In 2017, Georgetown University formally apologized for participating in the slave trade.
This Friday, Georgetown University music professor and Kennedy Center resident artist Carlos Simon drops his streaming album “Requiem for the Enslaved” ahead of Juneteenth.
“The piece is dedicated to these men and women who were sold as property by the Jesuits who founded Georgetown University,” Simon told WTOP. “As a professor of Georgetown University, I was hired there in 2018, I wanted to do my due diligence … as a Black man, I really felt like I wanted to write something that responded artistically to what happened.”
On June 19, 1838, the founding Jesuit priests sold 272 slaves to Louisiana plantations.
“It’s very hypocritical to have this religion that speaks of people being equal under God’s eye, but they owned slaves,” Simon said. “I wanted to focus more on the side of the people. These were humans, these were people that are important to our American history.”
He started the project by researching in the Georgetown University archives.
“I went to see the bill of sale that had these people listed, their ages and their relation to each other,” Simon said. “You would see ‘Isaac, 64 years old, ran away,’ then below that you’d see, ‘Betty, Isaac’s daughter, 16 years old,’ so the humanity of the relationship. Another thing I did was go down to … Louisiana where they were sold at plantations.”
He also tied in his own spiritual upbringing, having grown up as the son of a Black Pentecostal preacher at Galilee Way of the Cross Church in Atlanta, Georgia.
“My dad started his church in 1996,” Simon said. “I was part of the musical staff, so I learned to play by ear. That’s where I heard gospel music and spirituals. Later, I learned how to read music in high school and college … so doing this piece felt like I was at home. … We actually recorded the piece in a (Boston) studio that was a church at one point.”
The requiem mass is fitting for a piece about Jesuit priests owning slaves.
“The requiem is part of the Catholic music tradition, so I wanted to use the arm form, but instead of honoring one person who died, (I honor) a group of people, those who were enslaved,” Simon said. “When you think about the requiem itself, it’s a very traditional art form, Mozart, Verdi, Berlioz all used this art form as a means of honoring the dead.”
What specifically will we hear in terms of the musical arrangement?
“I combine African American spirituals with Gregorian chants,” Simon said. “We also use hip-hop spoken word to project the text of ‘Lord have mercy’ or ‘Kyrie eleison’ … all sections in the traditional requiem mass, but I’ve enlisted my good friend Marco Pavé, who serves as a Georgetown Artist in Residence, to craft some texts that will be appropriate.”
Pavé’s hip-hop and Simon’s piano join Jared Bailey’s trumpet alongside flute, violin, cello and clarinet players from Hub New Music, which is based out of Boston.
“Listening to this piece and understanding the history will help us navigate our everyday lives,” Simon said. “This is not just a piece of music, this is something that will gain a better understanding of the way I view our society. That was the hope, not only reflecting on the lives of those enslaved, but understanding the lineage of systematic racism.”
He says “Critical Race Theory” isn’t a controversial buzzword, it’s simply history.
“It is a part of our history,” Simon said. “It’s important to understand where we come from to understand where we’re going. To understand the role of slavery, how it’s shaped our society, how much the country has been built on the backs of people of color … how that shapes our everyday lives and systematically how racism plays into our way of life.”