News | February 15, 2022

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Music therapy major lifts her voice in support of national hymn

Singer’s videos of ‘the Black national anthem’ stir viewers

Contributors: James Greco, Photography; Dale Ward, Videography

“Lift every voice and sing
‘till earth and heaven ring,
ring with the harmonies of liberty.”
– “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” lyrics by James Weldon Johnson

When Christelle Cajuste received an invitation to perform the post-Civil War hymn often called “the Black national anthem” as part of a local television news story prior to Martin Luther King Jr. Day in 2021, she was quick to accept – even if it meant singing solo, without instrumental accompaniment, while strolling along a waterfront walkway.

Cajuste, a Florida Gulf Coast University senior majoring in music therapy, said she was eager to lend her voice to a growing movement to have “Lift Every Voice and Sing” be officially recognized as the national hymn of the United States.

“I have been singing for as long as I can remember, and it’s something that has always felt natural to me,” Christelle Cajuste says.

“‘Lift Every Voice and Sing’ is an incredibly powerful song, and it should definitely be acknowledged as such,” said Cajuste, a 2017 graduate of University High School in Orlando. “The voices of Black people need to be amplified, and I think that making this song our national hymn would be a step in the right direction.”

Like many a well-received film production, that 2021 broadcast has spawned several sequels of sorts, with Cajuste performing “Lift Every Voice and Sing” in a variety of spots on and around campus (see video below). The initial video was a joint effort between WZVN-TV (the ABC affiliate in Fort Myers) and FGCU’s marketing and communications team.

“Christelle started singing ‘Lift Every Voice and Sing’ for us last year. Local ABC7 reporter Meagan Miller asked if we had someone who could sing it for use in the broadcast,” said Kyle McCurry, assistant vice president for marketing and communication. “The video team filmed multiple versions of it, and we opted to run it on our social channels on two days – Martin Luther King Day and Juneteenth. This year, we shot it again with Christelle walking along the boardwalk. There is also another version planned for this year’s Juneteenth.”

The video team turned to FGCU’s Bower School of Music and the Arts to help find the right vocalist for that initial project. “I immediately thought of Christelle, because she is always very communicative when she performs, and her voice is beautiful,” said Jeanie Darnell, professor of voice and head of vocal studies. “She also has a large, warm personality. She is well-liked by her faculty and peers here in the Bower School of Music and the Arts.”

Performing “Lift Every Voice and Sing” as part of productions to commemorate important dates on the calendar including MLK Day, Black History Month and Juneteenth is among the latest displays of a love of music going back to Cajuste’s childhood.

“I have been singing for as long as I can remember, and it’s something that has always felt natural to me,” she said. “The first serious involvement I had with music was when I auditioned for my elementary school choir. I was 9 at the time, and I have always been involved in something music-related since that moment.”

Cajuste originally considered a career in music performance. Indeed, in January she took the stage with Opera Naples in a production of “The Pirates of Penzance,” and her busy calendar includes upcoming performances with FGCU’s Jazz Ensemble and choirs. But Cajuste executed the academic equivalent of a shift in key and decided to study music therapy. The profession involves the use of music as an evidence-based intervention strategy to accomplish therapeutic health and education goals including managing stress, alleviating pain, expressing feelings and enhancing communications.

“What I found fascinating about music therapy was the fact that it helps people achieve non-music related goals, so it’s used outside of the standard musical setting. This really intrigued me,” she said. “It’s an interesting field that definitely deserves more recognition.”

Cajuste even could envision a situation in which “Lift Every Voice and Sing” could be used as part of a music therapy intervention strategy.

“It’s actually a common misconception that music therapy is used in the casual, everyday setting. Listening to music is relaxing for a lot of people, but music therapy is a profession, and you have to be board-certified to offer this service,” she said. “I’m a big fan of examples, so I could see a scenario where a music therapist is working with a Black client that was diagnosed with dementia, and the client shares that ‘Lift Every Voice and Sing’ was their favorite song as a child.”

As she enters the final stanza of her time as an FGCU undergraduate, Cajuste is winning rave reviews from faculty members who praise not only her musical abilities, but also her performance in the musical therapy program.

“I am so proud of Christelle. She works hard for what she wants, and I have never seen her without a smile. She is a truly beautiful person on the inside and outside,” said Carolann Sanita VanderMeer, adjunct instructor of voice. “She will succeed as a music therapist simply with her care for others. She shows up and gives of herself. Her talent in singing is a gift for others to hear, and I am excited that she has been sharing it.”

Kimberly Sena Moore, associate professor and music therapy program coordinator, pointed to several qualities Cajuste possesses that will help her in her chosen profession. “Christelle is a talented musician across multiple instruments – voice, piano, guitar and ukulele to start. This is so important to music therapy practice because we work to shape lives through developing and implementing music interventions,” Sena Moore said. “Christelle is open to new experiences and to learning. This openness will allow her to continue to grow and deepen in her music therapy practice, thus allowing her to better serve the clients with whom she will be working.”

Cajuste’s performance of “Lift Every Voice and Sing” will continue to be highlighted by FGCU throughout Black History Month. “I highly encourage everyone to learn something new this month in terms of Black history,” she said. “You’ll be surprised by what you learn.”