Teaching The World About Black History Via Music

Mark De-Lisser shares how he hopes to teach the world about slavery and the roots of racism with the release of the ACM Gospel Choir’s new album, #thespirituals

One subject given little or no attention during Black History Month is the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade that occurred between the 15th and 19th centuries, and that led to over 12 million Africans being captured and transported across the Atlantic, to be sold as slaves and put to work on plantations.

However, one man bringing this painful period of history to the fore – and hoping to cause people of all races to look at it with new eyes – is Mark De-Lisser, a musician, voice coach and director of the ACM Gospel Choir.

They’ve just release an album called #thespirituals, which contains the songs created and sung by African-American slaves, which communicated their longing for freedom, liberty and spiritual rest from the hardship and oppression they experienced.

This project is unique, in that the ACM Gospel Choir is comprised mainly of White singers, who had to undergo a process of learning to understand the history of slavery and the meaning of the songs they recorded.

Mark felt it important that his Choir record this Album, and believes that the Choir is inadvertedly teaching the public about slavery and the origins of racism through the spirituals they’ve recorded. Mark explained, “Slavery dates back to the beginning of time, but this 500-year period was the only time that people were enslaved because of the colour of their skin. This was ultimately the birth of racism, and why we still struggle with racist views today. I think it’s time that we re-educate the world to understand that slavery is world history, and we can look at why we have certain beliefs. In understanding this, we can help many people put these beliefs aside.”

Mark prepared his Choir for the recording by teaching them about the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade. They also visited the International Slavery Museum in Liverpool to get an even greater insight into slavery. And when they recorded the Album, Mark kept them in a studio where, for 48 hours, they had no food and no contact with the outside world, so that they could focus on the task at hand.

Although some Choir members found the process difficult, there’s no doubt it has resulted in a recording filled with unique, impassioned and heartfelt interpretations of the spirituals. Songs featured on The Spirituals include ‘Deep River’, ‘Steal Away’, ‘Every Time I Hear The Spirit’ and ‘Motherless Child’.

Mark felt it was important that his Choir underwent a process of learning and understanding slavery, and the songs written by slaves. “These songs are unique, in that they were true reflections of how these people felt, not written to a brief – like today’s music/song industry -but born out of great need to communicate a message and/or to encourage each other in their hour of need.”

He added, “This sense of truth brings a real emotional connection to these songs once you understand how these songs came to life.”

#thespirituals is accompanied by a documentary, which records the ACM Gospel Choir as they learn more about slavery; includes their reactions to what they learn (incredulous in most instances), and shows highlights from the actual Album recording.

#thespirituals is a departure from the ‘gospelised’ pop songs and contemporary gospel numbers usually sung by the ACM Gospel Choir, which was founded by Mark at the Academy of Contemporary Music in Guildhall in 2005. Mark’s musical skills were honed at the Brixton SDA church where he grew up and during his time spent as a member of various choirs.

It was in 2008 that the ACM Gospel Choir achieved nationwide recognition, when they reached the semi-finals of BBC TV show, Last Choir Standing. They were dubbed as a hip choir, and seen as stars of the show. Since being featured on the show, the Choir has gone on to have a varied career, touring with major music stars, such as Russell Watson; singing alongside artists, like Beverley Knight, JLS and Alexander Burke, and recording with pop luminaries, like Robbie Williams, as well as performing for the Queen.

Now that #thespirituals is out on release, Mark plans to take the Choir on a tour of schools, theatres and colleges, in order to teach a new generation about the history of slavery, and to make them aware of the beautiful songs created out of a very painful era of Black history. He shared, “By God’s grace, I’d like people to understand that this experience is world history, and to be encouraged to learn more about it and how it has impacted their world in so many ways.”

Visit www.acmgospelchoir.com for more details.

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