My fellow Funkmericans,
In December 2011, a good friend and colleague of mine was invited to bring her choir to the White House to perform. She directs a fabulous youth chorus, and there was no doubt in my mind that the first family enjoyed the warmth and inspiration these young people provided. A few months later, she suggested that I apply as well.
I believed that the good vibes that were generating from the Tufts University Gospel Choir would resonate in D.C. and would interest the White House. The choir had grown to over 225 members a semester, been featured on the BBC, and had been voted as one of the top 5 courses at Tufts. So I filled out an application for a White House performance in July of 2012. There was no response. Until . . .
In November of 2014, I received an e-mail extending an invitation for Tufts Gospel Choir to perform during the holiday celebrations at the White House. The catch was I could only bring 20 members of the choir. Difficult as it was, with aid from section leaders, I chose 20 students to represent the choir. The White House asked us to sing two 45-60 minute sets of music. That’s a lot of music. Between November 21 and December 2, the 20-voice choir was able to do 4 rehearsals, learning holiday music from around the world - England, Italy, Caribbean Islands, Israel, Liberia, South Africa, and of course, America. The gospel songs, however, were our showstoppers, and we had plenty of them. In total, we had 17 pieces ready to go.
Thanks to the generosity of the Tufts Music Department and the Provost’s office, we flew to Washington D.C. on December 2nd. Our hotel granted us permission to use a conference room as a rehearsal space, and we got in our last 2-hour rehearsal. The following day, several people took advantage of the morning hours and visited a monument or two and the Smithsonian. We had a wonderful lunch at Busboys and Poets (highly recommend), and then our bus took us to the White House gate.
After arriving at the White House, security clearance took about 45 minutes (a K-9 unit dog had to sniff my keyboard case!). We were given a holding room and a few minutes to freshen up. (Lots of holiday cookies and bottles of water. Yay!) Then we were taken to our performance space. They provided choral risers (Yay!), and lucky for me I brought a battery-operated keyboard, because there was little access to electricity.
We began singing around 4:15 p.m. and sang non-stop until about 5:30 p.m. Whew! Hundreds of guests were arriving for the party and stopping to take photos and videos of the choir. Some even dared to clap along! After the singing marathon, we were allowed to take a break, and that’s when we got the news – we were going to be able to do a private performance for the First Lady! We were going to get to meet her, get a photo for the group, and perform a 60-second excerpt from one of our songs. I knew which song to do almost immediately.
“He Holds My Hand” is a song I arranged in 1999 after the Columbine High School Massacre. The words of the hymn strike to the core of our journey in confusing, dark, and troubling times – “Many things about tomorrow I don’t seem to understand. But I know Who holds tomorrow, and I know Who holds my hand.” At the end of the song, we grab hands and raise them in unison – displaying that not only does God hold our hand, but we have each other to hold and let God love through us. After our performance, Michelle Obama gave me a hug, and I was able to thank her personally for the work she does with fitness and nutrition, as I have lost over a 100 pounds in my continuing journey of good health. She was exceptionally sweet to every one of the choir members, greeting them and encouraging them for the upcoming final exams. We could not have a more outstanding First Lady.
Then we were back to work for a 30-minute gospel jam session, while guests from the party were on their way out. This time, dozens of people stood and cheered us on while we sang full energy. And yes, I rapped. When we finished, we packed up, headed back to our bus, got to the airport, and made our flight home. The whole way home, we were aglow from the day. It truly was a chance of a lifetime to share something we love in such a place of history. An honor. Truly. We were allowed to take the sign home that had our name on it. The choir wanted me to have it, and I’m going to frame it and put it in my office at home.
I learned only 14 ensembles are chosen each year to do this, and we were the only gospel choir this year. That’s surreal, but I’ll close by saying that this is not about being exalted, this is about being in position. When I left the Boston University Gospel Choir in 2003 after 10 years as the director, there was an absence in my life. When the opportunity came to lead a college gospel choir again, I took the position of Lecturer of Music at Tufts University in 2006 because I was not whole without this exercise of ministry in my life. I don’t direct the Tufts Gospel Choir for any other reason than it’s where I’m called to be – the work I do each semester is life-giving for the students and for me. I found a way to worship and minister in an area specific to my life that also bore fruit in the lives of others – wouldn’t you stay there too?
Since then, the choir’s growth, popularity, attention in the media are only side effects of the real story – people are thirsty for spirituality, thirsty for an encounter with God, thirsty to share, grow, and relate with an experience that may not be their own – whether it be African-American worship styles, Christianity, or just being in a large choir. My position here has connected me to opportunities to work on Broadway, be on television, and now perform songs (even my own music!) at the White House. These experiences humble me. As I sit typing this, I am quiet and still at how God is blessing me, and it makes me energized to give more next semester.
Thank you to everyone who encouraged and supported me and the choir during this special event. Have a Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays!