Student Profile: Adrian Davis is Disrupting the System

Adrian Davis conducts the University of Minnesota Gospel Choir

Through building community with his music program at Roosevelt High School in Minneapolis and reviving the Gospel Choir at the University of Minnesota, Davis is showing everyone if they can see it, they can be it.


Adrian Davis grew up in Memphis, Tennessee. His parents grew up in the segregated South. In the 1960s, his mother was a Title I high school teacher, and his father worked as a railroad switchman for Southern Pacific. Fighting for equal wages and representation, they reported to their jobs work the day after Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated and their city was set afire.

That’s the model Davis brings to his day job as the music teacher for Roosevelt High School in Minneapolis, his research as a doctoral student in music education, and to reviving the gospel choir at the University of Minnesota. “Their mindset was you have to work twice as hard to get half as much, and that’s my daily mindset,” he says.

“People say the school system is broken, and I would say, no, it’s not,” he adds. “The system is working. A lot of my research is around that. If you look at music education and where it originated, their mindset was not racial diversity. It wasn’t gender diversity, either.”

“There’s a lot of education going on at the collegiate level and a lot of education going on at the ‘street’ level, but somehow we have not been able to connect the two,” he continues. “My focus is to really connect the dots. To be that person or advocate for the community, and to also show the community that there is an opportunity for you to be a part of the academic world and vice versa.”

Returning Music to Roosevelt

Roosevelt’s high school music program had been decimated, then discontinued, due to funding issues. Enter Davis. He brought the curriculum back and he says, since then the program has been steadily on the rise. Since 2013, the choral program has grown from 16 to 94 students. Drumline went from about five to more than 30. A steel drum line has spun off from the original.

“The administration has given me the academic freedom to do my job effectively, and the community and parental support is growing around the program,” Davis says. They have since performed in Chicago at a national competition and at the Mall of America—same as pop stars Ariana Grande and Justin Bieber, he takes care to point out to them.

“I always tell my students that we want to be the champions of our neighborhood. We’re going to be a beacon of light. When people come in our neighborhood, they will feel a different energy.”

But what happens if these kids graduate and pursue music at the collegiate level? They will find few students or mentors of color, Davis asserts, citing that professors of color make up only 5 to 6 percent of the total professoriate. He adds they’re not likely to study types of music that come from their own lineage.

“The Western European canon is very, very important. But we can’t mistake that for being the standard-bearer of all music for all mankind,” Davis says. “When you exclude certain types of music you are excluding types of people, creating an either/or rather than a both/and curriculum.”

Gospel at the U

Davis honed his knack for bringing something back. After reviving Roosevelt’s program, he endeavored to bring the Gospel Choir back to the University of Minnesota.

“Having a gospel choir is the first step to recognizing other music as viable and equal to other classical music,” he says. “Historically hip-hop is about as old as baroque, we’re talking 1685-1750, Bach and Handel and those guys. Hip-hop is a grownup. And hip-hop ties back to gospel, and to an extent, classical music.”

Sixteen students enrolled with the first gospel choir, most of them white.

“I understand that, and I have no problem with that,” he says. “We took care to make sure no cultural appropriation was going on. We studied the history. First thing I asked was, ‘What is gospel music?’” The go-to answer? Gospel is the good news.

“So I said, ‘Let’s unpack that: The Good News of what? The Good News is tied to joy and hope and love—and salvation, if you are looking at it from a Christian perspective. But within those Christian values, come love and peace and longsuffering and kindness. Within that comes the narrative of culture: People that sing their way through slavery. Sing their way through Jim Crow. We are singing people’s lives. Performing people’s lives.”

Second choir enrollment? Forty-six students, with an increase in both racial and gender diversity. “That was pretty dope,” he allows. “We had people from all walks of life.”

“There’s narrative and story to be heard in that music,” Davis says. To make sure the students heard it, he asked them to write song analyses.

“There is a lot of heart in that writing,” he says. “They share personal experiences with me. This music is helping folks. We learn from each other’s experiences, even if we haven’t experienced certain things in life. We learn empathy. That’s just as important. To me, that’s gold.”

Adrian Davis

Learn More

The U of M Gospel Choir will perform in the 39th Annual Martin Luther King, Jr. Tribute Concert on January 19 at 3:00 pm in Ted Mann Concert Hall. The program is curated by U of M School of Music alumnus G. Phillip Shoultz, III of VocalEssence and is sponsored by the U of M Office for Equity and Diversity and the School of Music.

Gospel choir is a course open to all students at the University of Minnesota.

Cover of the 2019-2020 volume of Tutti Magazine.

Tutti. (Italian) all. every musician to take part.
Tutti is the annual magazine of the University of Minnesota School of Music.

Read the 2019-2020 volume of Tutti.

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