Lift Every Voice

Lift Every Voice /ˈlift ˈev-rē ˈvȯis/ phrase. – “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing” is often referred to as the Black national anthem. Written as a poem by James Weldon Johnson in 1900, then set to music by his bother John Rosamond Johnson in 1905, the song was chosen by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) as its official anthem in 1919. The song seeks optimism and freedom while acknowledging the suffering and obstacles of the past.

Interview with Katja

Tell me about yourself. What’s your background?

So, I’m from Kansas City, Kansas. Born and raised, worked my way all the way through USD 500 (Kansas City Kansas Public Schools). Went off to college at Lincoln University, one of two HBCUs (Historically Black College and University) in the state. Then I was fortunate enough that once I graduated I was able to come back home and be the band director at the high school that I graduated from, F.L. Schlagle High School in Kansas City, Kansas. Getting that job — and I didn’t even know it when I first got the job, like somebody had to tell me — I was the first Black woman to ever hold the position of director of bands at the high school level in the history of Kansas City, Kansas Public Schools. Which is crazy because we’re in 2019. And so looking around and being in the field that I’m in, it’s just really a blessing to be in that position and to even make a little history, you know, to be living history. That’s crazy. I never would have thought it.

How would you define beauty?

I think beauty is just confidence in who you are. Just knowing the best parts of yourself and exuding those things with confidence is what is beauty. Of course, that’s relative. Everyone has their own visions of beauty. But on the inside if you know the things that you do well and look well and all the other stuff — if you exude those things with confidence, people respond back that same way. That’s my definition of beauty.

“We truly are the originators,the starters, the innovators of all things in culture. Black culture is culture, period.”

How would you define Black beauty?

I think Black beauty is the basis for all beauty. It starts with us. We are the culture. We are the movement. One way or another, all these trends in beauty, fashion, music comes back around to Black history and to Black culture. I mean it really starts with us. We are the wave and people ride it to the end and they claim the wave to be their own. But we truly are the originators,the starters, the innovators of all things in culture, Black culture is culture, period.

How do you describe Black culture?

I’m gonna say innovative, fresh, creative. While at the same time being unique. Like, you can’t pigeonhole us into one thing. The spectrum of Black dopeness is just so wide. It can be on any end. It’s just amazing. I hate to use the cliche “Black girl magic” or “Black magic”, but that’s a real thing.

Black girl magic just comes from a place of having to be your own biggest fan or innovator in things. And when you’re not given the opportunities and you’re forced to create things for yourself, it just magnifies them and makes it greater and more creative and more unique than it could be if anyone else did it for you. You know, that’s Black girl magic to me. The force of innovation. Having to make stuff happen for yourself because nobody else is gonna do it but you.

What societal pressures do you feel because of your race?

Having the experience of going to a HBCU was a magical thing for me. And not that I’ve been the minority everywhere I’ve went, but when I got to HBCU and the minority was the majority, that was a beautiful thing. You didn’t feel any pressure to be anything other than who you were because everyone around you was in that spectrum and in that space. The minority was the majority. But, now that I’m into my career and into my professional zone, when I look around, I rarely see people that look like me. Like,I just got out of a professional development with all the other music teachers in the district and, you know, like 90% of them are White women. In general in teaching, I don’t know what the number is but I’m sure it’s very high, like over 80% of all teachers are White females. And so sometimes in my professional space, I feel that urge to conform, but in my experiences that I’ve had in the past, like just living that HBCU life and knowing that you can stand on your own and be confident in who you are and you don’t necessarily have to conform in order to do that, I kind of pushed back on that stuff. Like I don’t, I don’t need to fit in with you guys. I can still be professional and be myself at the same time.

“Having the experience of going to a HBCU was a magical thing for me. And not that I’ve been the minority everywhere I’ve went, but when I got to HBCU and the minority was the majority, that was a beautiful thing. “

What was it like growing up at HBCU (Historically black colleges and universities)?

Going some place where the majority of people look like you, including your faculty and staff, that is truly a magical thing. It lets you know that all things are possible, through education mainly because it is university. But just seeing and being exposed to professionals that are Black and minorities, that was just an eye opening experience. It made me feel like anything was possible and that everything was special about me. You know I wouldn’t give that experience up for anything.

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In full and complete bias, I recommend that all my students — because the majority of my students are Black and Brown — I tell them, You know you have all your life to be the minority. Take advantage. And go to one of these HBCU and spend four years being the majority and let that sink into your spirit. It really does something for you to be around, I hate the term but, Black excellence. Being surrounded by that, it really was life changing. But I’m from Kansas City, Kansas and 80% of the district is Black and Brown. But, to be at a higher institution like that, that was amazing. From the president on down for everybody to be a person of color.

Then you go to your biology class and your professor’s Black and you go to your music class and your professor is Black. It’s just inspiring. It’s everything. The not-so-confident young person of color comes in at the beginning and then when they go out four years later, it just oozes into you and it builds you up to be the confident person that you can be once you graduate. It was a really amazing experience that I would not give up for the world. I recommend that every student of color goes to HBCU.

“The not-so-confident young person of color comes in at the beginning and then when they go out four years later, it just oozes into you and it builds you up to be the confident person that you can be once you graduate.”

Have you ever experienced racism or discrimination? If so, any stories you would be willing to share?

To be honest, not really. I’ve been very blessed. Every situation I’ve been in, it hasn’t necessarily been about race, it’s been more about being a woman, honestly. In my field, I am the only woman high school band director in the district and like I said, the first one ever. Or, well, I’m the second woman ever, the first Black woman. So just getting over that stereotype of being a woman in this leadership position has been something that I’ve constantly been working at and struggling with. Even the perceptions from the outside when I first got the job was, Can she handle the kids, can she handle the parents? And you know, why wouldn’t I be able to? Why not? You know, just cause I’m a woman. But I really can’t speak to anything specific as far as race. I’ve been really blessed to be in positive situations where people have always looked out for each other.

Why couldn’t they see you as a band director?

Band at the higher levels, like outside of elementary and middle, when you get to high school and college, that is a male dominated profession. Male dominated. Although, it’s getting better and there are more women being hired, women band directors are few and far between. I was so blessed at Lincoln University I was under the very first HBCU female band director, Rhonda Harper (see also The Undefeated article). And that’s crazy that she got that job in 2005. Here we are still breaking those barriers. So as a woman band director, especially in the HBCU show style world, is extremely rare. And then when you get outside of that and in the high school world is extremely rare. You’d be hard pressed to find it. So in the community, and dare I say even in the professional ranks, that’s all they’re used to seeing was males in those roles, taking control and making it happen. But you know, I give myself a pat on the back and say, I stepped right in there and did what I was supposed to do and handled it just the same and put all those naysayers down.

Rhonda Harper. Photo by Lincoln University.

What do you feel you have accomplished in your life? What are you proud of?

Well, you know, I’m still pretty young. I’m only 29, so I got lots of life to live. But I’m just proud to come from where I come from and I call myself successful to be able to be back in my community and making a difference in kids’ lives like somebody did for me. It’s really special. Like a yesterday, Lincoln University was at my school auditioning seniors for band scholarships. You know, I got kids that, some of them, may have never been outside of Wyandotte County. And I’m proud to say that last year, and so far this year, every single one of my seniors has received a band scholarship. And you know, that’s an amazing thing. Some kids, they look at their instruments and it’s just another thing to do, like homework or something. But I would always tell my kids, Look at your instrument. it’s a blank check that you can write for any amount and it can take you anywhere. And so I’ll say my proudest achievement so far is just being a change in these kids’ lives and providing opportunities for them that they might not have had otherwise. And you know, they can take with it and make the best out of it, but I’m gonna make sure they get that opportunity.

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When that college band director walked into our band and they started cutting those checks, man, the whole mindset changes. Last year, my 13 seniors, they all got band scholarships.To a total of 1.4 million. That’s how much in offers they got and they couldn’t even imagine that at the beginning of the year. By the end of the year when we tallied that all up, I’m going to toot my horn a little bit, I’m like, Look the whole graduating class at Schlagle last year, the entire graduating class made like $3.6 million dollars in scholarships with like 130 kids. My 13 children, accounted for 1.4 million dollars of that. And so that really opened up their eyes to the power of their instruments and where it can take them. And you know, not all of them took advantage of it. Not all of them decided to go to college and be in band and do all that other stuff. But you know, just to have that opportunity, man, these kids are so hungry for it. My new seniors they’ve been on me like, Miss O-G when they, when Lincoln gonna be here? They’re ready to beat the record. They want to take it and run with it and it and go to the next level and they can’t wait to tell somebody, I’m going to college. I got a band scholarship. I’m gone. As they say, they say, I’m out of here. It’s exciting for me to see them excited about achieving something. That is just magical, man. I love it. That’s why we do it.

“I’ll say my proudest achievement so far is just being a change in these kids’ lives and providing opportunities for them that they might not have had otherwise. And you know, they can take with it and make the best out of it, but I’m gonna make sure they get that opportunity.”

What made you fall in love with music?

Well, my father was on the air for 15 years as a reggae DJ on KKFI and my mom is still on the air — Sundays 6pm – 8pm Sunset Reggae with Sista G on KKFI. Tune in if you like. So, I’ve been surrounded by music my entire life. I have memories of being asleep under the soundboard at KKFI. Pulling out wires and messing up the signal, being bad, you know. Sleeping in the club when I was little. Always being surrounded by music. But, specifically what made me want to become a band director was in high school I had my band director Reginald May, the great Reginald May. Well, I was a cello player for a really long time. Starting in fourth grade and played all the way through high school. And then my senior year, Mr. May saw that was playing the cello and he challenged me to learn to play the tuba. He was like, You know, next year we goin’ to Los Angeles. The band was. And you know, you learn to play the tuba, I’ll pay for your whole trip.

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I’m like, Hell yeah, I’m a get ready to play the tuba. So it was over the summer, I learned to play the tuba. Little did I know that learning to play the tuba would turn into me getting the band scholarship later that my senior year to Lincoln University. And that trajectory changed my life. Like a shift happened to where if he hadn’t came to me in that moment and challenged me to learn my instrument, then I wouldn’t have went to Lincoln. I wouldn’t have been exposed to HBCU band style. I wouldn’t have had the professors that I had that took me under their wing and gave me tutelage and mentored me and pulled me across that finish line to graduate. So bringing it all full circle, I would not be in the position that I’m in right now to be a band director at the high school that I graduated from. So, what he saw in me changed my life and inspired me to be that for other kids. So that’s why I’m doing what I’m doing.

What type of music do you love? 

Oh my God, reggae. Reggae. Like I said, I’ve slept in the club. There’s this club on 39th and Main (in KCMO). I don’t know what it’s called now, like Aura or something like that. It used to be called the Grand Emporium and they used to have all types of reggae acts that would come in and out of there. I remember being in the backstage part and there was this artist called Luciano, he’s a reggae artist, that came to perform and he has his song called Sweep Over My Soul. I’ll never forget that baseline or the way this song sounds just because I heard it so many times being in that club. Like every time he was there my parents would say they didn’t care if it was one…two in the morning, me and my sister was in there. They was in there having a good time.

But, just reggae music in general. Bob Marley, anything Bob Marley. Waiting in Vain is my mom’s favorite Bob Marley song, therefore it’s my favorite Bob Marley song. But just reggae in general is entrenched in my spirit. I couldn’t get rid of it if I wanted to.

What’s the difference between HBCU bands and Predominantly White Institutions bands? 

HBCU (Historically Black College and University) bands and our PWI (Predominantly White Institutions) bands, they’re very different ends of the spectrum but essentially they’re the same thing. I think people try to put them on one side, as far as music quality, putting one on one end and one on the other. But they’re the same thing. The same type of musicians are in each of those groups, they would just give you a little different style and show. The HBCU shows, you’re going to get high energy, up tempo. But we can slow it down, too. We’re going to give you the latest hits. It’s gonna sound like you’re listening to the radio. When you go to HBCU, the halftime show, it’s going to look like you’re watching BET.

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And you might not necessarily get that at a PWI. But like I said, the quality of musicianship will definitely be the same. I think that’s what people try to take down or try to put a knock on HBCU. Mostly because we play more contemporary stuff than our PWI counterparts. Here’s the main difference: in HBCU world people go to football games for halftime. You know, that’s where the real show starts. In the PWI world, it might be the opposite. You know, we’ll go to see the football, oh the band is nice. That’s cute. But you know during half time we’re going to get the hot dogs. You better not leave during halftime at HBCU, you’d be missing out.

What are your personal dreams?

I would love to direct the band on the collegiate level one day, I really would. To follow in the footsteps of the great Rhonda Harper and to be a band director on the collegiate level, I think that’s the ultimate goal for me. Now, if I never get there I’ll be satisfied as well just making a difference on the high school level. But if I could become a collegiate band director, that would be it. I’ll be happy. Then I’m good.

What is one major problem minorities face that you would like to bring awareness to?

I would say self-doubt. We’ve got to get out of doubting ourselves. One of the major things that I deal with, with not even just band students but, with students in general is the fear to try because they don’t want to fail. They are afraid to even try because they don’t want to be the person to say the wrong answer or play the wrong note or just step out on the limb. And to know that when you fail, that’s just a stepping stone to get better the next time. And so maybe as a people if we just realize our own power and the things that we’re capable of doing on our own without anybody else helping us. Like, you don’t need anybody to give you anything to get to the next level. Just do it for yourself. Make it for yourself.

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Self-actualization and getting rid of that self doubt. Realizing the power that we have as Black people. Really harness that and take that. We have something, just an energy, around and amongst Black people that isn’t prevalent in any other race and if we could just harvest that, we’d be unstoppable. I think that’s the main fear that drives the oppression of Black people, other people see the power and the potential that it could be, so they want to oppress it. And we’re not knowing that, that same power could be the “unlock” for anything you want, man. I tell my kids all the time, All the best things in life are on the other side of fear. Just get outside of that fear and you’d be surprised.

What are you dreams for society?

Wouldn’t we all like to live in a utopian society? Wouldn’t we all like to live in a, in a world where no one wants for anything and everyone has everything they need? Because it’s totally possible. There’s enough resources in the world for everyone to be satisfied. I just think, I would love for society to be a place where anyone can truly be or do anything they want to do. That’s what we like to say, but is that really true? Maybe not. And so I think we can really get to a place where that is a true thing. A real thing. That will be amazing. I don’t know how we get there. If I did, I’d be president. But if we could find that man, how awesome would that be?

“We have something, just an energy, around and amongst Black people that isn’t prevalent in any other race and if we could just harvest that, we’d be unstoppable.”

How do we make progress on your dreams for society?

Well, like with anything else, if somebody can see that they can be successful at it, they’re more inclined to keep going. You know, people in general, when you hit those roadblocks, it’s a little discouraging. Finding a way to push through. I don’t even know. Man, how do we do that?

It is easy to be problem-oriented as opposed to solution-oriented. And so that’s something we definitely need to get out of. I think it just comes with a meeting of the minds. People with like-minded goals working towards them. But sometimes it’s hard to connect at the level that it needs to for progress and change to really happen. I have so many other things going on that sometimes making societal change and making it better for everyone, it’s kind of put to the back burner when you just trying to grip and survive, you know?

What advice would you give to other Black people?

Realize your power, harness your potential and never give up. I have this quote on my wall at home, All the best things in life are on the other side of fear. And every time I’ve reached that point where I’ve been afraid to try something or to do something and I went ahead and did it, I went ahead and pushed through, I’ve never regretted it. I’ve always been satisfied. Always been happy with the result. But never would have had that if you let that fear take you over.

What advice would you give to non-Black individuals to help them understand the Black experiences?

Just know that you can’t understand it. It’s an experience just like anyone else’s experience — it’s theirs to have and hold. Don’t think that you can understand it or define it or put it in a box. Or write up, you know, a theory on it. It’s our experience. And unless you’ve experienced what I’ve experienced, you’ll never know.

I hear that your name, Miss O-G, is the coolest name at the school. How do you feel about that?

Well, you know, my real last name is Otto-Gentry, so that is a mouthful. Who wants to be called Miss Otto-Gentry? I think that’s too much. You know, if the kids called me Miss O-G and it helps give me a little street cred, I don’t mind it either. You know the joke I like to tell is I’m only a gangster on the weekends, during the week I teach.

Additional Information

Interview Date: 12/24/2019

Day 6 — Story posted on February 5, 2020

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