MYRNA BROWN: Today is Thursday, March 2nd. Thank you for listening to WORLD Radio. Good morning. I’m Myrna Brown.
MARY REICHARD: And I’m Mary Reichard. Coming next on The World and Everything in It: a Nashville gospel choir. Gospel music has a rich history rooted in the African American spirituals—sung across centuries of slavery. But it’s a heritage unfamiliar to many college students today. Now, one Lipscomb University professor is challenging stereotypes and inviting his students into that legacy.
AARON HOWARD: Amen. Are you ready to praise the Lord on this morning? Hallelujah!
GRACE SNELL, REPORTER: It’s a Sunday morning at Belmont Church in Nashville. A group of college students crowd the stage, dressed in black. Mic stands bristle around them. Cords tangle at their feet.
HOWARD: This is Lipscomb University Choir, Gospel Choir, here at Belmont Church in Nashville. That’s exciting…
Aaron Howard is an assistant professor at Lipscomb University. He also directs the school’s gospel choir.
HOWARD: We make a joyful noise, we shout unto the Lord, we lift our hands, so we invite you to sing along with us and be part of the worship as we give praise to the King of Kings and Lord of Lords who is worthy of it all. Let’s do it!
WORSHIP LEADER: Good morning Belmont Church! If you’ve come today with an expectant heart of joy to worship our Father then just sing this out with us! Hallelujah!...
Howard started the choir in fall 2021 with a simple vision.
HOWARD: We want people to know God intimately, and know each other intimately, through gospel music.
Ashlynn Perry is an alto. She’s joined the group two weeks after its launch.
ASHLYNN PERRY: I’m from a small town in Texas, definitely not. Does definitely doesn’t have any gospel influence or anything like that. And so I didn’t really have a background, singing it or listening to it or anything.
That’s true for most of Howard’s students.
HOWARD: So a lot of our students have never been exposed to the genre, at least, as far as singing it. So this is really their first time. So they’re really learning, they’re learning on the fly, as it were.
David Green is Howard’s assistant director. He’s an exception to that rule.
DAVID GREEN: My dad was super heavily involved in gospel music. He was a drummer, my grandma was a choir director. And so gospel music is very much like, it’s home for me.
Green says gospel is very different from traditional choral music.
GREEN: So gospel music is, at its heart, it’s, it’s expressive, and it’s embodied. And it’s exuberant…almost every song we sing is loud…there’s very rarely ever times we’re singing soft and round, like, “Oh,” you know, stuff like that. It's, it's very, very pointed. And so every rehearsal, every performance we do, like you come away from singing that genre tired, like physically tired, because you have to use your your body and your vocal cords and your diaphragm in a way that that pushes, pushes your voice to the limit.
Howard says that’s how it’s supposed to feel. Gospel music descends from African American spirituals and its intensity testifies to those roots.
HOWARD: That experience of God’s presence, that nearness of the Holy Spirit to the slaves as they sing from deep down in their belly, and deep down in their soul, that’s part of the genre even today. And so you’ll still get that real, you know, the sounds of the voice straining, and the full embodiment of singing is also a part of the genre.
It’s a spiritual legacy Howard passes on to his students.
HOWARD: By providing a way of worship, and introducing them to some practices that maybe they haven’t participated in before, we’re giving them a mechanism and a vehicle to say, “Hey, you know, God responds to our desperation, God responds to us, when we cry out loud, when we lift our hands.”
The choir practices Tuesday evenings in Lipscomb’s Ezell Chapel. They sit in rows facing a big stained-glass window. Sopranos on the left. Tenors and altos to the right. Practice time starts with devotions. Last week, one of the students shared her testimony. And that sparked something more.
PERRY: We had a lot to do this rehearsal. But instead of stopping and going and doing all the technicalities of learning a song, we just were flowing with the Holy Spirit. And for like an hour, we just were worshiping the Lord together and praying over one another.
That’s catching the attention of more and more students at Lipscomb. The group started with less than 20 singers. Now, it’s ballooned to around 50. The gospel choir performs mostly at churches and schools in the area. Sometimes they sing at Lipscomb’s chapel service, “The Gathering.” Recently, the choir released their first single “Alright.” It’s a remix of a 90s gospel song called “He’ll Make it Alright.”
A video of the song posted on Twitter drew 3.5 million views…and some surprising backlash.
HOWARD: There are a lot of people who are very, very negative toward us, because they say, Well, you know, only black people are supposed to be singing gospel. And this is cultural appropriation. And this is not right. And my kids were hurt. They were like, you know, they were really wounded by it, because they just want they're just like, “Hey, Doc, we’re just trying to lift up Jesus.” And yeah, “Don’t worry about that. You know,” I said, “You can’t worry about that. As long as you’re doing what you know the Lord has called you to do, and we’re lifting up his name.
Howard says that’s what the group is all about.
HOWARD: It’s not like we’re doing some some vocal acrobatics that no one else is doing. All I can say is that the Lord is really shining the light on us because I believe he wants the church to see unity.
Reporting for WORLD, I’m Grace Snell.
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