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Local musician called out for upcoming Rochester Fringe Fest show

An upcoming Rochester Fringe Festival show has caused a huge discussion on social media about the correct way to honor African American spirituals and remember the horrors of slavery. Local musician Lee Wright is slated to perform a concert called Holding on Through Song, which spotlights spirituals, or music created by people in bondage.

There’s just one problem if you ask local activists: his show is anti-black. On a Facebook post earlier this week, Christopher Coles, a community activity and organizer, posted about his frustration with what he saw as a problematic concert. He says he takes issue with the choir, which is majority white and the fact that a flyer for the concert shows black hands in chains. He said this isn’t a pro-black image.

"His idea is to turn that on its head and give it back to the oppressors? Its an anachronism; it’s a movement out of time but it’s hurtful,” Coles said, acknowledging that the show will likely draw a majority-white audience. He said to take this history and turn into a performance is an affront.

Wright maintains that he’s doing justice to the spiritual, saying: “This music is an outlet that  was the only outlet the creators of it had. This music was sung not because they could, but because they had to. I think that’s very important to consider and think about.”

He did acknowledge that some of the imagery was problematic. Another photo, which he says is an old one, showed the choir which looked all white. He says the 30-member group actually has about five people of color, which isn’t enough but isn’t all white.

But Coles says he doesn’t care that black people are involved because it can still be anti-black and even black people can be guilty of spreading anti-black messages. He says if Wright had spoken with some of the community’s elders and mentors, he might have a better show.

“As a member of black culture, we are a collective,” he said. “We do things with the  understanding and approval of one another. I don’t see any tutelage; I don’t see him reaching out to any of the mentors.”

He said above all of these spirituals are a sacred part of black culture and deserve more respect: “If you went into the Native American festival and you went up there to do the dance you would be in complete violation of that culture and not only that but the specific narrative of the Negro spiritual, again it’s pro-black. It’s not a text that can be altered.”

He says he’s not against the show as a concept but that it needs more work. However, Wright says some of the information is simply incorrect. In addition to the demographics of his choir, he says he’s not changing the songs like some speculated but will be offering an improvisation of the nature of the songs.

Wright says overall he is hoping to address these concerns in a community discussion but hasn’t set a date yet.

“I have no desire to cause trouble or stir up controversy, however, with music and with this concert I do hope to present both the seriousness and the joy of this music,” he said. As of now, he has no plans to pull his show but Coles says they will continue to hold him responsible for the messages he’s spreading.

Tianna Mañon is a contributing reporter for WXXI news. She’s covered issues like the presence of plastic in the Great Lakes, the death of Trevyan Rowe and the impact of the opioid epidemic in the inner-city.