Essence of Soul: Swarthmore’s Newest Old A Cappella Group

It was November 17, 2020, and I was standing bundled up outside of Clothier for the No Longer Minding the Light strike rally, exhausted and ready for a change. We’d reached the near end of a long and tedious semester, and I was ready for it to be over. At the same time, I was hungry for a new artistic endeavor.

During my freshman year at Swarthmore, I, like many of my peers, was searching for my place here. I knew I loved the arts, so I dabbled in music, in dance, in comedy, and in theater. This year, my sophomore year, I realized I wanted to double major in theater and Black studies. This Fall, I took on the challenge of trying to create live pandemic theater, which resulted in 7 Days to Kill Your Husband, a collection of fifteen student-written plays performed by an ensemble cast that I directed. By late November, I had just finished my first monumental project and was ready to start a new one. At the same moment, the strike began, and everything halted on campus. 

So I’m standing at the rally, not knowing what to expect, but ready for whatever comes my way. On that chilly afternoon, Mekayla Herndon, who is leading the rally, mentions a series of actions that came out of the 1969 S.A.S.S. protests, one of which being two all-Black a cappella groups forming. And that’s when I realize three things: 

  1. Swarthmore doesn’t currently have any all-Black a cappella groups. 
  2. I want an all-Black a cappella group at Swarthmore. 
  3. If I want an all-Black a cappella group, I’m going to have to make it happen myself. 

One of the things I like about Swarthmore is that there’s space to just make art if you want to. So that’s what I did. I decided that rather than creating a new group, I would revive an old one, Essence of Soul. I went on Facebook to see if anyone was interested, and then advertised across social media sites, posting a Google form for people to fill out. It was a simple form; asking people for their names, voice parts, and singing experience. From there, we met via Zoom to discuss our wishes, goals, and dreams for the group. 

Because the group had previously existed, I also reached out to some alums. I emailed Andrew Cheng ’12, Ja’Dell Davis ’06, Sunny Cowell ’09, Gerrit Straughter ’09, and my brother, Charles Inniss ’09,  all of whom were in the group during their time at Swarthmore. They provided invaluable resources, including arrangements, charters, audition forms, and, possibly the most valuable resource of all, history. Ja’Dell Davis sent information about the group’s establishment. Essence of Soul was established in the early 2000s as a revival of another all-Black a cappella group, Black Coffee. Its goal was to sing music by artists who were Black or part of the African Diaspora. The group sought to explore musical forms prominent in Black cultures, including R&B, funk, hip hop, and choral arrangements from the Black church. It is important to note that at the time, Essence of Soul was not an all-Black group; it was simply a group that sang music from the African Diaspora. As a result, by the time the group ceased existing in 2013, most of the people in it were not Black. Because of this, and because of my desire for a Black group, I wanted Essence to be an all-Black group in its revival. 

I’d like to take a moment here and mention that I had no prior a cappella experience. I had never been in an a cappella group before, never arranged for one, never taught a cappella music to people. The closest I’d ever gotten to an a cappella group was my Grapevine callback freshman fall, and I didn’t get into that. So I was nervous and unsure of my ability to get the group off the ground. I spent winter break trying to figure out how to arrange for a cappella. I am a classical pianist and flautist, and recently began taking lessons in voice. I had never written music for voice before, and had only arranged solo voice pieces. It was an exciting new challenge figuring out how to turn instrumental parts into vocal ones for a cappella, and I really enjoyed it. I also received quite a bit of help and support from friends, family, and other members of the group, all of whom contributed to a successful launch of the Essence of Soul.

To make that launch happen, the group rehearsed throughout J-term via Zoom. The members of the group, James Delinois ’24,  Angie Etienne ’22, Diavione Frazier ’22, Whitney Grinnage-Cassidy ’24, Michael Maturana ’24, and Jasmine Pierre ’24, worked hard learning the arrangements in our weekly rehearsals and in individual practices during January. They then spent the first week of February making video recordings. Beyond just learning music that would be edited together to make a video, I wanted to bring a sense of the community to rehearsals. Whitney Grinnage-Cassidy, who is the featured soloist in our debut video, said of being in the group, “It means a lot to be in an all-Black group especially now when tensions around social justice for Black bodies and things like that are at a high. Even through Zoom it’s nice to have that connection when there are so few Black folks at Swat.” 

Ultimately, that’s the goal of the group: to build connections with Black musicians and to work together to make music. With the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s all virtual, which creates a whole set of challenges we wouldn’t ordinarily have, but as a group, we have worked hard and will continue to do so to overcome these challenges. In the future, I hope the group will grow, both in size and as people. I hope we continue to create a community of friends and of musicians, and I hope we continue to make music that we and the greater Swarthmore community enjoys. 

To watch Essence of Soul’s first performance, a cover of Lauryn Hill’s “Doo Wop (That Thing),” click here.

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