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Tesfa Wondemagegnehu on art, activism, and Black History Month

Tesfa Wondemagegnehu is an assistant professor of music at St. Olaf College and serves as the conductor for the St. Olaf Chapel Choir and Viking Chorus. Growing up in Memphis, Tennessee, Wondemagegnehu was exposed to choral music and Black mentorship and activism at a young age, which has shaped his career and mission as an educator, conductor, and performer. 

Whether he’s programming a choral concert at St. Olaf or curating a public radio special like the recent program Lift Every Voice, Wondemagegnehu has consistently incorporated activism and themes of social justice into his work. 

Here, he shares his thoughts on Black History Month, the role of art as activism, his experience with Black mentors and leaders, and what we can do to create a more just and equitable community.

For more than a decade, Wondemagegnehu has been sharing joy and a vision for equity and justice through song. As the guest artistic director of One Voice Mixed Chorus, one of North America’s Largest LGBTQ+ choirs, Wondemagegnehu tackled projects like “Resistance and Resilience,” a choral concert that linked together two movements he feels passionately about: the struggle for African-American civil liberties and the gay rights movement.

He also focuses on activism in his own compositions and arrangements. Additionally, he is co-editor of the Justice Choir Songbook, a new collection of songs for the issues of our time, which is focused on encouraging communities to raise their voices together for change, equity, love, and peace.

This fall, current and former members of the Chapel Choir collaborated with hundreds of singers from around the country to create a virtual choir and perform Wondemagegnehu’s composition “Love Is.” This piece is part of the Justice Choir Songbook and was inspired by Lin-Manuel Miranda’s powerful Tony Award acceptance speech from 2016 after the Pulse Nightclub shooting in Orlando, Florida.

Excerpt from Lin-Manuel Miranda’s acceptance speech:

We live through times when hate and fear seem stronger. 

We rise and fall and light from dying embers. 

Remembrances that hope and love live longer. 

And love is love is love is love is love is love is love cannot be killed or swept aside.

Through all of this work, the end goal is turning these conversations into true action and concrete change.

At St. Olaf, Wondemagegnehu has exemplified his commitment to activism through art in his programming with Chapel Choir and Viking Chorus. The ensembles have touched on topics such as civil rights activism, mass gun violence, LGBTQIA+ rights, and more. The 2019 Chapel Choir concert titled “Finding Strength and Hope” embodies many elements of this mission. 

These topics are also vital in the classroom, which Wondemagegnehu explores in his Interim class Music and Social Justice. In this course, he focuses on helping bridge the gap of social injustice through music, dialogue, and inspiring participants to take action in their communities.

Wondemagegnehu is deeply committed to exploring these topics — and not only talking the talk, but walking the walk at St. Olaf. 

Whether it’s through his work as a conductor and educator, or joining hands with the greater St. Olaf community during events like the Unity March on Martin Luther King Jr. Day in 2020, he is working towards a future where all people feel that they belong and have found a home at St. Olaf College.

Earlier this month, Wondemagegnehu was presented as a featured speaker during Chorus America’s 2021 Conference. His session, titled Choral Music and Social Justice: A Redistribution Model, led hundreds of choral educators across the country to consider how choruses can become part of the larger conversations happening in the world today and help with the healing that needs to take place.

That healing will take time. But as Wondemagegnehu has shown throughout his career, the combination of art with activism plays a vital role in this process. 

As Black History Month comes to a close, he shares his thoughts on how individuals can make an impact through their own contributions to uplifting Black-owned business and industries.