While this article is written from and for the context of the United States and focuses on the Black American experience, its basic principles apply in other contexts as well, particularly when it comes to Indigenous and non-Western music. If your ministry is outside the US, please join the conversation and let us know what you have learned as we journey together to bring about justice in all areas of life, including congregational song. —RW
If you’re reading this article, I already appreciate you and your ministry for being thoughtful about the injustices of the world and how God is calling each of us to work toward that kingdom on earth that Jesus proclaimed more than two thousand years ago. The work Jesus started continues, and each of us has a part to play, even if that part includes navigating and interrogating the intersection of copyright law and racial justice. I undertake this work with the following acknowledgments and caveats:
- I am not an expert in reparations or in copyright law, but, as part of directing The Center for Congregational Song, I have been creating resources and facilitating learning sessions for those who work in the field of congregational song. I’ve learned a lot and have thought deeply about this particular topic for many years, and I continue to learn and grow because it is a complex issue. This article is written from my own perspective, experiences, and knowledge.
- You’re not going to “fix” anything by addressing copyright and racial justice. This will most likely be a thankless endeavor that brings more headaches than gratification. But that doesn’t mean the work shouldn’t be done. In fact, it means we must do it. Your work will be a drop in the bucket, but if we all provide one drop, we can change the water level together.
- This article is not a how-to guide for setting up a reparations royalty program. The Center for Congregational Song has a three-step guide for you to explore (see the resource list on p. 40), but because this topic is in its infancy, most of the folks who have used that guide continue to seek out conversation partners as they navigate what would work best for their communities.
A Brief History of Copyright and Congregational Song
Before talking about racial justice or the word reparations, we need to address the history of copyright and congregational song. For those of us working primarily in Western, white congregational cultures, our understanding of copyright is tethered to the laws of our land and the history of copyright. That history traces back to Great Britain in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The basic idea behind this inherited system is that when someone creates something—be it words, music, visual art, or other media—they own that creation. Therefore, they should be able to control what happens to it and profit from it for a certain amount of time. This notion is an individualistic cultural value not shared by many other cultures around the world, so copyright (or the lack thereof) functions differently in different places. In some cultures, when a creative work such as a song is made, it is considered a gift from a higher power that the creator received on behalf of the community, so the creator would not expect or have any right to control what happens to the work once it has been created, and they certainly wouldn’t profit financially from the work.
The history of publishing congregational songs is tied to the broader history of publishing, and, like most institutions with a lengthy history in the US, it is plagued by the legacy and ongoing symptoms of systemic racism (see the sidebar on this page for a link to a Rolling Stone article on this topic). One particular symptom of systemic racism in the congregational song publishing industry is how songs from non-Western cultures have been copyrighted and profited from over the last century. Songs from cultures that would never try to profit from a congregational song have been “collected” by missionaries and traveling musicians and then published for profit by Western companies and artists. Even when the copyright is given to the original composer or community, the checks that are sent often can’t be cashed because the international transaction fees are too great to make it worth the small compensation.
Another example of copyright laws perpetuating systemic injustice is when we look specifically at the musics of the Black church. “Musics” is a newer way to describe multiple ways of making music which is broader than using a word like genre(s). One of the treasures of the church in the US is the body of song known as African American or Negro Spirituals. These songs were born from enslaved peoples in the US and then curated, notated, and/or arranged starting in the late 1800s. Many of those arrangements, performances, and musical derivatives have been used for the financial gain of white individuals and companies without any accompanying educational materials to teach about the experience of enslaved people, without any acknowledgment or thanks to the musical heritage of the Black church, and without any sharing of financial proceeds from the use of the musics of the historical Black church.
I’m not suggesting that these problems are true of all non-Western music in our hymnals. I’m also not suggesting that there is a simple solution—the issues are certainly complicated. I am saying, however, that problems exist, and injustices continue. This brings us to the topic of reparations.
Definitions and Word Usage
The word “reparations,” like many words in the US lexicon in the twenty-first century, is politically charged and might have different meanings or connotations depending on who says it and who hears it. Merriam-Webster provides three definitions for reparations: first, the act of repairing something; second, the act of making amends when someone has been wronged; and third, monetary compensation for damages.
Beyond these dictionary definitions, let’s look at two other working definitions. The International Center for Transitional Justice defines reparations as “meant to acknowledge and repair the causes and consequences of human rights violations and inequality in countries emerging from dictatorship, armed conflict, and political violence, as well as in societies dealing with racial injustice and legacies of colonization” (“Reparations,” www.ictj.org/reparations). Within the context of the US, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) defines reparations in its 2019 Resolution on Reparations as
financial recompense for African-Americans whose ancestors were slaves and lived through the Jim Crow era. The enslavement and overall persecution of Black people in the United States has enriched the United States and created disparities in income, wealth and education between blacks and whites. . . . Action is needed to reduce these differences. As Ta-Nehisi Coates says in a recent Atlantic magazine article, “The Case for Reparations”: “What I’m talking about is more than recompense for past injustices—more than a handout, a payoff, hush money, or a reluctant bribe. What I’m talking about is a national reckoning that would lead to spiritual renewal.”
—NAACP, “Resolution: Reparations,” 2019 (see sidebar below for a link to the full resolution)
The NAACP resolution also traces the history of seeking reparations as a continuous event, from Union General William T. Sherman’s Special Field Order No. 15 (the failed promise of “forty acres and a mule”) up to this published resolution in 2019. The point is: this is not a new request.
And it’s not a new idea in music. Various people groups have been historically discriminated against and/or marginalized throughout US history, and that discrimination/marginalization included majority-white institutions and artists profiting from the use of non-white musics. The historical disparities in how music is used for financial gain continue today.
That said, while I believe reparations in the music industry should include financial recompense, they should not be limited to that. Reparations should be seen more holistically as an effort to arrive at a shared truth about past and current harms while actively moving toward more just and equitable systems.
Current Programs and Ideas
Frankly, not many people are doing this work. While reparations as a larger topic have been talked about since the mid-1800s, reparations in the context of congregational song is a newer development. The sidebar below provides a list of the resources, articles, and information I know about.
There are no answers for how to think about or enact reparations, but there are access points where you might find inspiration, ideas, and a shared community with whom you can journey as you develop your congregation’s or organization’s best version of reparations royalties.
Talk with your staff, ministry team, or congregation about whether a reparations royalties program might be the right next (first?) step in your journey toward a world where justice flows like a river. Reach out to The Center for Congregational Song, the United Church of Christ Musicians Association, or anyone else you know doing this type of work to join the conversation. You won’t be alone on the journey. Who knows what God will do?
For a thorough timeline of copyright law in the US, the Association of Research Libraries has a very readable article at tinyurl.com/copyrighttimeline.
In 2020 Rolling Stone published the article “The Music Industry Was Built on Racism. Changing It Will Take More Than Donations” (tinyurl.com/MusicIndustryRacism). It’s a helpful introduction to the history of racism in the music industry and the current situation.
To read the full NAACP resolution about reparations, see naacp.org/resources/reparations.
In November 2021, GBH News published an article about a church paying reparations when they sang spirituals (tinyurl.com/ChurchReparations). This program at United Parish Church in Brookline, Massachusetts, is still going under the direction of the Rev. Susan DeSelms, who has generously shared more information about the program through webinars and other meetings.
The Center for Congregational Song offers an online guide on how to begin a “reparations royalty” program (tinyurl.com/ReparationsRoyalty). Inspiration and guidance came from conversations with Adam Waite of Montview Boulevard Presbyterian Church in Denver, Colorado. Over the last two years, the Center has convened meetings to facilitate conversations among nearly a hundred communities developing reparations royalty programs.
The United Church of Christ Musicians Association hosted a February 2022 webinar on royalties for spirituals. Rev. Susan DeSelms and Adam Waite (both mentioned above) participated. You can see that webinar free at tinyurl.com/UCCSpirituals.
The United Church of Canada has a working group for its upcoming denominational hymnal project that is looking specifically at the issues of copyright and racial justice. They are navigating the theological and practical considerations of whether and how songs are copyrighted in hymnals and whether and how communities are compensated for the use of their music. The UCC’s statement about this work can be found at tinyurl.com/UCCTheologyCopyright.