Victor Wooten Joins Panel on Music, Health, and Spirituality in the Black Community

The Grammy-winning bassist and visiting scholar discussed how music transcends language barriers and institutional constructs.

March 22, 2023
Mike Mason, John McGee, Kei Slaughter, and Victor Wooten

From left: Mike Mason, John McGee, Kei Slaughter, and Victor Wooten

Berklee College of Music

Victor Wooten, Grammy-winning bassist, songwriter, producer, and Berklee visiting scholar in performance studies, recently joined Berklee faculty for a webinar titled Music, Health, and Spirituality in the Black Community. The event also featured Kei Slaughter, associate professor of music therapy, John McGee, assistant chair of the Piano Department, and Mike Mason, chair of the Africana Studies Department and discussion moderator.

Cosponsored by Berklee’s Music and Health Institute, Center for Music Therapy, and Africana Studies Department, the talk centered on the essential connection between music and the human spirit, particularly as it relates to Black communities, as well as the spiritual origins of Black music, which formed under the context of slavery. Panelists shared their experiences with church and worship music regarding its foundational influence on how they each engage with music.

Wooten talked about how music resonates on a deep, spiritual level, saying that it “helps us forget everything else that we’re told is important. It’s another language…. You don’t really have to understand that language to get the message. It’s something we use to connect to our oneness. That’s incredibly powerful.”

A longtime bass player for Béla Fleck and the Flecktones, Wooten is also the author of the book The Music Lesson: A Spiritual Search for Growth Through Music, and its sequel, The Spirit of Music: The Lesson Continues, both of which delve into the healing and restorative power of creative expression for both creators and listeners.

Kei Slaughter spoke about their musical journey, and how the churches of New Orleans helped place them on a path to becoming a flutist, vocalist, songwriter, and music therapist. Slaughter recounted their struggles in reconciling their queer identity within a spiritual culture that often excluded and rejected those ideas. Through it all, their love of music remained a constant and guiding force that connected them to an idea of a higher spiritual energy.

“I hold in my body and in my being a love for the Black church, and also a desire to see it continue to grow,” said Slaughter. “It is such a cultural influencer [in the Black community] for better or worse, and I love the parts that are good. For me, I’m not pushing it away. I hold it close.

“One of my favorite theologians and activists…Dr. Barbara Holmes…[says] that anyone who’s known those [church] walls and its energy, regardless of denomination—you can feel that, in a sense, beyond institutional walls,” continued Slaughter. “She describes that as the meta-actual form of the Black church. I really love that language, this meta-actualness of the Black church and Black spirituality and Black faith and Black life. The Black church should be lovingly critical of itself in the ways that it has treated some of its queer members."

A preacher, producer, published author, and educator, John McGee noted that music and spirituality have always gone hand in hand throughout his life. McGee’s career in church music at Waters AME Church in Baltimore, where he became a full-time minister at the age of 12. He emphasized the healing potential of music, describing, by way of example, how a hospice minister played McGee’s music for his patients because he said it helped them to peacefully transition.

Kei Slaughter sings while and John McGee accompanies on piano

Kei Slaughter and John McGee give an impromptu performance to demonstrate how music can empower the spirit.

Berklee College of Music

“Sound is the first offering of the spirit to the world,” McGee said. “When I think of the origin of spirituality in music and the Black church…it was a therapeutic experience that occurred outside of a walled context. I find that post-Covid, we have been faced with our greatest opportunity in terms of [returning to that] origin. With all of these new technologies of streaming and other methods that we can engage the divine community…people are choosing to go [to church] whenever they need that therapeutic experience, and we need to engage in the non-institutionalized dimensions of that therapeutic experience of coming together.”

The conversation highlighted the significance of spiritual music and its origins within the framework of the Black experience amongst individuals and communities seeking a pathway to identity, spirituality, and survival in the midst of the horrific reality of slavery.

“The power [of music] is deeper when you’re playing it for real, when it’s pure soul,” said Wooten. “For our culture in this country, [music] came from pure soul. It was life and death; it was who we are. It’s in our DNA, and it comes through in whatever [instrument] we touch. That power comes through.”

“When you look at spirituality in the context of Blackness, that ancestral piece is not something we should gloss over,” added McGee. “...[T]hese enslaved Africans who were forcibly transported from their homelands…had to redevelop family—a sense of connection and kinship once they arrived on these shores. They used the sound and music to maintain connection to the motherland, but also as they developed [a] dialect of the English language. [It was] inherently spiritual in that they were both communicating this spiritual hope for freedom while communicating…these very coded messages across various spheres…it’s inherently spiritual.”

Viewers experienced the spiritual influence of music firsthand as McGee played a beautiful rendition of “I Don’t Feel Noways Tired” by Rev. James Cleveland, accompanied by Slaughter, who gave a passionate vocal performance.