Graduate student writes music to inspire people, call for change
Maria Luisa Paul | Thursday, June 4, 2020
“Stop killin’ me and you’ll see that I am more than you think…”
Graduate student Emorja Roberson’s baritone voice is packed with sentiment as he sings “Stop Killin’ Me,” a 42-second-long song he penned in face of the ongoing protests that began after the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis.
In 2017, the Florida-native became the first African American to graduate with a master of sacred music in vocal performance and to pursue a doctor of musical arts in choral conducting at Notre Dame. Roberson also serves as the graduate assistant for the Notre Dame Folk Choir and is the core program director for Voices of Faith.
Being the first and only African American student in his program coupled with the fact he was raised in the Baptist Church gave rise to some challenges for Roberson. However, he said it also created a unique opportunity to provide a fresh and different perspective from his part.
“At first when I got there, I felt odd because I felt that I had to, not to develop, but to conform in regards to those practices that [the Catholic Sacred Music program] had. I come from a place where you don’t hear much about Catholicism,” Roberson said. “… I brought the experience of singing without having any kind of restriction, but singing what comes from your heart, nothing that is strict.”
Roberson said his focus in the program lies at the intersection between gospel and holy hip-hop. However, his intent to unite these two spheres transcends music — he wants to close the gap between different communities as well.
“My mission at Notre Dame is to be the bridge between the white community and the Black community, or anything or any community that is not associated with gospel music and have the desire,” Roberson said.
As Roberson wrote “Stop Killin’ Me,” in response to George Floyd’s death, he said he also wants to be involved in the Black Lives Matter movement. Roberson said he believes music is the perfect medium for change — saying it is universal and ever-present in society.
“Music can do a lot,” Roberson said. “Music can push you. It can give you energy that you need, and it can also calm you. So that’s why music is art. It’s psychological. And there’s also spiritual aspect on it as well.”
Spirituality is at the core of Roberson’s songs because he believes hope and faith are at the cornerstone of enacting change.
“We don’t see the results right now, but with hope, and I think that just comes just from being Black, with the hope and the aspiration of wanting to do and wanting to earn more than what people tell you that you’re capable of having, never losing that drive to be the best that you can be,” he said.
In another original song he wrote titled “He’ll Be With You,” Roberson included different voices from a number of cultures into the video of his song.
He said he originally created the song as a way to remind others of the presence of God during uncertain times. As the COVID-19 pandemic developed, he said the message became even more relevant.
“People were losing family members and friends left and right, and they couldn’t do anything about it. In those moments where we were, you know, walking with the fog all around us, we had to have some kind of faith or some kind of guidance,” Roberson said. “Even if it was just a small as the point of a needle, we had to have it. So, my purpose for that, I want all the listeners to take away two words, never alone.”
Roberson’s long-term goals include opening a school for the performing arts for African American children, where they will not only learn about music but also writing, history, comprehension, math and finance. However, as Roberson’s mission is to be “a bridge” between people of different cultures, he said he also wants to continue engaging with different communities.
“I want to make sure that I give back to the Black community, and I want to continue working with the white community, any community that outside of the Black race,” Roberson said. “I want to fuse all that together because a lot of times people tend to think that whenever they start choirs at universities, especially where Black people are involved, is really only the gospel choir, when in fact, people have seen it as a monolithic type of culture as if that’s all we do when there’s so much more.”
Roberson said the Notre Dame community as a whole has to reflect upon the current times in regards to civil rights. He believes the University’s leadership has to take greater actions to end systemic racism, especially since the institution is predominantly white.
“If we notice that the white privilege is being abused, as they are the majority, not just another thing, but the majority in general, how does that reflect in our school? We know the white population is the majority,” he said. “You have people out there who need to hear from you as a leader.”
Roberson said one of the first steps towards improving the situation on campus is having a greater recognition of African American contributions.
“What I want the Notre Dame community to know is to not only honor Black contributions for Black History Month,” Roberson said. “We are Black every day, so don’t only open the door for 28 or 29 days a year.”