• Shawn E. Okpebholo
  • Two Black Churches (for Baritone and piano) (2020)

  • Henmar Press, Inc. (World)
  • Bar + pf
  • Baritone
  • 15 min 30 s
  • Dudley Randall and Marcus Amaker
  • English

Programme Note

Two Black Churches is a song set in two movements composed for baritone Will Liverman and pianist Paul Sanchez. This work is a musical reflection of two significant and tragic events, each perpetrated at the hands of white supremacists in two black churches, decades apart:

• The 1963 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in Birmingham, Alabama which took the lives of four girls.

• The 2015 Mother Emanuel AME Church shooting in Charleston, South Carolina, resulting in the deaths of nine parishioners.

The text of the first movement is a poem by Dudley Randall, Ballad of Birmingham, a narrative account of the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing from the perspectives of the mother of one victim and her child. Stylistically, this movement includes 1960s black gospel juxtaposed with contemporary art song. And subtly, at moments, the civil rights anthem, We Shall Overcome, and the hymn, Amazing Grace, are heard. While there are strophic elements consistent with the structure of the poem, the work is also rhapsodic, though serious and weighty in nature.

The text of the second movement is a poem written especially for this composition by Marcus Amaker, poet laureate of Charleston, South Carolina, called The Rain. This poem poignantly reflects the shooting at Mother Emanuel AME Church. Set in the coastal city of Charleston, which often floods, The Rain is a beautifully haunting metaphor on racism and the inability of blacks in America to stay above water—a consequence of the flood of injustice and the weight of oppression.

In this composition, the number nine is significant, symbolizing the nine people who perished that day. Musically, this is most evident through meter and a reoccurring nine-chord harmonic progression. The hymn, ‘Tis so Sweet to Trust in Jesus, is quoted in this movement. This hymn was sung at the first service in the church after the shooting, testifying to a community that chose faith and hope over hate and fear.

Ballad of Birmingham
by Dudley Randall
(On the bombing of a church in Birmingham, Alabama, 1963)

“Mother dear, may I go downtown
Instead of out to play,
And march the streets of Birmingham
In a Freedom March today?”
“No, baby, no, you may not go,
For the dogs are fierce and wild,
And clubs and hoses, guns and jails
Aren’t good for a little child.”
“But, mother, I won’t be alone.
Other children will go with me,
And march the streets of Birmingham
To make our country free.”
“No, baby, no, you may not go,
For I fear those guns will fire.
But you may go to church instead
And sing in the children’s choir.”
She has combed and brushed her night-dark hair,
And bathed rose petal sweet,
And drawn white gloves on her small brown hands,
And white shoes on her feet.
The mother smiled to know her child
Was in the sacred place,
But that smile was the last smile
To come upon her face.
For when she heard the explosion,
Her eyes grew wet and wild.
She raced through the streets of Birmingham
Calling for her child.
She clawed through bits of glass and brick,
Then lifted out a shoe.
“O, here’s the shoe my baby wore,
But, baby, where are you?”

The Rain
by Marcus Amaker, Charleston, SC Poet Laureate

When the reality
of racism returns,
all joy treads water
in oceans of buried
is doing
everything it can
to only swim
in a colorless liquid
of calm sea
and blind faith.
But the Lowcountry
is a terrain
of ancient tears,
suffocating through
floods of
When a murderer’s gunshots
made waves
at Emanuel AME Church,
we closed our eyes,
held our breath
and went under.
And we are still
trying not to
taste the salt
of our surrounding blues
or face the rising tide
of black pain.



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