Having found its niche on campus, the African American Voices Gospel Choir is here to stay.
Celebrating 30 years at Ohio State, the student organization enjoys a large membership and broad recognition. However, AAVGC has endured tough times, Mia Murray, the choir’s president and a fourth-year in geography, said.
“It wasn’t always peaches and cream like it is now,” Murray said. “We definitely have overcome a lot.”
Around 2013, the choir saw its numbers dwindle to only four or five members, Herbert Smith, the choir’s director, said. Smith, a former member of the choir, said he revamped the organization, emphasizing recruitment and shifting the group’s dress, style of singing and leadership.
Smith’s efforts to increase exposure helped the choir grow to 40 members, allowing it to expand to include praise dancers, mimes who enact the emotions of the compositions, multiple musicians and a six-member ensemble for performances the full choir cannot attend, Amber Johnson, vice president and fifth-year in welding engineering, said.
Johnson said the group will continue to grow because students seek the family, faith and uplifting motivation the gospel choir provides.
“I think when people come to the choir, they’re looking for some type of home — faith-based — that they can come to every week with people who are like-minded like them, who look like them, on a campus where they don’t feel like they can see another person who looks like them just walking down the path,” Johnson said. “And so I think it’s just really important. This choir is not going anywhere.”
Murray said the main draw of gospel choir for her is the weekly stress relief it provides.
“Typically Wednesdays, it’s hump day, it’s rough, so coming to rehearsal is very uplifting,” Murray said. “It’s like nothing else matters. We’re just here to sing. And nine times out of 10, I always leave feeling better than I did when I came.”
One of the ways AAVGC uplifts its members is through prayer circles, in which students share personal problems and positive news, Smith said. The prayer circles are an opportunity to celebrate and motivate the students, he said.
“When they come here, they can express themselves through laughter — through sorrow. They can come here and cry,” Smith said. “It’s almost like some rehearsals are like therapy sessions, so it’s a safe place for everybody in a safe space.”
Students share a lot during the prayer circles, Johnson said, making it one of the most intimate moments the choir experiences together.
“When people go up there, they just want to just put all of their burdens down in front of everything and just let the people around them take on part of that burden,” Johnson said. “They don’t have to carry it themselves. We’re all here to hold each other up.”
The prayer circles are not the only thing inspiring the choir, though.
Murray said AAVGC members are also uplifted through the music they perform. Though sound matters when it comes to performances, she said the soul and how much it’s felt inside matters more.
“Sometimes you might see someone just start crying on stage, someone might just start screaming on stage,” Johnson said. “At one point, you might see one just raise their hand — close their eyes. It’s just about the feeling of the entire performance and about all the words and the music and how it touches you.”
AAVGC will celebrate its 30th anniversary with a tour of engagements, performing at 7 p.m. Friday at Hale Black Cultural Center and the same time Wednesday at Stephen’s Episcopal Church at 30 W. Woodruff Ave. for its annual Fall Showcase.