Hamline News

A Musician’s Approach to Teaching


Hamline University alumnus Davu Seru ’07 returned to campus in 2016 to teach English courses fulltime while maintaining a successful career as a a composer and, as he puts it, an “improvising musician in the jazz tradition". 

When asked about the connection between teaching college English and his music, Seru said, “Improvisation is the glue.”

As a jazz combo will improvise a musical performance around a chord or progression of notes, in his classes, Seru uses assigned readings as a starting point for discussion and allows students to explore and develop ideas.

Mike Reynolds, professor and English department chair, thinks the approach works for students. In Seru’s classes, he said, “They will tackle an incredibly tough, knotty text (about tough, knotty social issues)...and yet students all join in, riff on what they think but also what they aren't sure about—he shapes a space where risk and rigor are (somehow!) exciting, rather than scary.”

A commitment to both music and scholarship feels natural to Seru, who grew up on the north side of Minneapolis in a creative family he describes as “scrappy tinkerers and folk artists”, absorbing their lessons along with those of historic figures such as polymath and scholar W.E.B Dubois.

“I am following my teachers who did more than one thing,” said Seru.

Seru’s own personal history informs much of his music. His composition “Dead King Mother” relates the events that took place in North Minneapolis on April 4, 1968. After the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Seru’s great-uncle, Clarence Underwood, vowed and then did “kill the first white man” he saw. “Dead King Mother” was performed in 2018 at the historic Capri Theater on the 50th anniversary of King’s death.

More recent musical work remains steeped in Seru’s personal connections and history. A pandemic lockdown composition began with an interview of his grandfather, Jewel Anderson. Seru layered bird sounds and drums on top of the conversation to create “Just Us Crows,” which was released in May 2020. This piece was followed in June 2020 by “Black Floyd” which emerged when Seru and his Poland-based collaborator Jeff Gburek traded digital musical tracks following the death of George Floyd in police custody.

“New work will be made about what is happening right now,” Seru said. “The work has been specific to this place.”

Local history remains a throughline in Seru’s writing. He wrote the text for “Sights, Sounds & Soul: The Twin Cities Through the Lens of Charles Chamblis,” a photography book that documented musicians, artists, and everyday scenes from the Twin Cities African American community of the 1970s and ’80s. He also helped research the anthology, “Blues Vision: African American Writing from Minnesota.”

In June, the McKnight Foundation announced that Seru was awarded a Composer Fellowship. He is using it to create a site-specific piece for a Lutheran church in Saint Paul’s Frogtown that was visited by the late Ethiopian emperor Haile Selassie. This project draws on a historical moment and also reflects Seru’s experiences: Seru lives nearby and, before the pandemic, performed there with a jazz ensemble on Sundays.

In addition to composing and playing music, Seru maintained his teaching load at Hamline University in the fall and will continue to do so into the spring.

“Scholarship is a legitimate service. Once I have finished my dissertation, I can study for the rest of my life and teach young folks,” said Seru. “They are going to be leaders some day.”

Learn more about Seru's music and read his writings here.

Written by staff.
Photo credit: Andrea Canter