Gospel Choir brings faith and community to AU
Members share their experiences and personal ties singing with the group
From the Newsstands: This story appeared in The Eagle's November 2022 print edition. You can find the digital version here.
With songs of joy, struggle and praise, American University’s Gospel Choir is lifting spirits and creating an important space for Black students on campus. From traditional songs to modern tunes, the vocal ensemble provides a platform for all of its members to showcase their voices and connect with other students.
Gospel music, a form of Christian worship music, is inextricably linked to the religious practices and cultures of Black Americans. It incorporates traditional Christian hymns and Black spirituals with harmonies and stylistic elements of genres like jazz and blues, both of which were pioneered by Black musicians.
“It’s a stylized form of Christian worship that also speaks to the African-American experience,” said Choir President Faith Anderson, a senior in the School of Communication and College of Arts and Sciences.
Founded in 1976 by a group of students under the direction of Rev. Clarence Cross, the Gospel Choir has flourished through the dedication and commitment of its many generations of members who remain connected through the choir’s extensive alumni network.
While some students grew up singing gospel and worship music in Baptist churches across the country, the group welcomes anyone with a passion for music.
“Everyone is from everywhere. We've got a good mix: we have students who grew up singing in church, but we also have exchange students who haven’t sung gospel music a day in their lives,” Anderson said. “So it helps that we have people who grew up in the setting and understand it and then also to have fresh eyes and the perspectives of people who just want to be a part of the community as well.”
Their rehearsals take place every Wednesday in the Kay Spiritual Life Center. They begin and end with a prayer led by professor Sylsestea Sledge, the choir’s director and the Minister of Music at the First Mount ZionBaptist Church in Dumfries, Virginia. He has led the group for over 20 years and brings an infectious energy and positivity to rehearsals and performances that is passed on to its members.
“He's very passionate. He always has a great smile on his face and by the end of one song, Sledge is going to be wiping his brow with sweat; he puts everything into it” said Lexi Rogers, a sophomore in SOC and a soprano in the Gospel Choir. “But what's most impactful for me is that he commutes over an hour every Wednesday to come and sing with us and to direct us.”
“Sledge is like everybody’s uncle,” Anderson said. “He's a very good teacher, and he always makes you feel like you have the ability to do it. Even if you hear a song you’re thinking: ‘they just modulated five times and I don't think I can sing that high,’ he always just says, ‘you can do it.’”
Unlike other choirs, all of the music is learned aurally, meaning that there is no sheet music: the members listen to recordings and pick up the different parts by ear. Gospel is a storied genre, with an extensive repertoire marking decades of achievement by Black musicians, and the AU Gospel Choir incorporates songs from across the canon.
“We sing it all,” Rogers said. “We sing songs that my grandma knows all the words to, and we sing songs that just came out a few months ago.”
An important element of this music is tradition; many gospel songs have been passed down from generation to generation and came from melodies dating back centuries. The AU Gospel Choir works to keep the stories behind these works alive, learning the historical context of each song and the stories of the artists that created and sang them.
“Professor Sledge encourages us to understand the culture when each song was made, what those songs relate to, what social movements were going on, what people would be wearing and things like that,” Anderson said.
Although singing gospel can be a challenging experience, the choir members noted the powerful healing qualities of the genre.
“I lean on gospel songs in general when I'm going through something,” said Rogers. “And you can see people come into the chapel with burdens, and then by the time that we break and we do our final prayer after praising for over an hour, they're lifted. We give our worries to God, and after that, it's on him and he knows the rest.”
“We have a specific song that we sing that’s called ‘The Storm is Passing Over,’ and it's one of my favorite songs that we do,” Anderson said. “Especially during times like midterm season, Sledge comes in and just starts playing it, and everyone knows to jump in. We sing that song and it is balm to your soul, so healing and cathartic.”
The Gospel Choir has also become an important source of community for its members and for Black students on campus.
“Black students are always wanting to come to our events because we can’t go to Baptist Church every week like some of us are used to doing,” Rogers said. “And so to be able to sing songs that remind us of those times before we came to college is really nostalgic and it's comforting to just be in that space. Even people who don't go to church, they usually have grandmothers or grandfathers or great aunts who went to church, and it reminds them of that.”
While gospel music is rooted in faith and Christianity, its themes of love, optimism, resilience and triumph transcend religion and connect with deeper, universal emotions. For many, Gospel Choir is a place of shelter and hope from the uncertainty of the outside world.
“For members specifically, we get to relate in our shared experience, of growing up in the church and having that similar upbringing, and that can be a safe space,” Anderson said. “But also for Black students as a whole, we all have this understanding of how spirituality and faith in God has shaped a lot of the African American experience. It provides a space where we can lay whatever our burden is and just enjoy being together. Whatever is going on, we can link arms together.”