Fellowship Enables English Professor to ‘Bring Poetry and Music into Dialogue’

Tsitsi Jaji
Tsitsi Jaji shown holding the score of Ignatius Sancho, one of the composers she studies. Sancho is an 18th c. Black composer who hasn’t been recorded on period instruments before. Photo by Shaun King/Trinity Communications

Before she was a poet, Tsitsi Jaji was a pianist.

The Bacca Foundation Associate Professor of English grew up surrounded by song in her native Zimbabwe. Her father conducted choirs. Her mother introduced her to the piano at age 5, and Jaji went on to study piano performance at the Oberlin Conservatory of Music.

She has accompanied a well-known tenor and composed music for an African modern dance troupe. She joined jazz bands and small combos and played at cocktail bars for tips during graduate school, and later wrote service music and Episcopalian sung prayers while on faculty at the University of Pennsylvania.

Today, however, she is best known for literary scholarship and creative works like Beating the Graves and Mother Tongues – poetry collections that reflect on family relations, diaspora, powerful women, first words, and love and language.

Now a New Directions Fellowship from the Mellon Foundation is accelerating a return to her roots, as Jaji seeks to examine classical vocal music by Black composers – “a neglected corpus of work in Black studies, one which brings poetry and music into dialogue,” she says.

At a time when Black music dominates pop culture and “I can’t breathe” is a slogan for the era’s defining political movement, it’s also a subject of particular relevance.

“I think part of why it really matters for Black cultures is the history of expropriation and violence directed at Black bodies,” Jaji explains. “As a singer, your only instrument is your body. And fundamentally, the most important thing for producing sound is breathing.

“And so we’re living in this moment where Black breath is in crisis, and here’s a historical practice that has absolutely claimed as its own and reveled in Black breath. It has a particular resonance in our time that isn’t separate from everything else.”

Translating between worlds

When speaking about the impact of Black classical composers and performers, Jaji notes that a significant canon exists beyond what is sometimes acknowledged. She easily rattles off a historical and contemporary who’s who of prominent individuals shaped by classical music – some known for their art and others much less so.

Work by Black poets Langston Hughes and Paul Laurence Dunbar are frequently set to music. Coretta Scott King and Shirley Graham Du Bois were concert musicians in addition to influencing the political lives their husbands. Classical training underpins the popular music created by Nina Simone and Rhiannon Giddens, who was a classmate of Jaji’s at Oberlin.

Jaji knows her musical background will only take her so far in exploring the connection between Black musical composition and poetry, but one of the advantages afforded Jaji via the Mellon fellowship is an ability to return to life as a student. Her proposal describes plans to study music of the Baroque and classical periods, Western diatonic music theory and analysis, and contemporary theory and composition.

“I know performance and music making but there’s a science to it and a history to it, and that’s the part I really never studied,” Jaji says. “And where the theory is concerned…and especially in relation to contemporary or 20th-century music, I just never mastered that.

“At this point I have fluency in literary criticism and passive skills in the world of musicology, and I’m trying to work across a large historical spread in order to translate between these worlds.”

The benefits of this deep learning will be passed along to Duke students when Jaji returns to her own classroom with new frameworks to share.

“To me, (recital music) is this whole archive of literary commentary,” Jaji says. “It’s a different body of scholarship, and it’s connected to pleasure…People in literature departments haven’t really paid attention to it, and that makes sense. But it curtails our understanding of the history of critical reading in Black communities.”

Partnering across the arts

Duke’s Department of Music has expressed enthusiasm for this new direction in Jaji’s research – initially through its chair, Professor of the Practice Jonathan Bagg – and faculty and students alike have embraced and participated in the partnership.

It was on Bagg’s recommendation that Jaji approached Mary D.B.T. and James H. Semans Distinguished Professor of Composition Stephen Jaffe, who ended up co-teaching a course with Jaji in 2021 called “Double Consciousness: Perspectives on Composition in Black Music and Poetry.” They plan to offer a second iteration of the course for undergraduates in the 2023-24 academic year.

Tsitsi Jaji in front of powerpoint image of her research
Tsitsi Jaji presented her latest project at the Trinity College Board of Visitors meeting in November. Photo by Kathryn Kennedy/Trinity Communications

“It has always been a dream to welcome music, literature and art-creating students to be in the same seminar,” Jaffe says. “The best thing about teaching with a learned colleague is we learn as much as the students, or more. Tsitsi brought such depth of knowledge to the writers, scholars and musicians in the class, opening up a whole world wherein cultural critique could be engaged with as a living body.”

Beyond Duke, Jaji attended a conference celebrating the 25th anniversary of the African American Art Song Alliance in October. “Art song” refers to Western vocal music most often performed by one singer with piano accompaniment, a format Jaji calls “more intimate” than opera, with “a focus on lyrics that are poems.”

Her contribution to the conference was discussing her collaboration with composer Shawn Okpebholo on a new work titled “Songs in Flight,” which will premiere in January. The suite consists of poems written in response to runaway slave ads from the database Freedom on the Move. Creating the work served as a rehearsal, of sorts, for the scholarly immersion she is undertaking this year.

“It’s really great to be in the process,” she says, describing the discovery of locating historical documents, events and records, and the creativity in transforming the mundane into poetry. But the subject matter was sobering.

“It’s not because I wrote a serious number of lines, but because you’re working with…this collection of biographies of people who were considered things,” she recalls. “They’re tiny, but there are tens of thousands of them. That’s a really heavy emotional burden because you feel like you have to do justice to the people and the stories. And there’s no way you actually can.”

From history to our present moment and moving across artistic genres, Jaji has found serendipity in the timing of this project and her Mellon Foundation fellowship.

“I feel like this is a particular moment – that classical music is having a moment, Black vocal music is having a moment, certain problems have come to the fore, certain brilliance (is being rediscovered). The project has a context now,” she says.

The New Directions Fellowship comes with a $300,000 grant that can be disbursed over 2-3 years. Jaji is the first Duke faculty member to receive the fellowship since 2012.

Hear Tsitsi Jaji read her poem “Ritual Object,” which was set to music by Professor Stephen Jaffe during a 2021 graduate course they co-taught: https://poets.org/poem/ritual-object