By Mark Gray
AFRO Staff Writer
Rena Taroy, Executive Director of the 105 Voices of History, didn’t receive her undergraduate degree from what is known as an Historically Black College or University (HBCU). Nevertheless, she has been an advocate and covert ambassador for Black College choirs since the early days when she worked to develop corporate partnerships for the HBCU initiative during the 43rd presidency of George W. Bush. After finding her niche by discovering the sounds of the campuses she visited, Taroy was instrumental in giving these choirs their platform.
Taroy, a Bowie resident, helped bring 105 HBCU singers together to form the HBCU Virtual Concert Choir presented during National HBCU Week 2020 sponsored by the White House Initiative on Historically Black Colleges and Universities in September. Students from HBCUs across the nation auditioned to deliver a rendition of “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” arranged by Hampton [Institute] alumnus Roland M. Carter debuted in a pre-recorded video on YouTube.
105 Voices of History is born from an initiative that was created to promote diversity in America’s national venues for the Arts. Kennedy Center in D.C. had long been the only venue that was available for Black College choirs. However, only the local HBCUs (Howard, Morgan State and UDC) were routinely given a chance to perform because of their proximity. Taroy believed there should be a greater platform for these student voices to perform that last long after the curtain fell.
“As I traveled to those universities I got a chance to hear their choirs and understand how they develop students,” Taroy said. “I thought with the history and talent of HBCUs they deserved a presence on world stages.”
It proved to be an arduous task for the HBCU choirs to get major venues such as the Kennedy Center to give them a chance to perform. Taroy remembers the days where the concept of a spring tour for these choirs was doing interludes during other events then being ushered out of major venues. That’s where she drew the distinction between singing and performing. These singers would keep their spirits high and their voice inspirational, while looking for a chance to launch a spring tour. It began with choirs of 40 climbing into buses as they started traveling around the country hoping to perform at national arts venues barnstorming for opportunity at the proverbial “Negro League” of songs.
“Some schools could only afford one bus so that meant the entire choir would have to cram into one bus because only a few schools could afford a second,” Taroy said. “During the spring semester they would travel to 2 or 3 states and perform at churches, which I think is phenomenal.
The COVID-19 pandemic ultimately cost this year’s national ensemble its chance to perform at Kennedy Center. Thanks to modern technology and video production capability, the process of reaching an international audience expanded the choir’s visibility this year. Students recorded themselves singing their particular vocal part for “Lift Every Voice and Sing” individually. A panel of conductors and voice instructors from around the country listened and watched all the student video recordings to make the cut. Taroy hopes this will be more than just a spotlight on stage for those who performed.
“This is not just about singing, it’s about leadership development, accountability and resumé building,” Taroy said. “We’re always looking for learning opportunities and resume boosters for these students.”