Rich In Legacy, Howard Gospel Choir Belts Joyful Harmony

Howard University’s award-winning Gospel Choir stops by to sing some Holiday classics for Tell Me More. Host Michel Martin also speaks with Choir Director Clifton Ross.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin.

For many of us, the holiday season means reconnecting with family, faith and the music that speaks to our hearts. In that spirit, today, we bring you a special performance by the Howard Gospel Choir.

Formed in 1968 by a group of students, the choir has been a pioneer in collegiate gospel music and has accumulated a remarkable list of awards and accomplishments, as well as launched the careers of a number of artists whose named you will knows, including Angela Winbush and Grammy winner Richard Smallwood.

The choir, also known as HGC, has taken its inspirational sound across the country and around the world. Most recently, HGC has been led by musical director Clifton Ross III, and we welcome him and the choir into our studio today. Thank you all so much for joining us.

Mr.�CLIFTON ROSS III (Musical Director, Howard Gospel Choir): Thank you for having us.

HOWARD GOSPEL CHOIR: Thank you for having us.

MARTIN: So Clifton, tell me how many people you have with you, and as I understand it, this is only a fraction of the whole choir.

Mr.�ROSS: Yes, we have about 15 singers with us today. Yes, it is a small fraction. We have about 75 people on the roster, and yeah, it's a portion today. You know, it's finals season, and we are on our way, and it's the Christmas season, but we're here.

MARTIN: And I wanted to ask you about that. This takes a lot of time. To what do you attribute the popularity of the choir with students? Why do you think they're willing to give so much time, and why are you?

Mr.�ROSS: Well, I think it's all about the purpose. The purpose of our choir is just basically to spread the good news of Jesus Christ and just of - just encouragement, and it's been our duty, it's been our job, it's been our assignment just to go and encourage people, to uplift them and let them know that it's okay, and things might be bad now, but it will get better.

MARTIN: So it's not just an activity. You really see it as a form of ministry.

Mr.�ROSS: No, we take it to heart. It's definitely a form of ministry.

MARTIN: Now, a lot of people are familiar with church gospel choirs, but is there a difference with a collegiate choir? You're not attached to a church per se. Is there a difference?

Mr.�ROSS: It's slightly different. A lot of us come from different backgrounds and different church backgrounds and different affiliations, but coming to Howard and coming to this particular gospel choir, we do audition to sing in, so there's another music level. And then a lot of church choirs don't actually tour.

We tour, and we sing constantly, every weekend, opposed to some church choirs, they might sing just every Sunday. So it's more intense, but it's worth it if you love it.

MARTIN: And can I ask how you all manage that with your studies?

Mr.�ROSS: Well, it's a lot of prayer, you know.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr.�ROSS: It's a lot of prayer. I think the key thing in school is just to have balance. Sometimes we have students that can't come to rehearsal, and if they do come to rehearsal, they'll bring their books, they'll study on the bus. They'll do whatever they need to to get it moving, but we always stress that school is first.

MARTIN: Do you hear that, parents? They stress that school is first.

Mr.�ROSS: School is first.

MARTIN: That's right, school is first.

Now, one issue facing some gospel artists today is finding that balance between the traditional and the contemporary sound. You know, sometimes people have a certain expectation about the way certain songs will be sung, and yet, you know, a lot of the people you want to reach appreciate a different variety of sounds. How do you balance that out?

Mr.�ROSS: Well, a lot of times you have to go with your heart. You know, I'm learning that public opinion can kill you if you let it. I think that you should have a variety of music. You should have some music that represents the spiritual, some much that has four-part harmony. Then there's other music that just has three-part; a little contemporary, a little traditional, just a little bit of everything, and I think it'll please everybody.

MARTIN: All right, well, speaking of traditional, I understand you've prepared "O Come All Ye Faithful," traditional.

Mr.�ROSS: Yes.

MARTIN: Okay. Let's have a listen.

Mr.�ROSS: Sure.

(Soundbite of song, "O Come All Ye Faithful")

HOWARD GOSPEL CHOIR: (Singing) Oh, come, all ye faithful, joyful and triumphant. Oh, come ye, oh, come ye, to Bethlehem. Come and behold Him, born the King of angels. Oh, come; let us adore Him. Oh, come, let us adore Him. Oh come; let us adore Him, Christ the Lord.

Sing, choirs of angels. Sing in exultation; sing, all ye citizens of heaven above. Glory to God, in all the highest; oh, come, let us adore Him, oh, come, let us adore Him. Oh come; let us adore Him, Christ the Lord. Christ the Lord. Christ the Lord. Christ the Lord. Christ the Lord.

MARTIN: Very good.

Mr. ROSS: Thank you.

MARTIN: If you're not in the spirit now, there's something very wrong.

(Soundbite of music)

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We are being treated to a special holiday performance by the Howard Gospel Choir. And we're speaking with musical director Clifton Ross III.

It's lovely. Just lovely.

Mr. ROSS: Thank you.

MARTIN: And I should mention, you've performed at the White House and just I can't even, it would take up the whole interview to describe the list. But to that end, you know, many of these songs are performed by choirs and ensembles; we've been hearing them all our lives. Are you searching for a distinct sound or just a wonderful sound?

Mr. ROSS: Well, I love a wonderful sound, and in that wonderful sound, there is a distinct sound that I look for. I think every director is different and every director has their different nuances that they love. I'm one of dynamics. I'm one of blend.

I grew up and I was trained in the studio so I'm very particular about different parts and everybody on the same pitch and blending and sounding like one voice, but that's just me. But that doesn't mean that if you don't sing altogether like one voice that the song doesn't have any power or doesn't have any difference. I believe that all music comes from the heart.

MARTIN: And you had quite a number of people go on, as we mentioned, to have successful professional musical careers. Is that the goal of most of the people in the choir?

Mr. ROSS: Some aspire to be musicians, to be artists, but others aspire to be doctors, others aspire to be lawyers. There's so many different dreams within the choir. And if anything else, we stress to believe in yourself and run after what you feel like you've been called to do or what you've been placed here to do.

MARTIN: And I think one of the things that I think you have been placed here to do is, you are an ambassador for both Howard University and for gospel music in general as you perform, as we mentioned, all over the country and around the world.

And I think you're probably introducing gospel music to some people who may not have heard it before, some people who will have heard quite a lot, people who may or may not have been exposed to many HBCU's. Do you feel a certain, I don't know what word - is pressure - pressure to live up to a certain standard because of that? I mean Howard, of course, as we know is probably the best -well it's the oldest historically college, university, in the country; certainly a preeminent institution. Do you feel a pressure to represent?

Mr. ROSS: There's a little bit, but at the same time, you have to always remember what you're doing it for. And it's simply just to spread the good news. So as far as touching people and reaching people that we haven't, or that haven't experienced gospel music, I think that's kind of like one of our main goals to do.

We traveled to Slovakia about two years ago and some people had never heard of gospel music, they never experienced it and they came up to us after and said their life had been changed. And I think that means more than any type of pressure, than trying to prove yourself to anybody else, if you can just reach people.

MARTIN: And I believe you have - speaking of joy - I believe you have "Joy to the World" prepared for us.

Mr. ROSS: Oh yes.

MARTIN: All right.

Mr. ROSS: Just a little arrangement.

MARTIN: Just a little arrangement?

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Okay. I can't wait to hear it. I see there's a twinkle in the eye. I want to hear it. I want to hear it.

Mr. ROSS: Sure.

(Soundbite of song, "Joy to the World")

HOWARD GOSPEL CHOIR: (Singing) Joy to the world. The Lord is come: Let earth receive her King. Let every heart prepare Him room. And heaven and nature sing, and heaven and nature sing, and heaven and heaven and nature sing.

Joy to the world, the Lord is come: Let earth receive her King. Let every heart prepare Him room, and heaven and nature sing, and heaven and nature sing, and heaven and heaven and nature sing.

He rules the world with truth and grace, and makes the nations prove the glory of His righteousness and wonders of His love, and wonders of His love, and wonders, and wonders of His love.

He rules the world with truth and grace, and makes the nations prove the glory of His righteousness and wonders of His love, and wonders of His love, and wonders, and wonders of His love.

Joy to the world. Joy to the world. Joy to the world. Joy to the world. Joy, joy to the world. Joy to the world. Joy to the world. Joy to the world. Joy to the world. Joy, joy to the world.

MARTIN: All right. Okay, you can't see this in here, but we're very happy right now.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: We're very happy right now. Well, are there any songs that the choir especially loves?

Mr. ROSS: I have to say we have two songs that I think we love the most. This one song, it's called "Awesome God." It is written by Youthful Praise. It's actually it's a gospel group that's - they got - they're out of the East Coast. We've kind of put our little twist on it, and made it our own, and we love it. And we also love singing Richard Smallwood's "Total Praise." It just it touches our hearts and every song I think we sing we put our own little HGCism(ph) on it and...

MARTIN: Right. Right. Well, Richard Smallwood is an alumnus.

Mr. ROSS: He's an alumnus. Yeah.

MARTIN: He's an alumnus, as is our digital media producer, Lee Hill.

Mr. ROSS: Oh yeah.

MARTIN: Just have to give a little shout out.

(Soundbite of cheering)

MARTIN: Represent. Represent. Yes, he's a name that our listeners will know because he gives us our listener's comments every week. Well, so wonderful. So is there a song that we could go out on? What are we going to go out on? And we thank you so much for stopping by.

Mr. ROSS: I believe we can do "Angels We've Heard On High?" Is that okay?

MARTIN: "Angels We've Heard On High." Sure, that sounds fine. But before we let you go, what performances are you most looking forward to? As we mentioned, you have a very rigorous travel schedule, and we are very lucky that you were able to fit us in in this very busy holiday season.

Mr. ROSS: Well, one thing we look forward every second semester of school is our spring tour and we travel pretty much the Midwest. We try to go down South a little bit and head to the East Coast, and sometimes we head to my hometown, Michigan, you know? Hey, hey put it in for there. And we really look forward to that, because we named our tour last year; the tour was called "The Restoration Experience."

And basically it was our assignment to restore the house of every place we go to and just with God, you know, bring restoration. So this semester, we might glow with a little joy, a little faith, a little something. I don't know. We're still coming up with the title of it. But whatever it is, that will be the purpose of it.

MARTIN: And you're a senior.

Mr. ROSS: Yes.

MARTIN: So what's next for you?

Mr. ROSS: To go wherever God has me to go. I sing a lot. I was recently on a television show called "Sunday Best." It was by BET, so I made the top 10 contestants on that and...

MARTIN: It's okay. We can give a little (unintelligible). Go ahead. Okay.

(Soundbite of applause)

(Soundbite of cheering)

Mr. ROSS: So I plan on working a few personal things and I'm really just being open, you know?

MARTIN: Well, good luck to you.

Mr. ROSS: Thank you.

MARTIN: And to all of you.

HOWARD GOSPEL CHOIR: Thank you.

MARTIN: Thank you so much for spending this time with us. Clifton Ross III is the musical director for the Howard Gospel Choir. He is its eighth director. To learn more about the group and to see a video of their special performance here at NPR studios today, please check out our Web site. Just go to NPR.org, click on programs and then on TELL ME MORE.

And we're going to go out on...

Mr. ROSS: "Angels We've Heard On High."

MARTIN: "Angels We Have Heard On High." Thank you everybody. Happy Holidays, Merry Christmas.

Mr. ROSS: Happy Holidays.

MARTIN: Everybody, Happy Kwanzaa. Happy Hanukkah, Kwanzaa.

Mr. ROSS: Happy everything.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Hani-Christmas Ha-Kwanzaa everybody.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: And take us to church. Thank you so much.

Mr. ROSS: All right.

(Soundbite of song, "Angels We've Heard On High")

HOWARD GOSPEL CHOIR: (Singing) Angels we have heard on high, sweetly singing o'er the plains; and the mountains in reply, echoing their joyous strains. Gloria in excel sis Deo. Gloria in excel sis Deo. Angels we have heard on high...

MARTIN: And that's our program for today. I'm Michel Martin and you've been listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News and the African-American Public Radio Consortium. Let's talk more tomorrow.

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