Building Community Through Music, 1 Note at a Time

 Famed gospel artist BeBe Winans addressing students attending the Children of the Gospel Choir Vocal Workshop at Deal Middle School in Washington, D.C. 
Washington Performing Arts. 

It’s a sweltering Washington, D.C., summer day, but inside Deal Middle School’s auditorium, it is just starting to warm up.

Samantha Rios is belting out, in her strong and beautiful voice, the lead of “Indescribable (You Are Amazing, God).” The choir seated informally before Rios, some 64-children strong, chimes in at the chorus, softly at first, before building in intensity, acting as the smooth background on top of which the 13-year-old from Arlington, Va., lays down her solo using the astounding vocals that won her a spot on La Voz, the Spanish equivalent of The Voice.

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All of this is happening in front of renowned gospel legend BeBe Winans, his elbow propped up on an armrest, his hand supporting his tilted head.

After a while, he takes the mic and sings along with the kids for a bit before telling them what he sees.

“I see you and I see me,” he told the group of 9- to 18-year-olds who had gathered at the middle school for the Children of the Gospel Vocal Workshop put on by Washington Performing Arts. “This is where I come from.”

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Winans was one of the special guests, whether local or nationally known, who came to speak to the children and encourage them as they participated in the two-week camp that focuses on the development of voice and vocal technique, as well as things such as songwriting, choral conducting and general team building. Despite the name, the genres the camp explores include world music, blues and spirituals.

But often, having people like Winans pop in is a highlight for the kids and a chance for them to really connect and ask questions of someone who knows the industry, and what they’re getting into, inside out.

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“We were once where they are. If it weren’t for the people who had that same mindset to give back, to instill in, to impact the life of, then we wouldn’t be where we are now,” Michele Fowlin, music director of the camp, told The Root Tuesday.

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Known in her own right, having been awarded the Mayor’s Award in D.C. as well as the Certificate of Recognition of the D.C. Commission on the Arts for her work in music, Fowlin said efforts like those of Winans and herself help build community.

Coincidentally, community is the theme of this year’s camp, and with the theme, Kathy Brewington, assistant director of education and director of gospel programs for WPA, hopes that the children can be given a platform to voice what is happening in the world as they understand it.

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“We’re living right now, this time where the young people are seeing in the news and experiencing in their own neighborhoods, the adversity and the dangers that life has,” Brewington told The Root.

“They have a voice and they want to understand what that’s all about and they want to share that. [They are saying] ‘We represent a community that cares and this is our interpretation, in our words, in [our] voice, as a song or in a composition in words,’ and we’re giving them a platform to say that,” she said.

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Brewington added that music can be the hook to pique children’s interest and then act as a bridge to broader topics. 

“[Music] transforms individuals first and then branches out. Old-school music … we were using music beyond just the church. We were doing that years ago to talk about civil rights and talk about the current status of what was happening in various communities, economic, social statuses,” Fowlin added.

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“And hopefully what we are doing is instilling in these young people [the ability] to create music that really has a message that will carry on into the next generation, versus a lot of the stuff that they’re so used to hearing today,” she said.

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Learning how to create such music is part of what comes with the bevy of classes the camp offers. Exploring genres, and mixing techniques and sounds, is something that the camp encourages. The hope is that by being introduced to new sounds and new ways of looking at music, the students will expand their view of music and, in turn, of the community and the world.

“All forms of music are based on the very things lyrically, [harmonically] and [using] the basics of voice that they are learning,” Brewington said. “It’s more than just ‘this’; it’s a bigger world that we live in and that every experience, every culture, every person brings something.”

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Breanna Edwards is a newswriter at The Root. Follow her on Twitter.

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