Every once in a while, you realize you have met someone that will impact your life on a deep level. When I met Ruth Naomi Floyd at the Rabbit Room's Hutchmoot conference in 2019 I knew she was one of those special people. A woman of deep faith and courage, full of talent and conviction, Ruth tells the important and uncomfortable stories like none other and when she sings...
When she sings you can feel it deep in your spirit.
I had the privilege of interviewing Ruth for Foundling House and am thrilled to share my conversation with her followed by a video of one of her performances and her incredible bio during this final week of Black History Month.
Jeanine Joyner: Tell me about your upbringing. Where were you born?
Ruth Naomi Floyd: I was born and raised in Philadelphia.
JJ: How many siblings and where do you fall in the mix?
RNF: My parents had three daughters and I am thankfully the middle daughter. I love being the middle child.
JJ: What is your earliest memory?
RNF: Sitting outside the hospital in the car with my older sister and father waiting for my Mother and newborn baby sister to leave the hospital. I was only two years old but I remember it.
JJ: Are you married? How many children to you have?
RNF: I am married to a wonderful and godly man and have two children, Isaiah and Grace.
JJ: When did you fall in love with Jazz?
RNF: When I attended Better Break Summer Music Camp, during my early teens and when I was asked to join my high school jazz band.
JJ: Who influenced your music and writing?
RNF: My childhood church’s Musical Director, Gregory Mobley, my High School Music teacher Dimitri Kauriga, and my two mentors, James Weidman and James Newton.
JJ: How many instruments do you play and do you have a favorite?
RNF: I mainly play flute, but also the piano and bassoon.
JJ: What (or who) inspired you to become an educator and activist regarding racial injustice in the United States?
RNF: There are so many! Jesus, Augustine, Harriet Tubman, James Baldwin, Frederick Douglass, Malcolm X, and Francis Ellen Watkins Harper. I regard myself as an Emancipatory Artist rather than an activist.
JJ: What is your answer for people who accuse you of being too outspoken?
RNF: I usually ask the person questions to try and hear their posture, point of view, and what is the root of their questions and concern.
JJ: Tell me about Frederick Douglass Jazz Works. What prompted you to create this important body of work?
RNF: I selected Frederick Douglass as the subject of an intensive independent historical research study. After 8.5 years of research I was in the process of completing the study when I composed a new song. This new song reminded me of the rhythm found in one of Douglass’ speeches. His own words fit perfectly with the melodic line. More music started to flow and the Frederick Douglass Jazz Works was birthed.
JJ: Do you plan to take it on the road?
RNF: We have had a world premiere at The Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia and also a west coast premiere at Biola University in California. We completed several performances and then COVID hit. We have a few performances tentatively booked in the UK and USA.
JJ: Has it been recorded?
RNF: The first of three phase recording occurred before COVID hit.
JJ: Will it be widely available via iTunes or similar venues?
RNF: Yes, when we are able to get back into the studio to finish the recording and production.
JJ: You recently shared that you are a survivor of Covid-19. How did that experience change you or affect your dreams and goals for the future?
RNF: I was informed I would not see another morning. I was shocked when the next morning I awakened. It has been a terribly slow climb back to feeling kind of normal. I am still battling two symptoms. Before I fell asleep, I prayed about my dreams and goals, but I finished the prayer with “Not my will but thine be done.” I am deeply grateful to be able to breathe, live, love, serve and continue to chase beauty, be inspired and convicted by God’s word and to speak the truth to injustice.
JJ: What advice would you give to young people who dream of a career in the creative arts?
RNF: Art is essential to human life and its spirit. In a world of uncertainty, to create is an act of artistic disruption. It is my hope young creatives will be actively present in learning and creating. Absorb the history, techniques, theory, and knowledge. Creating comes with risk. Creating comes with sacrifice. Respect, protect, and be grateful for the gift of creativity from the First and Greatest Artist. Use your art and skills to reflect upon the questions and answers of what it means to be human in this world. You may need to forge your own path but continue to work towards your dream of a career in the creative arts, but never stop creating
Ruth Naomi Floyd, an Emancipatory Artist, is a vocalist and composer who has created a discography dedicated to a sacred jazz expression. She has been at the forefront of creating vocal jazz settings that express theology and justice for over 25 years. She leads her own multi-faceted ensemble and her recordings consist primarily of original compositions. Blessed with a soaring mezzo-soprano voice, critics praise Ruth’s music for its distinctive sound of progressive ensemble jazz that is seamlessly blended with messages of hope, faith, redemption, and love.
Ruth has been a presence and worker in areas of the arts and justice throughout her career. She has lectured prolifically on the intersection of beauty, theology, justice, culture, and the arts at numerous universities, seminaries, conferences, and academic settings in the United Kingdom, Europe, Africa, Latin America, and Asia.
A committed music educator, Ruth is Director of Jazz Studies at Cairn University, Langhorne, Pennsylvania and an Adjunct and Artist in Residence at Temple University. Previously, Ruth taught music for twenty 20 years at The City School.
Ruth’s recent compositions include “Freedom” which premiered in April 2018 in Wales, United Kingdom. Commissioned in honor of human rights activist, “Freedom” is Mende Nazer’s profound story of survival as a slave in Sudan and London. In the centennial year of Leonard Bernstein’s birth, Philadelphia’s Mann Music Center, in partnership with NEWorks Productions, commissioned Ruth as one of four composers to create a community mass inspired by Bernstein’s MASS, that explores anew the relevance of faith in our times. The Frederick Douglass Jazz Works is Ruth’s new body of compositions based on the speeches and writings of the great leading orator, abolitionist, writer, publisher, and statesman. Currently, Ruth is composing a three-song cycle in honor of Marian Anderson, the great American contralto and symbol of the civil rights movement for Intercultural Journeys.
Ruth is also an award winning fine art photographer specializing in black and white portrait images. She uses silver based films with 35mm and 4x5 inch view cameras to capture her images and uses traditional wet darkroom technology as well as digital printing on archival papers to produce her final images. Ruth has received awards, prizes, and grants for her photographic images and her work is included in permanent and private collections. Ruth’s photographic images have been published in and on the covers of magazines, brochures, and music compact discs.
Ruth was awarded the prestigious Kimmel Center’s Jazz Residency for the 2019-2020 season. In December 2019, Concordia College - New York, awarded Ruth an Honorary Doctorate for her unique and valuable contribution to the arts, her commitment to music education, and her justice work.
Ruth continues to make the city of Philadelphia her home, where for over twenty-five years she has been devoted and active in providing compassionate care and spiritual support to people infected and affected by HIV and AIDS in Philadelphia and Africa.