From Philly and the Pa. suburbs to South Jersey and Delaware, what would you like WHYY News to cover? Let us know!
The walls of Esperanza Academy shook Saturday with the sound of stomping feet and rattling tambourines. At the finale of WHYY’s Lifting Voices in Praise competition in North Philadelphia, hundreds gathered to celebrate the multi-generational marvel that is gospel music.
Ten finalists, including youth choirs, adult ensembles, and solo acts took turns singing for an enthusiastic audience of gospel lovers — and a panel of four “grand judges.” More than once, performances transcended into chaos when applause-fueled encores steamrolled the emcees, WHYY radio host Cherri Gregg and WURD host Solomon Jones.
The spiritual genre that captivated Saturday’s audience dates back to the era of slavery in the United States, when traditional hymns fostered hope among enslaved people.
Jones said Black churches who couldn’t afford pianos or other instruments mastered the art of moving clergy members with nothing but their voices and a tambourine. Songs like “We Shall Overcome” inspired civil rights leaders and the genre inspired generations of Black artists, influencing hip-hop, R&B, and more.
“It is uplifting. It is inspiring. It is spiritual. [Gospel] is everything,” Jones said.
Gospel music can also be competitive. Church leader and business owner Kesha Lee flew her godfather, Michael Pryor, in from Alabama to accompany her performance in the Lifting Voices in Praise finale.
The duo met when Lee was a high schooler in North Carolina. From the moment they met, Pryor could tell his precocious student was hungry for a solo. “I knew I had Aretha Franklin on my hands,” he said.
Draped in black, Lee delivered a passionate rendition of “His Eye is on the Sparrow,” winning the afternoon’s “best soloist” award.
“[It’s] not about performance, it’s about just glorifying God,” Lee said.
Lee and Pryor led an impromptu musical worship service before the award ceremony, inviting performers and audience members to come on stage and sing along to gospel classics. Other prizewinners included sisters WeRRedemption, Nick Reynolds & Family Affair, and the Pine Forge Academy youth choir took best overall performance.
WHYY organized Lifting Voices in Praise in advance of the documentary “GOSPEL” with Dr. Henry Louis Gates Jr., which airs on PBS in February.
Saturdays just got more interesting.