Lauren Fields '14
Matthew Williams '14
Carol Powell '16
Bryanna Carpenter '15
Kimiko Matsuda-Lawrence '16
LeShae Henderson '16
Amarachi Erondu '15
Ada Lin '14
Calvin Chin '14
Dami Aladesanmi '15
Haven Jones '15
All parties interested in booking Kuumba for events should complete a Performance Request Form. Thanks for your interest!
A Message from our Director
A Short History of Kuumba
Kuumba (pronounced koo-oom-bah) was founded in 1970 by Dennis Wiley and Fred Lucas, two African American undergraduates of the Harvard class of 1972. In an era of “Black Power” and Black pride, immediately following the 1968 assassination of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.. and the 1969 Harvard Strike, the choir emerged as a source of community, spiritual inspiration, political motivation and cultural stimulation among the small but growing number of Black students at Harvard. Inspired by the History of Black Music class taught by Professor Hubert Walters in the spring of 1970, the choir concept was conceived that summer as an outgrowth of a project on Black music conducted by Dennis and Fred and supported by the newly established Department of African and African American Studies and African American Cultural Center.
The next fall, Marilynn Sasportas, Radcliffe Class of 1974, joined them in Quincy 317 to assist in planning and publicizing the first rehearsal. The Kuumba Singers were officially born in November 1970 when students from the classes of 1971 -1974 gathered for the first time one evening after dinner in a second floor lounge of the old Freshman Union, now known as the Barker Center. Following that initial meeting, Walters would assume responsibility as the choir’s first director. The first spring concert, entitled “An Evening of Black Spirituality,” was held in Sanders Theater on Sunday, May 16, 1971.
It was not easy for Black students to “sing the Lord’s song” in the “strange land” of Harvard during this period of racial tension and campus unrest. Yet, Kuumba not only provided spiritual inspiration—it was also a source of unity and strength. The group chose the name “Kuumba” (Swahili for “creativity”) because it best captured the choir’s intent to reflect the creative genius of Black people through the rich diversity of Diasporic music and cultural expression. As written in the organization’s constitution, “Black music is a manifestation of the Black spirit – it speaks to our every emotion. Moreover, Black music helps sustain and direct our culture.” Reminding the Black community of its past, informing it of its present, and giving it hope and guidance for the future, the Kuumba Singers—through song, dance, poetry, and other forms of artistic expression—have always sought to leave the space called Harvard, and its surrounding community, better than when we found it. The choir’s current racial and ethnic diversity is both a remarkable testimony to, and a relentless test of, that noble and enduring ideal.
Since those early years, the torch has been carried forward by only two additional directors, Mr. Robert Winfrey and Mr. Sheldon K.X. Reid (College ’96, GSE ’98), and by more than 1,000 Kuumba members and alumni.
Kuumba’s founders chose the name “Ku’umba” over the original more constrictive name, “Harvard-Radcliffe Gospel Choir” because it allowed for all modes of Diasporic expression. In Swahili, Ku’umba roughly means creativity [or to create], though the literal meaning is subtler: it is the creativity of leaving a space better than you found it; it is the spirit of positively impacting through modes of creativity.
Thus, the mission of Kuumba is to express the creativity and spirituality of Black people in a way that leaves a space better than it was found.
Excerpt from Kuumba: The Early Years
"Our first performance was held at The Myrtle Baptist Church, one of the oldest black churches in Newton, Massachusetts, where I was serving as organist. We began making plans for a concert in the spring of 1971 to be held at the Sanders Theater. Word about this vibrant singing group at Harvard had spread throughout the metropolitan area of Boston and beyond. We invited several groups from Boston to participate in our first concert. I was certainly in my element and, like Professor Guinier, was eager to connect the organization to the department for academic credit. A student organization, called Harvard-Radcliff Afro-American Cultural Center (HRAAC), had been established and financed by the university. One of the purposes of this organization was to provide financial assistance for activities involving black students. Later that year, I submitted a proposal to HRAAC for continuous financial support for the KUUMBA Singers."
To read the entire story as told by Hubert E. Walters, click here.