by Ruben Piirainen, Lead Music Director

In her 2017 whitepaper entitled “The Promise and Practice of our Faith,” Unitarian Universalist Association Minister of Worship Arts Rev. Erika Hewitt states “In our commitment to dismantling white supremacy as a system, white Unitarian Universalists are still learning to decenter our whiteness so that people of color are brought from the margins to the center.” I would like to offer a few thoughts about my own efforts at decentering whiteness at UUCW as it relates to our music program.

I’ve begun doing some work on the front of decentering whiteness, mostly in regard to music selection as a first step to include more Black artistic creations in our services. This is work that I’ve been doing quietly over the past several years. You may have noticed less familiar composer names listed for preludes and postludes, or that I’m playing more jazz and pop styles in addition to my usual music conservatory diet of Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms. Every service in which I have played a part over the past year has included at least one piece that I have researched with two criteria in mind: it must fit the theme of our service, and it must be by a composer who is from a historically marginalized community. Almost always, I have looked to music written by Black composers but have occasionally included other BIPOC persons in my search.

I do this work knowing that it’s not nearly enough and while living with the uncomfortable knowledge that I may be flirting with cultural appropriation. It’s true: this type of work is NOT enough, and despite my best intentions, as a white man I am ultimately not the final arbiter when it comes to the question of cultural appropriation. But I do the work with an open heart, the willingness to engage with the communities whose works I perform, and the realization that this is a challenge which I must continually approach with respect and humility.

Some of the composers I have performed recently that may be less familiar include Florence Price, Valerie Capers, Lena Johnson McLin, Zenobia Powell Perry, Dorothy Rudd Moore, Eleanor Alberga, Laurindo Almeida, Joshua Uzoigwe, Wallace McClain Cheatham, Victor Johnson, John W. Work III, and the first piano piece published by a Black woman, Rippling Spring Waltz, by Estelle D. Ricketts in 1893. I have also performed music by John Coltrane, Dizzy Gillespie, Thelonious Monk, Miles Davis, Charlie Parker, Duke Ellington, Oscar Peterson, and more. The composers listed here are all Black; I have also programmed music by Latinx and Romani composers in the past year.

My anxiety over the fear of tokenizing Black voices has kept this work private, up until now. But, it feels like the right time to share this anxiety at the very least and, hopefully, to contribute to important conversations we are having about eradicating systems of white supremacy that we know lurk everywhere among us, including, yes, in the music we choose to include in worship.

What are your hopes for music and worship at UUCW seen through the lens of decentering whiteness? In my work at UUCW over the past 17 years I have been engaged on some level with this important work, but often feel like I’m only just getting started. I don’t claim to be an expert, but I do know that I am called to do this work. I hope you will share your thoughts with me.