After years of silence, IUPUI has once again been blessed with a campus gospel choir.
Media by Kelsen Hazelwood
It’s just before six on a Wednesday evening, and students are still streaming into the large conference room on the fourth floor of the campus center. A Youtube video plays in the background of a large choir singing “The Blood Still Works,” a lively gospel piece filled with clapping and shouts of joy. As the last few students trickle in, the group begins to congregate at the front of the room.
“Alright everybody, let’s pray in,” says one of the students, as one by one, the group begins to join hands in a circle and bow their heads.
It’s a normal and necessary ritual for Sounds With a Purpose, IUPUI’s new gospel choir, and it has become a core value for the group ever since its beginning in December of 2014. Since their first meeting of five or six individuals, the choir has grown to over thirty members this school year and has delivered multiple performances. In a few short months, the group has gone from mere aspirations to reality. And though the choir started small, Sounds With a Purpose plans to build on their momentum into next school year.
“I have always grown up listening to gospel music,” explains James Martin, Director of Sounds With a Purpose and student at IUPUI. “The choir was a thought in my mind as soon as I arrived at IUPUI in the fall of 2013.”
The concept of starting a gospel choir at IUPUI started slowly at first. Although the university has had a gospel choir in the past, it has been years since anyone has taken the initiative to start the organization. But with a new name, new director, and new drive to succeed, Martin began planning for Sounds With a Purpose in order to bring a student gospel choir back to IUPUI.
After receiving positive feedback from a few students, Martin began reaching out to other people who shared his same love of gospel music. Eventually, he joined forces with current President of IUPUI Gospel Choir, Javecia Johnson, and the two began building the foundation for the choir moving forward.
As fate would have it, the duo made for a perfect team. In addition to sharing an interest in gospel music, Johnson also acted as the past president of her gospel choir at East Chicago Central High School. As for Director James Martin, leading a choir of singers is a familiar task by now. Directing for the first time in 2008, Martin moved on to become director of the Vincennes Gospel Choir, Essence of Worship, from 2009-10. Most recently, Martin acted as director for Ebony Majestic Gospel choir at Indiana State University, conducting choir members for the 2011-12 school year.
“I learned a lot about working with choirs: everything from directing the choir to counseling and ministry,” says Martin. “I found that the best way to teach a choir is through love…this has brought me so far in the relationships I have built with my choir members.”
Martin’s style of directing gets at the heart of gospel music values. The songs are filled with emotion, ranging from cries for help to shouts of praise. Despite being centered around religious themes, it’s music that could resonate with anyone. Martin attributes this to the deeply human nature of the genre, and the relatability that it brings.
“Many times Gospel music can come in the form of a testimony, or story. It usually provides someone with a story that many others can relate to, and gives ways that they can make it through their situation,” says Martin.
More than anything, it is this authenticity and raw emotion that shines through in the choir’s performance. This music is music that you can feel.
During the rehearsal, the group sings through part of one of their pieces called “Even Me” (watch clip below), a song of prayer and petition for God to come live among his people.
It starts with a slow, sweeping verse of praise. The altos take the lead briefly before the tenor voices join, adding more and more volume as the song progresses. By the final verse, the whole choir is in full force, singing their hearts out and filling the room with three part harmonies. At the beginning of the song, my microphone could barely pick up the sopranos. By the end, the sheer volume of the choir overloads the microphone’s capacity, resulting in a static buzz of sound.
It’s that powerful.
For Martin and his choir members, the explosive nature of their music comes from a place much deeper than lung capacity and vocal chords.
“Gospel music has a voice that no other music has…gospel music comes from the soul,” says Martin.
Javecia Johnson explains that it also comes from a heart for service and reaching out to the community. Both Martin and Johnson express an interest in performing for nursing homes and children’s hospitals in the future. In fact, the group has already begun planning ahead for next year.
“We already have people contacting us to sing in the summertime,“ says Johnson.
This fall, the choir hopes to host a benefit concert with a food drive for the homeless, among other charitable performances. Next year represents an exciting time for the group. As a first year student organization, the possibility of school funding and additional members could significantly enhance their outreach.
Until then, Martin and his choir members will finish out their first season with two final performances, one at Vincennes University on April 24 and another at Ball State University on April 26.