Harlem Gospel Choir
The Thing That Is Absolutely True
Benji Nichols – Inspire(d) Magazine February/March 2009
Gospel, by definition, is “the thing that is absolutely true.” It also, of course, refers to the first four books of the New Testament in the bible telling the story of Jesus’ life and teachings. But gospel music is something that brings a much more tangible presence to the joy in life that can be found each day – and it is that joy that the Harlem Gospel Choir brings to their concerts. Perhaps Pope Benedict XVI said it best: “It’s not just a show – it’s a feeling!”
It was shortly after a Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. birthday celebration in January of 1986 that Allen Bailey brought the Harlem Gospel Choir to life. Their purpose was “bringing people and nations together and giving something back.” In fact, it is upon the words and teaching of MLK, “We can all be great, we can all serve,” that the Choir found its roots and inspiration. After 23 years of ministering and honoring the words of Dr. King, the Harlem Gospel Choir has become one of the premier gospel choirs in the world with friends and performances with or for such notable people as Pope John Paul, Pope Benedict XVI, U2, Elton John, Jimmy Cliff, Diana Ross, Lyle Lovett, Whoopi Goldberg, Oprah, and more. Yes, this group of Harlem singers has found much success in their high energy music, but sing their praises more so because, in the word’s of Allen Bailey, “Everyone needs to be inspired in these troubling times.”
President Barack Obama with Allen Bailey
The Harlem Gospel Choir will make a stop in their tour in Decorah, Iowa, on February 21 to perform at the Center for Faith and Life, continuing Luther College’s Center Stage Series. (“Oh you know, you’re out there in God’s Country!” Bailey says of Decorah and the Midwest.)
Throughout the years, the gospel choir has toured all over the US and world. From incredibly diverse urban areas like New York, to rather distant rural communities like Decorah, the Harlem Gospel Choir shares their vision and words. Some places and audiences may never have heard gospel music before, but that doesn’t mean they won’t like it.
“People are very receptive, and love to learn about our music, and our culture, as we do theirs. Gospel music – it transcends – regions, cultures, language; it crosses borders – that’s the amazing thing about gospel music,” Bailey says.
Crossing borders is something the Choir knows quite a bit about – they have visited no less than 15 countries, including a tour just last year of Eastern Europe and Asia to countries where English is not the first language.
“We were in Lebanon, Slovakia, Bulgaria, and Korea this past year, and you know, the crowd doesn’t all understand our words, but they understand what we are saying. I looked out and saw tears coming down the cheeks and you know they get it,” says Bailey.
The Choir stays true to their mission of “bringing people and nations together and giving something back” by contributing profits from their concerts to Children’s charities in a variety of places and countries.
“We believe young people are the future,” stresses Bailey. “That is also why the Harlem Gospel Choir primarily raises funds for children’s charities – children are the future. But we also have to teach them to give back.”
Born and raised in Harlem, Bailey’s parents worked hard and had little money, but brought their children up in the church and taught them to contribute to their community and the world.
“We would go to church on Sunday and after my Mother would help cook dinner at the church – everyone would eat,” Bailey says. “We really received a lot from the church, as everyone did, but we also learned that you had to give back – that’s how it works.”
Even after going on to have a very successful career in the entertainment world as a promotional director and advance man for major recording artists and film stars, as well as organizing several large-scale entertainment events, Allen Bailey came back to this idea. He found that his upbringing and history held strong, and he returned to his roots in the church, that of gospel music, and the teachings of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
“Last year we sang at an event for President Obama in Harlem, and a lot of people were like ‘who is this guy from Chicago’ because Bill Clinton has an office in Harlem – they’re very well known here – but sitting back stage speaking with Mr. Obama you could just feel it – I saw Dr. King in him, and I knew he was going to be the next president,” says Bailey.
Like the great excitement that has built around the election of President Obama, the Harlem Gospel Choir also builds excitement through their shows. Consider yourself warned by the MC himself to wear comfortable shoes to the concert: “We’ll have our fifteen member choir with us on this tour plus a drummer and keyboard player. Our crowds are on their feet and moving! It is high-energy music, and our music is for everyone. Everyone can find inspiration in gospel music, and everyone can use a little inspiration.”
The Harlem Gospel Choir
The Harlem Gospel Choir can be seen live in Decorah at the Center for Faith and Life, February 21, at 7:30 pm. For tickets and information call (563) 387-1357, email firstname.lastname@example.org, or visit http://www.luther.edu/programming.
Benji Nichols was introduced to gospel music by one of his best college friends and an amazing singer, Maureen Murphy, who was a member of the Berklee Gospel Choir and Ensemble. He plans to ‘give it up’ at the Harlem Gospel Choir show while wearing very comfortable shoes.
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