Categories: education

‘Ambassador for the Negro Spiritual’

University of West Florida senior Donovan Black recently won both the 2017 Grady-Rayam Prize in Vocal Performance and the UWF Arts Advocacy Award. In the case of the former, the student participated in a competition that challenges vocalists to learn and perform arranged spirituals before a jury panel.

Black, who is majoring in vocal performance, performed “I Couldn’t Hear Nobody Pray,” an original composition by Dr. Robert Williams, as well as “Were You There?” by Moses Hogan for the Grady-Rayam competition in February in Lakeland, Florida, according to a statement from UWF.

“It means a lot to be the first Grady-Rayam Prize winner from UWF,” Black said in the statement. “As the male winner in the upper division, I will serve as an ambassador for the Negro spiritual, also known as the American spiritual, and will perform throughout the United States over the next year.


As male winner for the upper division, Black receives a cash award from the Negro Spiritual Scholarship Foundation, as well as recital performance opportunities. His debut performance took place in March at the Project Grady-Rayam 2017 World Premiere Gala in Orlando, Florida.

Past winners of this competition have performed for President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama, Black noted in the statement.

According to the Library of Congress, a spiritual is a type of religious folksong that is closely associated with the enslavement of African people in the American South. The number of songs increased in the last few decades of the 18th century and became a distinct musical genre before the abolishment of legalized slavery in the 1860s. The African American spiritual constitutes one of the largest and most significant forms of American folksong.

“Not all spirituals are praise songs,” Black explained. “They tell stories.”

In addition to winning the Grady-Rayam prize, faculty in the UWF College of Arts, Social Sciences and Humanities have selected Black as the 2017 recipient of the Student Arts Advocacy Award at UWF, an honor that recognizes students who bring attention to the essential role of the arts in Florida’s quality of life. He received the award on March 22 at a presentation by the Florida Higher Education Arts Network during Arts Advocacy Day at the Florida State Capitol in Tallahassee.

“Donovan Black is an exemplary student,” Dr. Sheila Dunn, chair of the UWF Department of Music, said in a statement. “He is a powerful performer with tremendous vocal talent and a gift for arts advocacy.  He is very deserving of these recent honors.”

As a participant in Arts Advocacy Day, Black joined students, educators and other stakeholders throughout the state in discussing the value of the arts with state leaders. He visited the office of Rep. Frank White, R-Pensacola, where he sang “Summertime.” He also met Lois Benson, chair of the Florida Division of Cultural Affairs.

“Attending Arts Advocacy Day was an amazing experience. I learned more about how bills are passed and how funding comes about,” Black said. “In order to have funding for the arts, we have to be visible and demonstrate our value in education and the community.”

In addition to his coursework, Black volunteers at Dixon School of the Arts in Pensacola, where he teaches voice and music theory as part of a Saturday program for students.

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