Musician Gina Coleman ’90 discusses the impact of the Black Legacy Project

Alyse Sayed

The Black Legacy Project performed a reenvisioned version of “Lift Every Voice and Sing” by Gina Coleman ’90 and Diego Mongue ’25 at the FreshGrass Festival this past September. (Photo courtesy of Diego Mongue.)

Growing up, Gina Coleman ’90 was surrounded by music, but never believed she had a voice of her own. Today, she is the founder and lead singer of the blues band, Misty Blues, and an active member of the music community in the Berkshire region. Last year, she joined the efforts of the Black Legacy Project (Black LP), “a nonprofit that strengthens, empowers, and connects communities through the universal language” of music, according to the Black LP’s website.

Berkshire-based nonprofit Music in Common founded the Black LP in September 2021. According to its website, the Black LP “is a musical celebration of Black history to advance racial solidarity, equity, and belonging.”— Musicians of different backgrounds are paired together and tasked with composing a modern interpretation of a song that is deeply rooted in the Black American experience. Highlighting the history of Black music in the Berkshires, the Black LP reinterpreted songs including “Strange Fruit,” “My Country Tis of Thee,” “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” and “We Shall Overcome.” Coleman told the Record that the Black LP travels across the country using music to initiate conversations about Black history and to promote racial solidarity. “The idea is to get communities of people together to really think about what’s happening in this world [with] race relations,” she said.

Coleman grew up in the South Bronx but moved to the Berkshires after graduating from the College. During her time at the College, Coleman was an English major and a three-season athlete, playing rugby and ice hockey all four years. Her connection to the College continued after graduation when she became the head coach for the women’s rugby team in 1996. Twenty-six years later, she continues to lead the team.

The rise of Coleman’s musical career after graduation was rather unexpected. “It was a Wednesday night [at a club in Pittsfield], and we were having an open-mic night, and someone dared me to sign up and sing,” she said. “I’m like ‘I don’t really sing.’ And they double dared me, and I’m like, ‘I don’t really pass up a double dare either.’” To her surprise, Coleman’s performance of Janis Joplin’s blues tune “Mercedes Benz” won her a $75 reward. After her win, Coleman returned to the club every Wednesday for open-mic night and eventually met another musician with whom she started her first duo, The Siblings. From there, she moved on to form a larger acoustic funk band called Cole Connection.

The Williamstown Theatre Festival offered Coleman the part of a gospel singer in a production of Lorraine Hansberry’s [ITAL] A Raisin in the Sun in 1999, where she discovered that blues was her calling. Singing gospel blues songs in the performance, Coleman was approached by the lead actor, Ruben Santiago Hudson, who told her that her voice was perfectly-suited for the blues. Hudson gave Coleman a CD of “Men Are Like Street Cars,” a collection of 22 songs by female blues artists from 1928 to 1969. Inspired by this music, she and her bandmates from Cole Connection decided to become a blues band. She has been part of Misty Blues for 23 years since. Their 11th album, “One Louder,” recently hit over a million streams.

Coleman’s work with the Black LP began after Todd Mack, her long-time friend and founder of Music in Common, reached out to her to join the project last year. Coleman recognized the impact this work could have on the Black community in the Berkshires in light of the many issues surrounding race that have occurred over recent years in the nation. “These last few years, it seems like the clock has been rolling back,” Coleman said. “I’m seeing stuff that I have never, ever seen in my lifetime — I thought we were way past that, but things are rolling backwards.”

Mack asked Coleman — along with her son, Diego Mongue ’25, and several other musicians in the Berkshires — to reinvent an iconic song as their first project. The group decided on the hymn “Lift Every Voice and Sing.” 

Coleman explained  that trying to reinvent such a well-known and powerful song — one that she sang every morning in school growing up — posed a challenge. In the second phase of the project, Coleman, her son, and another pair of musicians sought to create an original song featuring themes of hope that would raise awareness of the struggles Black communities are facing. The group went on to write their song “Rise Up,” which was featured in the CNN “Champions for Change” episode on the Black LP. 

In the earlier phases of the project, the Black LP held community roundtable discussions to encourage conversations about the meanings behind the original songs and how they can reshape them to reflect their current feelings surrounding race relations. “There were times where we would digest the songs that we were reinventing, and line-by-line go through the lyrics and try to make sense of the words of the composers,” she said. “That was a really interesting part of the whole project, to first get a baseline of what race relations are and what the struggles are of people in our own community.”

The roundtable discussions gave Coleman a better sense of the struggles Black people in her community were facing. “I hadn’t up to that point had such a wide scope of what was happening across [Berkshire] county,” she said. Coleman experienced a sense of solidarity in talking about the racial injustices she has witnessed in her community. “Unfortunately, what other people were seeing were the same things that I’d had been seeing over the years — and there was an odd comfort that I’m not alone.”

Having played the drums for 12 years, Mongue is also a multi-instrumentalist and can play the bass, slide, and lap steel guitars. He plays drums and bass for Misty Blues and is the drummer for a number of performance groups at the College, including Kusika, Zambezi, and two jazz ensembles. Last summer, Mongue also started his own jazz fusion band named GrossMongue. 

Mongue said that his goal in reworking “Lift Every Voice and Sing” was to maintain the song’s original meaning while adding his own flair. “What I wanted to do the most was preserve the integrity of the song while bringing something completely different,” he said. The most memorable part of the experience for him was the Black LP’s performance of the song at the FreshGrass Festival in North Adams this past September, which he watched as an audience member. “It was so cool to watch the songs that I had written and arranged for the band be performed, to be a little bit removed from it and just watch this thing that you’ve created be performed by 11 amazing musicians,” Mongue said. 

He additionally reflected on the impact the Black LP had on the Berkshire community. “Music is a very universal language, and while it’s different in different parts of the world, everyone has music and can relate to that,” Mongue said. “People have just been kind of amazed and filled with this warm feeling that we’ve done this and have been able to bring people together — just musicians together to start something that will cause change.”