“A Change is Gonna Come”: CU black musicians for social change

by Isabella Fincher June 10, 2020

Original article published on the CU Independent here.

“A change is gonna come.” Sam Cooke sang those words in 1964. Now, 56 years later, maybe a change will really come.

In the past two weeks since George Floyd’s murder, America has exploded in outrage with massive protests, demanding an end to police brutality and systemic racial inequality. 

“This is unprecedented, and that’s incredibly significant,” Asha Romeo, a University of Colorado Boulder junior and black musician, said. “Something must come out of this. Murders like this have been happening forever, but protests and unity have not happened like this before.”

Originally from Ethiopia, Romeo was adopted by white parents and grew up in Boulder. Being black in a predominantly white community was “hard and confusing” for her growing up.  

“Not being able to see enough people that represented my identity, I accidentally molded myself to the people I saw and criticized myself for not looking like anybody else,” Romeo said. “I never experienced blatant racism, but I would get a lot of strange, back-handed or out-of-line comments.” 

In college, Romeo turned to music as a form of activism, to give voice to her experiences and celebrate black music. She believes music is a “universal language” that can spread messages of equality and hope, in the fight against racial injustice. 

In 2019 for “Persevering Legacy,” a CU concert featuring only female composers, she performed a song by Margaret Bonds, a renowned black composer and collaborator of the poet Langston Hughes. More recently, Romeo sang Cooke’s “A Change is Gonna Come” at CU’s Diversity and Inclusion Summit

Now, at the Black Lives Matter protests, Romeo has been singing and using her voice to demand change. Once again she sang Cooke’s “A Change is Gonna Come” at “Boulder in Solidarity,” a Boulder protest on May 30, later posting a video on her Facebook profile

Romeo is not the only one demanding change through music at CU. Eli Harvey, a CU sophomore and queer black musician, sees music can be a potent form of activism in the Black Lives Matter movement. Growing up in a Catholic church with a black congregation in Aurora, Harvey’s “musical background” began in gospel singing. 

“Music is a core part of who I am and my identity,” Harvey said. “Music has always been framed as a part of culture and has always been important in my family. My mom sings. My dad sings. My cousins all sing. One of my aunts is a professional singer. ” 

For Harvey, moving from “informal gospel singing” to studying musical theater in college was challenging, both culturally and musically. They described their freshman year as “a bit of a learning curve” because they “never had voice lessons before.” In addition, Harvey felt isolated from their fellow CU music students, who were predominantly white, and saw issues of cultural appropriation versus appreciation in classes. 

“My first semester at CU, I was really lonely,” Harvey said. “I didn’t have any black or brown friends who understood what it meant to be a black queer person.” 

So, Harvey turned to music to express their feelings and address issues of black representation. 

“Art, activism and politics go hand in hand almost every time,” Harvey said. “That’s the biggest reason why people make art. It allows you to have a voice and to control what is being said. That’s a very beautiful thing.”

As the momentum behind protests builds and police reform begins, both Romeo and Harvey feel hopeful about change. However, they also acknowledged their concerns that change might be short-lived. 

“I don’t want to get my hopes up,” Romeo said. “I am hopeful, but also trying to be cautious about trusting people.”

“I also know there is a possibility that things go right back to normal,” Harvey echoed.

For change to come permanently, they both believe the public cannot forget the painful reminders of racial inequality and move on. People need to keep fighting for justice. 

 “You have to keep pressure on people,” Harvey said. “Just because this year is over does not mean that all your people of color disappear. We are still here. We still demand representation. We still cannot be thrown into the background. To care so far as something is trendy doesn’t help anything.”

Moving forward, Romeo believes the public needs to listen to black voices everywhere—at protests, on social media, in daily life and in the arts. She believes it is a time for black voices to be heard—loudly, clearly and powerfully.

“Listening is a great first step,” Romeo said. “Listening to people of color sing, people of color speak, people of color give poetry. It’s a good time to listen.”

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