Penn State College of Arts and Architecture
Center for the Performing Arts at Penn State

Howard Gospel Choir to lead healing group sing Jan. 20

By Heather Longley
Twelve members of the Howard Gospel Choir perform on stage accompanied by a keyboardist and choir director. They all wear traditional gospel choir robes.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated on April 4, 1968. Howard University undergrads Melanie Russell (Lee) and Rosalind Thompkins (Lynch) simply wanted to fulfill their dreams of using a group sing to heal. Though gospel as a style was starting to reach legitimacy, the genre was still eschewed due to its associations with blues and jazz. The two faced an uphill battle.

But by August of the same year, the Howard Gospel Choir of Howard University was founded as the first collegiate choir of its kind in the world.

“I definitely think the word resilience comes to mind as I think about what the choir’s legacy and history represents. When the choir was founded, gospel music wasn’t the type of genre that was respected as the way it is now,” Howard Gospel Choir Business Manager Ray Bramble said. “The genre itself was considered ‘less than’ to a certain extent, and so they had to really push through and persevere. They knew it was something that they wanted, and they were adamant about it.”

Fast-forward to 2024, and the choir is in the middle of planning its spring performance tours. The choir performs throughout North America as well as internationally, and as ambassadors for the United States and for gospel music in general. Howard Gospel Choir has been a featured artist ensemble at the Kennedy Center Honors, The White House and the Smithsonian Museum of American History. The singers have shared the stage with artists including Stevie Wonder, Tony Bennett, Patti Labelle and Fantasia.

“It’s funny to talk to them now, the founding members, because they’re always amazed at the work that the choir has done since then,” Bramble said.

The Howard Gospel Choir will headline “A Choral Tribute to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.” at 4 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 20, in Eisenhower Auditorium. The concert will feature performances by Penn State choirs Essence of Joy and Essence 2, Ltd., and the State College Area High School Master Singers; as well as appearances by Penn State dance companies.

Visit “A Choral Tribute” for more information and to purchase tickets.

“We’re celebrating Dr. King,” Bramble said. “It’s going to include an eclectic assembly of different types of gospel. There will be some traditional, there will be something more contemporary. It’ll be a good blend.”

He emphasized that the concert will be an uplifting, motivational event for everyone, regardless of spiritual beliefs. He said the artists’ command of their voices and harmony is testament to their passion for song.

“We sing for a wide variety of people, not just Christ,” Bramble said. “We’ve been places, like at least two that I can remember, where people who are atheists have come up to us and said, ‘You know, I don’t fundamentally believe what you believe, but I really felt something.’”

“It’s not a matter of pushing our beliefs on anyone. It’s not a matter of us trying to convert anyone,” Bramble said. “It’s really just that we’re just sharing a message of hope and healing.”

Heather Longley is a communications specialist at the Center for the Performing Arts.