Gospel Music: Unity Through Diversity

by Bethany Wagner '14

Rolling rhythms, pounding beats. Clapping hands, shouts of “Amen!” Gospel music’s distinct sounds draw from traditional African music, African-American slave spirituals, the smooth voices of blues singers, and contemporary worship. For generations, it has brought encouragement to people from all backgrounds. At concerts throughout the year, APU’s Gospel Choir invites diverse audiences of students, faculty, and community members to experience this heartfelt worship.

What is it about this music genre that engages so many? “Gospel music can belong to anyone,” said Kimasi Browne, Ph.D., director of ethnomusicology and founder of APU’s Gospel Choir. Gospel utilizes repetition, a concept drawn from traditional African music. The performers establish and repeat simple melodies so that everyone can take part in creating the music. “People inevitably catch on to the pattern and join by singing, clapping, jumping, and dancing. They can’t help but participate.”

The words and tunes from the songs of African-American slaves, worshipping in the midst of suffering and oppression, contribute much of Gospel’s spiritual and emotional depth. “I believe God gave music to the African-American people as a buffer against their tragic circumstances over the years,” said Browne. “Many praise songs comes from a joyful response, but people often sing Gospel music during their trials. Through the music, they can find strength.”

Beginning as a small student club in 1991, it became an official ensemble in the School of Music 10 years later. “Gospel Choir introduced an entirely new element to the school,” said Browne. “It sparked an educational experience for music students and audiences to hear and understand this powerful cultural music.”

With a wide variety of ethnicities and backgrounds, 37 students now call Gospel Choir their family. Some live in Southern California; some came from overseas. A few grew up with Gospel music; many encountered it for the first time in Gospel Choir. “I’ve found Gospel music appeals to students because it’s open, free, and easy to pick up,” said Letitia Ugwueke ‘99, M.M. ’04, who has directed the choir since 2006. “Gospel Choir’s environment invites anyone and everyone to feel at home as they worship.”

A renowned vocalist, Ugwueke has toured around the world and performed in the genres of opera, classical, Broadway, reggae, country, and pop. But she grew up with Gospel. To Ugwueke, this genre ministers. “My first passion is ministry. I’ve been singing since I was little, but God called me to use my gifts in churches and ministry groups.”

Throughout the academic year, Gospel Choir performs on campus and in church settings. On September 28, the Gospel Choir hosted its fifth annual Gospel Music Heritage Month concert with a night of music by Grammy-Award winning musician Fred Hammond, one of Gospel’s greatest praise musicians. “Each September, APU joins groups around the nation in celebrating Gospel music,” said Ugwueke. “It doesn’t matter who you are or what you’ve been through. Just come on in and worship with us.”

Edgar Barron, director of the Center for Reconciliation and Diversity, notes a visible impact on campus due to events like these and the regular presence of APU’s Gospel worship team in chapel. “Countless students from all backgrounds say that they had never experienced such unifying worship,” said Barron. “Gospel presents the Christian message in a way that reaches people’s ears, hearts, and souls. In such an atmosphere, you cannot help uniting in praising God.”