Illinois Black Chorus bridges divides on campus


Photo Courtesy of Ollie Davis

Dr. Ollie Watts Davis performs with the Black Chorus. Established in 1968, the group is meant to bring cultures together. The chorus was invited to perform at the Chicago Gospel Music Festival on June 2.

By Gillian Dunlop

Endowed with a voice and an ear for music, Dr. Ollie Watts Davis knew that she had a calling for music since she was a young girl. Davis has since dedicated 36 years of her life to being the conductor of the Black Chorus on campus.

Established by a group of four students in 1968, the Black Chorus has been under the direction of the School of Music and has incorporated music from black Americans ever since its founding. The chorus ranges from singing “the Negro spirituals to traditional and contemporary gospel, jazz and rhythm and blues,” according to its website.

“It is important that black music is studied across the United States,” Davis said. “It is very informative. You will get a snapshot of the struggle, fortitude, persistence, strength of the people by listening to their song.”

Originally populated by only students of color, over the years there is now a more inclusive and diverse population of students to sing the music of black Americans.

“Black Chorus is the name of the organization, but it is not the description of the composition,” Davis said. “It is named Black Chorus under my tenure, because we are committed to perpetuating and performing the music of black Americans.”

Ashley Davis, assistant conductor and daughter of Ollie Davis, said she wants to follow Ollie’s idea that the music of black America creates a community. She also mentioned that the choir is not just inclusive by race, but by background.

“Black Chorus is one of the only choirs that has someone from every college participating,” Ashley said. “With that you have a diversity of experience, strength, perspectives and even insights of international students.”

With the hopes of the University becoming a more diverse campus, Ollie believes that Black Chorus plays a role in unifying the campus in small settings.

Nia Gipson, secretary of Black Chorus and sophomore in ACES, said she has gained a different perspective of other cultures and embraces individuality.

“We promote diversity in the regard that your experience isn’t greater than mine and my experience isn’t less than yours”, Ashley said.

This academic school year, the chorus was asked to record three songs on “Illinois Songs,” the sesquicentennial album for the School of Music. The three songs used in the album, such as “Feel the Warmth,” were written by Ollie herself.

The chorus was also invited to sing at the Chicago Gospel Music Festival on June 2.

“We are super excited because the Chicago Gospel Fest is one of the largest fests in the world,” Ashley said. “For us to be invited to be on the same stage of the people whose songs we sing is a huge honor.”

With all of the accomplishments this academic year, Ollie wants to make sure that the chorus “remains faithful to its mission,” which is to provide a sense of community for African- American students and serve as teachers and guides to the larger community, so people will understand what the black experience encompasses.

Ashley said that hearing the Black Chorus is an essential part of the Illinois experience, like attending basketball and football games.

Gipson said that being part of the choir has enriched her years at the University.

“The Black Chorus is such a wonderful experience,” Gipson said. “It will transform your life.”

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