anticipation radiate from the group before her. She taps her conductor’s baton against the music stand before raising it and moving her arms in a smooth, oceanic cue. Voices fill the auditorium and chills crescendo through the audience as they listen to the vocal art of the Black Chorus.

Known for their commitment to music and service, the Black Chorus at the University has been on campus for 54 years. The choir, conducted by Dr. Ollie Watts Davis, has been an influential experience for its members since the original four founders put together the organization in 1968. Now, the Black Chorus is an RSO with an accredited academic class in FAA. 

Remarkably, the choir was founded during an important aspect of University history. The four original members of the Black Chorus were part of Project 500, a late 1960s activist movement for diversity on campus. 

The choir is a mixed chorus and anybody, regardless of race, gender and major can join. Over 80 participants are currently singing in the group; representing African Americans, Latinx and white singers. 

Gabrielle Dagher, senior in LAS and a member of the choir, said that her favorite part about the Black Chorus is how diverse it is. 

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    “One beautiful thing about how Black chorus kind of just merges all races and nationalities,” Dagher said. “It speaks through music, and no matter what race, or what background represents you, the music can always speak to you and the music can always inspire you.” 

    The music they perform ranges from traditional African anthems, soul music, blues and jazz to modern pop music.

    Regardless of the genre they sing, Brein Mosely, choir member and graduate student in LAS, said Davis directs with African American methods of teaching. 

    “The music of Black Americans details our struggle as well as our perseverance,” Mosely said. “Simply being at Illinois can be challenging at times, and external circumstances that students experience can make it even more challenging.”

    What they sing also depends on what kind of event they perform at. Earlier this year in celebration of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day, the Black Chorus was asked to sing at the Illinois versus Purdue basketball game. At the game, they sang “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” a Black hymn. They also performed the national anthem.

    The choir performs throughout the whole school year. They participate in a fall concert, a Mom’s Weekend event in the spring and Dr. Davis’ Black Sacred Music Symposium, which is a biennial event. The Black Chorus also does community events for nonprofit organizations, and they have done University events such as singing at Welcome Week. 

    “We are citizens of the Urbana-Champaign campus and community so we are asked to participate in some of the local events, we have some for charity, a nonprofit organization, we have some benefit concerts for our safe house which is a substance abuse free environment,” Davis said.

    Davis also said that whenever something happens in the community, the choir is eager to lend their voices as a helping hand.

    “Whenever something tragic happens on our campus or in our community, we are really eager to be part of the healing process, so we do run out to our local schools sometimes and even campus events,” Davis said. 

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