I could feel Miss Tillie’s hand on my thick nest of a head. That touch gave me hope. I made a little song in my head.
Gary Seighman had more than a few sleepless nights over the summer. Disparate threads of conversations played and replayed in his mind, and his typical background music was drowned out. Choral societies were talking about fundamental changes to the art of group singing; scientists were talking about superspreader events surrounding community and church choirs; the world was talking about Black Lives Matter and seeking justice for George Floyd and Breonna Taylor.
And Seighman was determined not to let these conversations fade.
"It was difficult for me personally to think that students would come back to class in the fall and start rehearsing Mozart, Haydn, business as usual," says Seighman, Trinity’s director for choral activities and associate professor of music. "Instead, I wanted to reflect upon our role as artists during this time. There are issues we can’t ignore. For me, as a 42-year-old white male, well... the initial question was, 'What do I have to contribute to this conversation?'"
Gary Seighman conducts rehearsal for the Trinity choirs on the Parker Chapel lawn.
It had not dawned on him yet, but Seighman had already begun his contribution when he and his wife, Jennifer, began reading My Hair is a Garden to their two young children. Written and illustrated by Cozbi A. Cabrera, My Hair is a Garden follows the journey of a young Black protagonist—a girl named Mackenzie who is questioning the beauty of her natural Black hair. The book would become the foundation for a Trinity-produced choral narrative titled the same.
"I wanted to incorporate the idea of social justice this semester, and the answer was on those pages the whole time," Seighman says. "Students in the choir wanted to get folks involved who have gone through these issues, so we as a group could focus our learning experience on ways we could be proactively antiracist."
Miss Tillie’s hair is shiny. / Miss Tillie’s hair is long. / She wears it as a crown / Like beauty wrapped in song.
First things first: Seighman reached out to the author herself, who was immediately happy to participate. Cabrera not only offered narration in her own voice, she sent Seighman a clip of her and her daughter singing parts of the text, and she helped supply high-resolution illustrations.
Cabrera—a former Sony music design director featured by Oprah Winfrey—is just one in a lineup of nationally acclaimed talent contributing to "My Hair is a Garden." She joined the choir’s classroom by Zoom to serve as a sounding board about the book, her career, and the role of the arts. One by one, choir members suggested other contributors, many of whom eagerly joined in: San Antonio poet laureate and spoken word artist Andrea Vocab Sanderson; internationally recognized concert pianist Samantha Ege; and Grammy Award-winning Houston Chamber Choir member L. Wayne Ashley, to name a few. (Find the full cast of guest artists in the video’s credits.)
Then came the Trinity community celebs: choir alumni, jazz ensemble performers, student artists, and members of the Black Student Union (BSU) contributed their expertise, input, and voices both figurative and literal.
One of these voices belongs to Taylor Black ’23, BSU secretary and narrator for the last piece of the program. Black is not only a pre-med student majoring in international studies, she’s a budding voice artist, and she found "My Hair is a Garden" as a place where she could gain confidence in her abilities—much like the protagonist herself.
"I’ve been wanting to be a part of making my voice known, especially within the Black community," Black says. "Being part of this project meant I was doing something bigger within Trinity, something bigger with the world in general. The fact that Trinity is willing to speak on the topic shows that we’re prepared to be a part of the conversation in a respectful way."
You know, Miss Tillie’s hair has a glory!
For Seighman, piecing together this conversation was a work of art itself. He recalls "writing ideas on paper, cutting them out, rearranging them, pasting them, throwing them away and starting over" to hold a mirror to Mackenzie’s journey.
The choir ended up developing the program around a scene in the book in which Miss Tillie describes how she nurtured her garden, even when people trampled it. "We were able to illustrate this through a dramatic lens that became a reflection of what we can do to be more antiracist," Seighman says.
Cut-out paper scraps aside, "My Hair is a Garden" debuted as the Trinity choirs’ fall concert on Facebook on November 22. More than a dozen guest artists and 85 singers in the combined Trinity choirs contributed more than 20 musical, artistic, and visual components to the program. From spoken word poetry to personal storytelling, from impromptu jazz to classical piano, the breadth of genre and depth of technique spans mediums and generations.
One of these songs is "Glory," a 2014 rap and soul combo by Common and John Legend from the motion picture Selma. Trinity choir alumnus and baritone Joel Holmes ’19 was tapped to rap alongside Houston Chamber Choir singer L. Wayne Ashley. While he had never met Ashley, Holmes is no stranger to creating music in a digital sphere: In 2017, he formed an alternative hip-hop collective, Echo Park, where artists across the nation collaborate on musical projects.
"Being able to pick up on people’s vibes and rhythms, trying to fit into a part of a greater collective, is something that’s becoming easier in this day and age with technological advancements," says Holmes, a history graduate and former Tiger football player who is currently putting his tech skills to use as an IT consultant for Capgemini. "But I consider myself to be a very, very small piece of this puzzle. So many people I know worked so hard to make all this come together—Dr. Seighman, the students in choir, the BSU, and everyone else involved in creating this experience. Without their vision and their hard work, it wouldn’t have been possible."
And if "Miss Tillie’s hair has a glory," the vision and hard work that Holmes describes give "My Hair is a Garden" a glory, too. Or, for Holmes, a "tangible work of art that can be revisited for years to come."
"It’s really important that art is a part of national conversations," Holmes says. "Whether people want to admit it or not, whether they realize it or not, the things that we go through today are eventually going to be looked back at as history. Future generations of Trinity choirs, Trinity students, Trinity Black Student Unions, anyone who interacts with ‘My Hair is a Garden’ can find something in it that sticks with them. That’s the most fulfilling part of being asked to be a part of this."
Complemented by beautiful illustrations, individual singers from Trinity's choirs compiled their voices for "My Hair is a Garden."
Taylor Black agrees. "Doing what we did is a start, but that’s not where it should end. It means a lot in the moment, but I want it to be more than just a moment," she says. "I want it to be something that lasts for Trinity’s history: to be known for including everyone, and for not being afraid to include ourselves and our voices in these national conversations."
The moment is here; the seeds are planted; the garden is taking root. But Seighman admits that this is all just the beginning. After capturing footage, forging relationships with authors, crafting a narrative through story and song, and piecing together submitted videos from choir members across the world, Seighman has no plans to just sit back and watch "My Hair is a Garden" grow.
"My biggest takeaway? Our work will always be a work in progress," Seighman says, "but if we have used this piece to shorten the timeline of the world becoming a more equitable and just place, even by two milliseconds, then the hundreds of hours of work will be more than worth it."
"My Hair is a Garden" highlights Black Girls Code, a nonprofit organization that seeks to "increase the number of women of color in the digital space… to become innovators in STEM fields, leaders in their communities, and builders of their own futures." Seighman notes that the choirs wanted to use the video as a springboard to spotlight work done to combat racial injustice, and Black Girls Code aligned closely with Trinity’s mission as a liberal arts university. "A project like this fits with Black Girls Code in three ways: its dependence on technology and the virtual aspect; the book’s protagonist is a young African American girl; and the fact that there are so many students in the choirs, including Black women, who are studying STEM disciplines."