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Katie J. Graber on Singing with Cultural Appreciation, Not Appropriation

Some congregations worry that singing songs outside their own tradition might be inauthentic or offensive. Ethnomusicologist Katie J. Graber gives reasons for using worship songs from other cultures and eras—and how to do so with proper appreciation and attribution.

Katie J. Graber is an ethnomusicologist who teaches music at Ohio State University and was intercultural worship editor for the 2020 Mennonite hymnal Voices Together (VT). She has been awarded three Vital Worship Grants from Calvin Institute of Christian Worship. In this edited conversation, Graber explains how churches can authentically build a more diverse song repertoire.  

How have your Vital Worship Grants helped churches sing more music from many cultures? 

Mennonites in North America worship in over 25 languages, and there are Mennonites around the world. Our 2018 Vital Worship Grant helped members from our VT hymnal team visit North American Mennonite congregations that worship in ten non-English languages. The 2020 grant was written to connect intercultural, immigrant, and minority congregations (beyond those we visited in our 2018 grant) as we celebrated our hymnal launch.  

We’re using our 2023 grant to help communities critically engage questions about why we sing diverse music and how we can do it justly. We’re collaboratively creating a hymnal companion-style volume that aids North American communities as they sing songs from around the world.  

Is hymnody mainly a white European cultural thing, maybe even a way to colonize other cultures? 

Many people assume that hymnody itself is a white European phenomenon. That’s where it started, and missionaries have sometimes imposed Western hymnody on other cultures. But many cultures have embraced hymnody. There are African and other cultures that sang in harmony before European missionaries arrived. People everywhere are singing older hymns and writing new music for worship in many genres, including hymns such as “Noche Anunciada from Argentina and “Ososo / Come Now, O Prince of Peace” from Korea.  

Why should churches sing songs from other cultures?

It’s not my place to direct people of color on how to worship, but I feel OK telling white people they should decenter their own comfort, preferences, and assumptions about worship—in part by singing songs from around the world. If we understand songs from other cultures and eras as gifts, then accepting these gifts means including them in corporate worship. If we refrain from or stop singing a song because of the possibility that it may offend (without any evidence), then we are refusing another culture’s gift of music—an inhospitable and exclusionary act. 

We should also sing songs from other cultures that shake up our expectations about what world music sounds like. For example, we learned in our travels that Mennonites from many cultures are embracing and writing songs in contemporary worship styles. It would be just as colonizing to say “You are losing your culture by choosing contemporary songs over traditional ones” as it was for missionaries to forbid cultural groups to sing in their own languages and genres.  

But what about cultural appropriation?  

Cultural appropriation is a sticky issue. Ellie Yang Camp clearly articulates cultural appropriation and appreciation. If you click on the image, you also see seven clarifying questions that can actually be quite discouraging and cause us to approach intercultural singing carefully. But if we never sing beyond our own traditions, we would be a fractured and insular church. That’s why I like to say that “we shouldn’t, but we must” sing globally. We have to hold that tension as we sing songs from other cultures. While they may become part of our congregational repertoire, we have to remember they are not truly "ours." 

It’s appropriation if you use it for financial benefit or for virtue signaling. Often the difference between cultural appropriation and cultural appreciation is simply the posture we take toward the song. It sounds like appropriation when a song leader introduces a song from another culture with “We discovered this” or “This is one of our faves.” Cultural appreciation sounds more like “We are so blessed to sing this song with brothers and sisters in Uganda” or “Isn’t it wonderful that globalism enables us to learn from and sing with other cultures?”  

What practices can help congregations sing songs from other cultures without dishonoring anybody? 

First, consider your language. The terms “global music” or “world music” often function as shorthand for “other than white.” We may think of Native American or First Nations songs as world music even though they are clearly from this continent. While working on Voices Together, we noticed that many hymnals include place names only for songs from other than white European cultures. In writing ascription lines for VT, we decided to include locations for every song. I often simply say we should try to sing songs from outside our traditions. 

Second, we need to become comfortable with dissonance. When we approach a song humbly and as learners, then we take time to learn, for example, that not all African Christian groups use drums. We need to accept feedback when a culture considers one of their songs as no longer representing them well. 

Do you know a song that some churches no longer sing because of cultural reasons?  

Many Christians love the “Huron Carol,” a seventeenth-century Christmas song first written in the Wendat language of people in what is now known as Canada. In Wendat, the first line translates to “Have courage, you who are humans; Jesus is born.”  

But most people now sing the first line as “’Twas in the moon of wintertime” because the song became popular a century ago when a Canadian poet completely rewrote the song in English. This version pictures a romanticized generic Indigenous Nativity and refers to the Creator as Gitchi Manitou, which is an Algonquian term, not a Wendat one. We chose not to include “Huron Carol” in VT. Yet despite its complex history, it remains a precious song in many Indigenous churches.  

Anything else you want to say? 

Consider using phrases of thanks and praise for a song, such as, “We give thanks to God for the words and music of ‘Waymaker’ from our sister Sinach, who lives and worships in Nigeria.” Or “Today’s offering is going to our sister church in South Korea, so we will sing the Korean song “Naege itneun hyangyu (To My Precious Lord).” We are thankful for those who wrote, revised, translated, composed, and arranged this song, which is much loved in Korea and is often used as an offering song.” 

Also, to help your congregation experience themselves as part of the universal body of Christ, sing songs from other eras as well as songs from many genres and cultural traditions. If your congregation is challenged to sing new songs because few people read music or you lack certain musical instruments, then use recordings. You can find videos and recordings on Hilary Seraph Donaldson’s Break into SongMennoMedia, Music That Makes Community, and The Hymn Society’s website