For decades, gospel music has been, and continues to be, a source of strength, encouragement and artistic expression. Thus, it was remarkably fitting that one of America’s musical treasures was showcased on one of the nation’s greatest stages as some of the industry’s most celebrated gospel artists assembled at The Kennedy Center in celebration of Gospel Music Heritage Month. Now in its fifth year, “The Evolution of Gospel” not only provided a platform for performance, but was presented in honor of the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington.
Created in 2008 by Rep. Shelia Jackson Lee, who was among the authors to the Congressional resolution that declared September Gospel Music Heritage Month, the event has since grown in both its talent and outreach. Three luminaries were honored this year for their contributions to and advocacy for the genre of gospel music: Rep. John Lewis, industry mogul Bill Hearn, and gospel recording artist Richard Smallwood.
“It was an incredible honor….and a beautiful night that I’ll always remember and hold close to my heart,” said Smallwood.
A diverse cadre of talent paid homage to the three honorees. Saluting Hearn was the cutting-edge contemporary gospel artist Tye Tribett, who represents the vast dimensions in which Hearn has been able to use his entrepreneurial genius to reach a wider audience in the gospel music arena. In tribute to the esteemed Rep. Lewis, United Praise presented a wonderfully choreographed presentation, underscored by the resonant voices of King and Lewis from historic speeches. The Washington Performing Arts Society’s Men and Women of the Gospel rendered a stirring arrangement of “America” by Victor Simonson, conducted by the arranger himself, with soprano Samantha McElHaney. Jazz quartet performers Group Therapy were certainly the standouts in the tribute to the Howard University Alumnus Smallwood, as they put their ‘stamp’ on his classic “Total Praise.”
WL Performing Arts caught up with Washington attorney and gospel music advocate Ron L. Magnus, who currently serves as the D.C. Chairman of the Gospel Music Heritage Foundation, about the importance of the event. “[Tonight] was an incredible celebration of gospel. The rich interaction of the civil rights movement and gospel, through honorees Rep. John Lewis, the maestro of gospel, the incomparable Richard Smallwood and music giant Bill Hearn was powerful indeed,” said Magnus.
Though star singer Donnie McClurkin may have been ‘persona non grata’ at the special peace concert honoring Martin Luther King, Jr. at his memorial on the mall a few weeks ago, he certainly was a welcomed presence in the midst of the appreciative Kennedy Center audience. McClurkin offered his voice in a special tribute to the three honorees, as they were all assembled on the concert stage.
The evening attracted some of Washington’s major arts figures, including WPAS President and CEO Jenny Bilfield, Board Chairman Reginald Van Lee, Executive Director of The Coalition for African Americans in the Performing Arts Terri Allen and renowned soprano Janice Chandler Eteme.