Accompanying the African American Music Festival’s performance of Essence of Joy, Rollo Dilworth joined students and lecturers alike to discuss his piece, life, and contemporary issues of race and music.

An experienced arranger, composer and choral director, Rollo Dilworth has always had his ear to music. From a young age, he explained at Friday’s AAMF Meet the Composer, many conspired to ensure him a career in music.

His teacher forced him to sight sing from age six, his mother purchased him a piano not long after, and his piano instructor spent years drilling the fundamentals of music into him. In a rather hilarious anecdote, Dilworth explained how she would drive him around town every Sunday, visiting as many churches as they could, just so she could make him shadow the pianist.

It worked, Dilworth points out. Many years later, he’s still as in love with music as before. Yet, with a doctorate in composition, perhaps slightly more musically advanced than a young church pianist. Passionate about gospel music, but with experience in classical and jazz, Dilworth is committed to reinvigorating the former with a contemporary spin.

Acknowledging that many see classical music as the primary tradition of American music, Dilworth argues that gospel and spiritual music is just as integral to American musical culture, both in and out of African American society. Thus, his compositions are a genre-bending amalgamation of his many influences. A roaring gospel line, a touch of jazz here, a classically influenced passage here.

Dilworth played a few of his more popular pieces for us via his phone, pointing out particular moments of interest as they played. A uniquely satisfying listen, it seemed a pity we couldn’t hear them live. Continuing on, he began to take a series of questions from the audience, a group of music students and teachers alike.

Quizzed about his past and the lexical characteristics of typical gospel phrasing, Dilworth seemed to enjoy opening up a dialogue with the students, encouraging them to learn. One particularly interesting moment occurred when a lecturer asked him if a white woman directing a gospel choir would be considered cultural appropriation.

With a small grin on his face, Dilworth strolled to the piano, sat down, and played some Chopin in reply, asking ‘is that cultural appropriation?’ It seemed the right way to answer, the man who has made a career blending multicultural issues encouraged anyone interested in gospel music to simply do it.

‘Do your homework’ he said, and then no one can doubt your ability and validity in performing, writing and directing. Just as no one could question whether or not he had the authority to play the work of a Polish man.