An old frame containing a black and white image of a person in a tuxedo, surrounded by a gold inset on the frame.

In Their Own Words: Ruth Naomi Floyd and Voices Underground

By Katie Testa, on

To commemorate Juneteenth across Chester County, and in collaboration with Kennett Square nonprofit Voices Underground and the Chester County History Center, we are proud to soon present Frederick Douglass Jazz Works—a discussion and jazz performance comprised of vocalist and composer Ruth Naomi Floyd’s original compositions paired with words from Douglass’s speeches and writings. Chester County has a rich history with the life and writings of Douglass, as well as the Underground Railroad; Douglass is pictured in the first photo of this post, as provided by the Chester County History Center. As one example, on July 14, 1863, Douglass gave a speech in the Chester County History Center building in West Chester, PAAhead of this June 21 performance, for which tickets are now available, we had the pleasure of speaking with Floyd and Chief Hospitality Officer at Voices Underground Kisha Moore to reflect on the passion behind this project, the importance of its message, the beauty and power of creative expression, and more. 

Ruth Naomi Floyd

For her June 21 performance, the talented Ruth Naomi Floyd will be taking the stage in the Open Air Theatre with her signature jazz expression, mezzo-soprano voice, and distinctive sound. Floyd has been at the forefront of creating vocal jazz settings that express theology, history, and justice for more than 25 years. Her music has a way of blending messages of hope, faith, redemption, and love—all while delighting audiences with unique musical experiences. Here, Floyd expresses her thoughts on her music, art, and career as well as the Frederick Douglass Jazz Works composition and her upcoming performance at Longwood. 

A person with a dark complexion photographed from the neck up, looking sideways.

A vocalist and composer, Ruth Naomi Floyd has created a discography dedicated to a sacred jazz expression. Rooted and grounded in a faith ethos, Floyd has been a presence and worker in areas of the arts and justice throughout her career. Photo by Robert Carter.

What is your favorite part of your career as a vocalist and composer?

The chief responsibility of a vocalist is to sing the story. As a composer, I have the opportunity to compose stories. Each generation can take what is best from the generation that preceded them and build on it to create something new. To create themes at the intersection of beauty, theology, justice, and history is a gift. 

What are some of your most profound musical inspirations or influences?

I grew up in Philadelphia listening to the great classical vocalists Marian Anderson and Leontyne Price—who is my father’s favorite vocalist—as well as recordings or performances of The Philadelphia Orchestra at the Academy of Music, African American spirituals, anthems, and gospel music in church. My first encounter with jazz was with Dimitri Kauriga, my beloved high school music teacher and director at Philadelphia High School for Girls. As a student, Mr. Kauriga first encouraged me to listen, sing, and play jazz. Additionally, Dr. George Allen from Overbrook High School in Philadelphia allowed me to listen to his jazz ensembles and always instructed me even though I was not his student. Without the tutelage of my brilliant mentors, flutist and composer James Newton and pianist and composer James Weidman, I would not be the vocalist and composer I am today. 

A band performing on stage with an image of Frederick Douglass projected above the stage.

Ruth Naomi Floyd Presents Frederick Douglass Jazz Works. Photo provided by Ruth Naomi Floyd.

What inspired the Frederick Douglass Jazz Works composition?

The Frederick Douglass Jazz Works was inspired by the speeches, letters, articles, and writings of the great leading orator, abolitionist, writer, publisher, and statesman Frederick Douglass. African American history, American history, and the decisive act of decolonizing one’s mind also served as great inspiration.

How is Longwood different from other venues where you have performed?

The sheer beauty of Longwood Gardens is stunning. The kindness and welcoming spirit of the Longwood Gardens community is evident. Longwood Gardens’ faithful commitment to beauty and nature is inspiring and provides a perfect setting to experience creativity, art, and music. 

What do you hope audience members will take away from your performance in the Gardens?

The Frederick Douglass Jazz Works shares the themes of tragedy, grief, despair, and injustice of American Slavery through the multifaceted prism of hope, perseverance, triumph, and defiant joy—all with Frederick Douglass’ own words. The message found in this multi-dimensional artistic experience is remarkably relevant to today’s socio-economic context. The vast collection of writings and speeches penned by Frederick Douglass about the America in which he lived resonate powerfully and even ring true today as his words both compel and inspire us to go deeper and to examine our own America, our culture, and our world. 

Kisha Moore and Voices Underground

Voices Underground Chief Hospitality Officer Kisha Moore helps to coordinate events throughout the region, including the upcoming June 21 performance at Longwood. Voices Underground seeks to increase exposure to the story of the Underground Railroad through creative partnerships, scholarly research, public experiences, and historical memorialization. The vision is the healing of the American racial imagination through exposure to the truth of American racial history.

What does your partnership with Longwood Gardens mean to Voices Underground?

Voices Underground has partnered with Longwood Gardens for the last four years, honoring Juneteenth with events in the beauty of the Gardens. Together, both organizations have been able to create a space where we are celebrating and bringing meaningful voices to the conversation around Juneteenth. This is how we have been able to connect and promote racial healing through storytelling. Longwood has continued to provide a space for us to showcase different artists—from jazz musicians to fashion designers, orators, and more—to share stories and meaningful conversations in such a beautiful setting.

What makes live performances special?

When you are able to visualize something, the message behind it isn’t static. Action—whether it’s song, spoken word, fashion, or any form of creative live performance—really brings the audience into a story. Live performances create an experience for audiences that is authentic and raw—and for some it could be the first time they are experiencing the story. That’s really the beauty of storytelling—at live events such as our Juneteenth celebrations, people from all different backgrounds are brought together. This aligns with our mission to promote racial healing through creative expression. Racial healing can continue to happen because of these shared artistic experiences, which creates a beautiful tapestry of what community really is. 

Three people standing in a small circle at Longwood Gardens.

In 2023, Voices Underground commemorated Juneteenth across our region with Fashioning Freedom—a celebration of African American fashion and its critical relationship to the work of freedom—in our Gardens. Photo by Laurie Carrozzino.

What is your connection with Ruth Naomi Floyd and what about her storytelling methods and her passion is Voices Underground inspired by?

Co-founder of Voices Underground Gregory Thompson and I became immediately inspired by her music, especially her work around Frederick Douglass. The soul in it, her voice, the composition, and how the story unfolds in the performance is so compelling. The fact that Floyd was in our area as well drew her to us. As Voices Underground continues to celebrate creative expression, we admire the way Floyd brings to life a story from an orator from 200 years ago through music and visuals—all to share with us now. It’s so powerful. 

What do you hope audience members will take away from her performance in the Gardens? 

I hope that when audience members walk away, they will acknowledge themselves and how they personally make a difference in their community. I hope that it will compel audience members to be more involved in the community and discover what inspires them. This is how racial healing happens in communities. And it’s beautiful how the vision of one man could bring together a community in Chester County. Audience members will receive an event program, which will have images of some of Fredrick Douglass’ letters as well as photos of Chester County during the time that Douglass was recruiting officers. 

When someone is passionate about their work—the all-in kind of passion—it radiates out. You don’t even need to force it. I do believe people will come away with that sense of passion—and in what better backdrop to cultivate that passion then at Longwood Gardens? It’s a complete sensory memory that I hope stays with audience members for a long time. 

Join us on June 21 in the Open Air Theatre to welcome Ruth Naomi Floyd’s incredible talent and admire the power of a passionate performer—one who can transcend time and medium to bring the words of Frederick Douglass to life. Tickets are available now. 

Categorized Under:

Related Articles