The Kenyon College Gospel Choir sang with resounding power on Sunday night in Rosse Hall, marking their first performance after a year-long hiatus. Benjamin Raji ’17, who leads the choir and was abroad last spring, dubbed the performance, “a reunion show,” which united the group one last time before Raji’s graduation. Gospel Choir, which began in 2002, exhibits a strong presence with its fifteen members, including a four-piece instrumental section in which Raji played piano. Kenyon a capella group Colla Voce set the gospel mood, opening for the choir with the gospel standard “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot.” The event was well attended, with about one hundred and fifty audience members.
The performance was entitled “Let Praises Rise” and included gospel classics like “Total Praise” by Richard Smallwood and “Alpha and Omega” by Erasmus Mutanbira, along with more contemporary songs like “Rise Up” by Andra Day. Raji arranged many of the featured songs, which the choir practiced for three hours a week from the start of spring semester.
Halfway through the performance, the choir pulled their equipment off stage to make room for an original step performance, choreographed by Ar’Reon Watson ’18, and two original poems by Brandon Davidson ’19 and Raji that addressed the struggles of holding onto faith throughout life’s struggles. An excerpt from Raji’s poem conveys the group’s strong spiritual power: “I am broken, I am weak, I have baggage,/but I pack light like the Most High/and will keep my foot firmly planted on Lucifer’s neck/as the Son’s heel crushes the serpent’s head.” For Raji, it is when times are tough that praises should rise.
Every choir member approaches gospel music in their own way. Michaela Jenkins ’19, who soloed during “Break Every Chain” by Tasha Cobbs, has been involved with gospel music since she was two years old. But gospel music lends itself to all skill levels, Raji said. The group learned most of this year’s songs purely by ear; some members do not read music, which is typical of a gospel choir according to Raji. “In church rehearsal,” Raji said, “half the time, once you start playing a song, you just expect people to intuitively feel their part.”
For Jenkins, gospel music is, at its core, based in intuition and feeling rather than technicalities — it is almost more important to her culturally than religiously. She enjoys bringing that aspect of her culture to Kenyon, and participating in Gospel Choir also staves off homesickness. “I can’t bring my church to Gambier,” she said, “but I can play songs that I used to hear at practices.”
Jenkins believes that focusing on phrasing and gospel lyrics brings her closer to God. “[The lyrics in “Alpha and Omega”] are very simple, easy to say phrases,” she said, “but when you are really investing time and thought into the way those words sound, it gives them a sort of sacredness.” As long as one is open to the emotions behind the music, according to Jenkins, listening to a gospel choir can be a powerful experience.
Jenkins and Raji agree that, although it is important for the music to sound good, their main goal is to move people. “If we can nudge even one person closer to God through our singing,” Raji said, “then we’ve succeeded.”
Given the choice between a religious audience and one completely new to gospel music, they would prefer an audience unfamiliar with the music so they can fulfill their purpose: helping listeners love the gospel style and God.
“We want to see how much we can make somebody else’s life better through what we do,” Raji said, “to provide a sound people can hear God in.”
Though this is Raji’s last year at Kenyon, he said every member will continue the choir’s legacy. Next year, the group hopes to make gospel choir a broader venue for worship and culture. It will hold smaller worship events and bring more people to their music, culture and message.