Exclusive: Churchman accuses Kathleen Battle of using slave labor

Exclusive: Churchman accuses Kathleen Battle of using slave labor


norman lebrecht

October 27, 2016

We have received the following article from James Davis Jr., Director of Music Ministries & Fine Arts at The Abyssinian Baptist Church. The contents are self-explanatory. We publish the letter in the hope that Ms Battle will reconsider the rights of her backing singers.



On November 13, 2016, Kathleen Battle will make her highly anticipated return to the Metropolitan Opera Stage after a 22-year hiatus. She has titled the program Underground Railroad: A Spiritual Journey. She will sing a full concert of Negro spirituals (a first for the Metropolitan Opera), accompanied by a 30-voice choir of Black singers she is unwilling to fairly compensate, even though the Metropolitan Opera Chorus is being paid union scale and they are not singing the concert at all. If this program happens, the Metropolitan Opera stage will be transformed into a proverbial plantation with Kathleen Battle as overseer. This concert is already sold out and has been for several months now. And this huge financial success for the Metropolitan Opera, Columbia Artists Management Inc. (the agency that represents her) and Kathleen Battle herself, has been built on the backs of exploited black labor.

The Negro spiritual, in my view, is the soundtrack of the struggle of African peoples in the Western Hemisphere, particularly America. This music was birthed out of the fight for freedom, justice and equality that continues to this day. The music by the chorus is interspersed with quotes from Frederick Douglass & Harriet Tubman, issuing from the blood, sweat, tears and suffering of an enslaved people and their disenfranchised descendants.

There is no question Douglass and Tubman would agree that for the vast majority of black musicians working on this project to not be compensated fairly and equally is exploitation at its worst; exploitation of our music, our heritage and our people. Sometimes, we as artists have to take a stand, and in my small way as a musician born and raised in Mississippi, I have chosen not to participate in this production that shies away from liberty and justice for all.


kathleen battle


  • MacroV says:

    The headline, as is often the case, is a bit misleading and sensationalistic. The choir that’s backing Kathleen Battle is apparently not being adequately compensated. That may be exploitation but it’s not slavery. Nobody is putting a gun to their heads to sing. Presumably their skills are not easily replaced, so they should exercise a little market power and demand a better deal – or not perform, just as Mr. Davis has opted to do. And perhaps this issue lies just as much at the feet of CAMI and the MET.

    • Olassus says:

      Letter’s author brings up slavery.

    • Gerald Barnes says:

      It says “slave labor” in the title, not “slavery.” Slave labor is a term used to describe many scenarios in which people are severely underpaid or not paid at all for the labor they have done. The problem is that singers and musicians have to pay bills and eat. unless they are charging less for tickets than other performances, these singers should be paid similarly to those that would normally grace the stage.

  • Emil Archambault says:

    This might be the most ridiculous headline yet on this blog. Slavery, as you well know, involves not only unpaid labour, but compulsion, and generally violence and inhuman conditions. For all her woes, I am pretty sure Ms Battle is not enslaving anyone – at least, nothing in the letter allows us to infer that. This is the usual clickbait that pollutes this website all too frequently, this time by slandering an artist.

    • John says:

      Uh, have you ever heard of irony?

      Negro spirituals grew from slavery. . . . This is a show with a ‘plantation’ set . . . she’s (allegedly) exploiting her chorus by underpaying them. . . need some more help?

    • norman lebrecht says:

      The headline is an accurate reflection of the complaint. The only slander is yours.

      • Peter Sanabria says:

        The article fails to mention “who” makes the complaint. The answer is that no one makes this unsubstantiated argument except that its origin is from the vacuous mind of the writer. *Perception is not reality.* An accusation based on manufactured assertion alone, without evidence of wrong doing, is fantasy. Thus the premise that some kind of hemispheric exploitation and slavery are at the root of the all black choir’s supporting “The Underground Road” is unwarranted.

      • Peter Sanabria says:

        Is the choir making the complaint? No. The origination of the complaint comes from the hollowed out mind of the writer who is bent on manufacturing the “perceived” notion that there exist a hemispheric conception of permanent black exploitation or slavery. Perception is not reality. The complaint is, therefore, only real in the mind of the writer of the hit peace. The choir is at liberty to support fully the “Underground Railroad.”

  • FishCalledBait says:

    That’s top quality bait! You read, you clicked, you replied!

    So did I! OMGLOLBBQ!

  • Michael Hill says:

    If these singers are union, they need to file a grievance with their American Federation of MMusicians local in New York.

    • melony matthews says:

      If they were union singers, this would not be an issue. But to save money, hire non- Union. Who should be complaining is the union. That is who should stop this concert. The union can insist that all the singers be made union and get union pay. Since they are only black singers, the union doesn’t care enough.

  • Alexander says:

    While actual slavery clearly is not involved, it is used not inappropriately as a rhetorical device. Certainly the singers either should be paid a rate equivalent to that of a singer appearing in the Met Opera chorus or, with their consent, the same sum should be paid to the choir to fund their ongoing activities, from which the individual choir members would in turn benefit.

  • Mark Henriksen says:

    Is the choir backing her normally paid? Maybe it is a volunteer choir. That is the only relevant question here.

  • pooroperaman says:

    Well, if ‘cultural appropriation’ is such a terrible thing, the only people who should sing negro spirituals are slaves.

    • melony matthews says:

      You wouldn’t be so flippant with your comments if this were an issue of Jewish culture. Show the same respect.

    • MariaAntoinette says:

      Poor opera man slavery was abolished in America in 1865. The topic at hand refers to hiring professional African American singers with no intent of adequately compensating them based on the color of their skin; which makes the term slave labor accurate and applicable. The article is clear and very easy to understand.

  • La Verita says:

    The Met is a union house, so payment to any musician performing there is subject to union-scale rates.

    • Bluebird says:

      That is not true. Union house rules are any production in venue must pay chorus at union rate, which is the case for Met Chorus being paid but not performing. The choir consists of various singers, not an organized group (def not volunteer). They are not being paid by Met, but another musical organization which is why they don’t have to be paid at union rate. Most singers involved are probably participating in spite of pay because they are either long time fans or just want the opportunity to sing on the Met stage. It is not always just about the money.

    • Trevor says:

      This isn’t always true. It all boils down to the individual houses collective bargaining agreement with AGMA.

  • E. C. M. says:

    Don’t see anything close to slavery in what I read. “Churchman” sounds like a perfect example of the pot calling the kettle, black. “Churchman’s” attempt at assassinating Ms. Battle’s character in this manner is far from him being church or Christian-like. From what I gather, churchman is not the appointed spokesperson for the chorus. Further, as the chorus members (adults, I assume?) are willing to sing under the current compensation terms then the churchman simply needs to move on. It’s business after all, fee for service and everyone has their own price.

  • AwareOne says:

    Anyone who can afford the fee can rent the MET for a special event such as this. No union rules apply once the waiver is signed. The choir members willingly agreed to participate. I don’t see slavery, I see a CAMI set up.

  • Armon Golliday says:

    What a ridiculous article! At the end of the day, if you are offered an amount you don’t feel is adequate for your services, decline the offer and go elsewhere. It’s as simple as that! Nobody is forcing you to sing, so the whole “slave labor” line is asinine!

    • V.Lind says:

      Yes…there’s SO much other paid work in this field. Why on earth take a low fee to sing at the Met?

      It may be a disgrace to those holding the purse strings, but I agree with posters above that no coercion was involved. Some trade-offs, more likely. “Sang in Kathleen Battle comeback concert at the Met” is not bad on a c.v. There is no information proffered beyond “30-voice choir.” Is it a pickup group or an existing choir? What are their usual fees? Who is responsible for their payment: Ms. Battle or whoever is producing this concert?

      Seems the letter is intended to make sure Battlin’ Battle does not have a smooth re-entry.

  • melony matthews says:

    It is a shame that the MET is allowing this to happen. Singers have to endure much in the span of their career, many times singing for free. If a person views this as “slavery”, no one has the right to tell anyone how to interpret what they feel. Singing for free or low pay is slavery to a singer. If you don’t sing or are trying to make a career of singing, then your opinions are from the outside and you have no clue to what goes on on the inside. No, a singer will not give up the opportunity to sing for any amount, but that doesn’t mean it is right to take advantage of people. I’m a singer, a starving artist if you will and I completely understand.

  • Rev. Portia Osborne says:

    Unfortunately, the comments are obviously those posted by persons who are missing the intent of the article. It was not written to discredit Ms. Battle, her talent, or those who desire to have this concert listed on their CV. I I believe the intent was to raise awareness and provide historical education about what African Americans have encountered over the years. The Negro Spiritual was born out of slavery: coded language to deliver persons from bondage to freedom. Unfortunately, as an African American, I realize bondage still remains. Institutionalized slavery is alive and well.
    i plan to attend the concert. Ms. Battle is a wonderful singer.


    Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome: America’s Legacy of Enduring Injury and Healing (PTSS) is a 2005 book resulting from years of historical and psychological research by Dr. Joy DeGruy (née Leary), Ph.D.

  • CJ says:

    This is NOT news. At the very least, Mr. Davis let the cat out by exposing how unfairly black singers are still treated in classical and opera. A few “success stories” have not transformed the systemic problems in the industry, so most people are afraid to speak up. If they can make it to the top, they have too much to lose. So people can fight only so hard from the inside until they assimilate, or are alienated. It appears Ms. Battle has done both, and then managed to find her way back in by repeating the behavoiur of the industry. I just wish Mr. Davis directed his very public and loaded delivery at the “master” of the problem instead of the tool. Ah well….it’s a start.

  • Jolie Amie says:

    My goodness, why try to make a ‘mountain from a mole hill’?
    The singers signed on for the rate they were offered. Is James Davis the director
    of the choir being employed? If so, where was he in the initial negotiation? Taking his toys and leaving the sandbox at this late date is most unprofessional.

    It is my understanding that this is a benefit concert for the Met. Peter Gelb had a brilliant idea in asking Ms. Battle to do this concert to improve the Met coffers. She has had incredible success throughout the country doing this program and has worked successfully with different choirs and dramatic readers everywhere The Underground Railroad has been presented. It may very well be that Battle and Martin are underpaid as well, or even donating their talents to the cause?

    Most singers are thrilled to participate in an endeavor such as this with an undisputed singer of the century such as Kathleen Battle and the fabulous pianist
    Joel Martin. They will all benefit from the musical and emotional depth experienced with this production. Ms. Battle’s voice, technique and musicianship is the nearest thing to singing perfection to be found on this earth and the conviction with which she sings is unsurpassed. Yes, I’m a devoted fan!

    I find it sad that Mr. Davis has attempted to undermine this historic event NOW. The time for questioning and discussion of fees was months ago when contracts were negotiated. Attempting to create division and tension and the false notion of slavery is unforgivable….

    • Maria Antoinette says:

      Ms Jolie I am a fan of Ms Battle’s technique, voice and musicianship also. What is appalling to me is you act like you don’t know that Black classical singers are still being “shortchanged” for their talents based on the color of their skin. And maybe you don’t. But it happens everyday and it happened here. Plain and simple. This article was not an attempt to create division and tension and a false notion of slavery -but to be a conduit to open up a healthy discussion. What is unforgivable is that you have not acknowledged the real problem and the attempts here to bring about the necessary change to a people marginalized on a daily basis.

      • CJ says:

        Maria Antoinette, exactly! But this what you get when marginalized people take on the behaviours of their oppressors. The folly of the situation is consistently overlooked by those who wish to, or continue to benefit from the exploitation of others.

        • Joe Volpe says:

          As usual Kathleen Battle thinks that she is the best thing since white bread and can do whatever she want’s to do. I had a situation with her years ago when the Met was on tour.
          She refused to sing one of the rolls that she was cast for. So I gave her two choices Sing or pack your bags. She refused so I fired her.

  • IronRoses says:

    KB still reigns. Her return to the Met was triumphant. This article is a joke, especially the headline. I believe her 22-year absence from the Met was nothing more than a well-planned vacation.

    To all her detractors, if you dislike her then there’s no need to comment. Just keep it moving. Otherwise, you appear to have some professional envy about KB’s resilience.

    • Nydo says:

      My, you leave in the land of delusion there, Ironroses, on so many levels. The singers were probably asked to sing by the director or contractor, and given the way things tend to work here, actual pay scale was probably not discussed up front, maybe just referred to as being in negotiation. As things are then set in stone, it becomes clear that one isn’t being paid, and it the pressure is on to do it for free, even though it is a benefit for the Met Opera…..

      As for Kathleen Battle being triumphant, there isn’t anything more delusional than that. Her career went down the drain for many years because of ridiculous behavior at work (I witnessed this the one time I played for her about a year before she stopped performing opera and classical concerts). Following up with the programs of spirituals is nice for the fans of her voice, but it is musically very limiting. This might not matter much to people simply in love with her voice, but it does matter to any one with any musical breadth, and I am pretty sure it mattered to her as well.

      • Carla J says:

        YES! Thank you for explaining! I’ve heard this constantly from my singer friends. The “negotiation” process is for singers can be completely ridiculous!

  • N. Martin says:

    It is no secret that black singers are often exploited and underpaid. However, something about this article has made my ears perk up. How can we be so sure that they are being underpaid? After attending Ms. Battle’s (simply amazing) performance, I couldn’t seem to find the author of this article’s name on the Playbill. So, where is this information coming from?
    Every person on that stage looked like they wanted to be there. I’m sure each of them was given a contract, and thereby an option: accept the rate of payment, or leave and pursue a higher-paying gig (naturally, having a concert with THE Kathleen Battle on one’s resume is a great incentive). It seems like the person who wrote this article did not actually take the time to check his facts; there is no evidence to back up his claims of Ms. Battle’s mistreatment or use or “slave labor”. As previously mentioned by another commenter, no one held a gun to these singers’ heads. They wanted to sing in this historical production, and they were all adults who could have left the gig and sought higher-paying jobs.
    The entire purpose of this concert was not only to showcase Ms. Battle, and she made that quite clear. She shared a stage that she could have easily hogged selfishly to herself and shared it with her choir members, showcasing their talents with many solo opportunities spread throughout the concert. The purpose of this concert was to celebrate black voices and bring black talent to the Met, where they are rarely seen and heard. Ms. Battle used her platform to raise an awareness for black talent.
    While reading this article, it has become obvious that awareness is not this author’s goal. With no evidence to back up his claims, it has become clear that the goal of the author is to besmirch Ms. Battle’s reputation and take away from her glorious return to the stage that yearned for her. Fortunately, he did not succeed; her concert was nothing short of a miracle, and black audience members gathered by the hundreds to attend (perhaps the most black people at the Met in its history, both performing and attending). The atmosphere was one of togetherness and rejoicing, and a fatuous article such as this, written only weeks before the concert, was easily debunked and forgotten.

    • Carla J says:

      I think the delivery was a problem, but the issue is real. You are so right. This letter did not deter anyone from attending. I had a few friends and colleagues who also attended (also singers btw) or were part of the performance. To be honest, whether or not Ms. Battle acted selfishly at points is debatable among them, but they were still glowing afterward. I think they’d all agree with you, that it really was about hearing her, anything/one else was a bonus.

      But to the points made about this letter, if the author and any of his colleagues left or were dismissed during the period in question under less than professional circumstances that would be why you didn’t see his name on the program. Your first statement that black singers are often exploited and underpaid is spot on, but for those not in the decision-making positions or singers, there is no evidence. As performers, the audience sees only what we want you to see, so of course everyone who sang looked like they wanted to be there. It doesn’t mean that process was great. They’re performers. It’s their job to show you, the viewer, a good time.

      This letter is indicative how these things usually come to light in the classical/opera space, in emotionally charged subjective language, rife with ambiguities, and certainly no hard evidence. I’m certain that such an open accusation in another industry would have been challenged with a lawsuit. But not here, and we have to look at why that is.

      As you clearly know, many times the work isn’t even assured and singers still deal with a lot of exploitative garbage. Still, many singers are afraid of losing the opportunities for work, let alone jobs. At the same time when some do as this author (albeit impulsively) was trying to do, they are painted as a hater, naïve, or crazy. Every effort is made to discredit him based on the “performance” while ignoring the accusation, which you admitted has precedent all over the industry (IMO it is the only industry that tolerates so much blatantly disrespectful business practices). But, decorum is real in classical music and, as Ms. Battle has experienced first hand, if you step outside it, the authorities will silence you. Anyway, I don’t believe it was his intention to besmirch Ms. Battle when doing so puts him at a disadvantage. He knows her reputation is iron clad, but he cares more that young or underemployed singers will likely suffer through abuse because of who she is and their own desire to sing, and that is in fact exploitation. Fair treatment and pay for black singers is a change that won’t be pretty or comfortable. But it’s necessary. As long it’s the Met’s job to show you, the viewer, a good time an auditorium room full of black folk at the Met doesn’t mean anything has or will change in opera industry.

  • Eric Owens says:

    Maybe the Met will have a Porgy and Bess revival. I’m sure that miss Battle would love to play Bess. The last time that the Met performed this wonderful Opera was in the early 80’s. Just think of all of the Black singers that would be employed.

  • J Sherman del Sol says:

    Stop diminishing SLAVERY by using it in such a context. I hope that we have come far enough that should a Japanese choir wish to perform the same act in Tokyo, we blacks should welcome such an event as our history becoming universal. Let free enterprise prevail broadly and within our ethnic community.