(RNS) — Donald Lawrence, the choirmaster, conductor and producer known for gospel songs like “Encourage Yourself” and “The Blessing of Abraham,” has had a far-ranging career in music.
He was a staff musician for Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker’s “PTL (Praise the Lord) Club,” the music director for R&B artist Stephanie Mills and the front man for The Tri-City Singers and Donald Lawrence & Company.
Now, he’s continuing the mission of his mentor, the late Edwin Hawkins, and seeking to extend the reach of gospel music, known widely in America’s Black congregations, to the choirs of Europe and other parts of the world.
From April 27-29, he is set to present “Music + Arts Global” at a theater owned by Ruach City Church, a predominantly Black Pentecostal megachurch in London. He’ll be joined by hundreds of choir members from across Europe as well as South America and the United States. After two days of rehearsals and training, they will sing in a finale concert featuring Lawrence’s music, as well as that of other artists, including Hawkins’ crossover hit “Oh Happy Day.”
“It’s really about inspiring the next generation of choir people,” said Lawrence, 61, in an April 12 interview about the six-figure event he is funding himself. “I wanted Music + Arts to be a coming together, a gathering of choir creatives, so that when they leave, they go back to their individual countries, and they’re inspired to continue with choir, to look at new ways to do choir, to push their choirs to continue to get better.”
Lawrence, a member of an interdenominational church in Chicago, talked to Religion News Service about his mentor, the universality of gospel music and how it can be a bridge over divides.
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The interview was edited for length and clarity.
Your upcoming event Music + Arts Global aims to continue the legacy of Edwin Hawkins. What did he request of you before his death in 2018?
He made me look him in the eye and said, “Donald, I don’t think I’m going to be here much longer. I need you to promise me that you will move Music & Arts forward.” Quite an emotional moment.
Indeed. This was asking you to move forward, in some way, what was known as his Music & Art Seminar?
Yes, it was an event, a concert that he created in 1979. And he needed someone to lead it, become the face of it along with him, to either keep it moving as is or to expand the vision of what it is but still kind of keeping the same principles of it.
How many people do you expect to participate in Music + Arts Global and how did it come together?
I expect a choir of 300 to 500 people. Over the last four years, I did a trek around Europe, I did a lot of master classes in quite a few of the countries. I created great relationships with friends I’ve stayed in touch with: choirmasters, choirs. And that’s how I built this. I just told everybody: Meet me in London as opposed to me coming to you every year. We will come together in sessions where we discuss choir technique, we learn songs, we prep for a finale concert on that Saturday.
How would you describe the kinds of gospel music it’s going to feature?
It will be a catalog of my music, along with vintage seminar music, Hawkins’ music and music from some of the guest choirmasters/songwriters.
I have Anthony Brown coming, who had a really big song (with Group therAPy) called “Worth,” a gold-selling single. He’s coming to present that song to the choir. Also, there’s a song that, in the last two or three years, Kanye West’s Sunday Service Choir, along with Maverick City Music’s Choir, made really, really popular called “Revelation 19:1” and one that was written by Jeffrey LaValley out of Flint, Michigan. I wanted to go back to their original writer and have him teach it to this international group.
Are you concerned about any controversy of having a song that has at least a connection with Ye, as he’s called now?
Oh, absolutely not. It’s a song. He didn’t even write it. Matter of fact, he wasn’t even performing it. The choir was performing it. So I have no problem. It’s a great song. And not only is it a great song, it’s a scriptural song.
When Edwin Hawkins had his Music & Arts Seminar in the States, it had a predominantly Black audience. This event will be drawing African Americans from the United States, but likely a large number of non-Black people from across the globe.
I really won’t know until I get there but definitely a good amount of ethnicities are coming. It’ll be a blend of people. Even though gospel music was birthed here in the States, and it’s a Black American experience, it’s something that has become universal, and people just love the way it feels and the lyrics and the faith that it speaks about, so everyone loves to sing it.
I want just us coming together globally, especially where the world is now with so much hate and so much division, so much divisiveness. I would just like to see everybody for a minute to escape from the headlines and just sing, just show what the Scripture speaks about: Loving your neighbor as yourself.
You conducted a gospel choir of 500 Italians before an audience of tens of thousands outside of a cathedral in Milan, Italy. What does it feel like to lead that kind of a choir as a Black American gospel musician?
It’s an emotion and it’s a feeling that’s really hard to describe. But once I’m on stage and once I’m inside music, I’m just inside music and I kind of catch up with what’s happening after I come out of it. So that particular moment, to look out there and see a sea of people as far as you can see, down the side streets and everything, to look behind me to have 500 Italians that I’ve never met before, to have an all-Italian band and just hear them singing my songs: It was quite an incredible moment.
And it gets me back to the art. A lot of times people make gospel music so much about religion, they forget about the art of it. We, as gospel musicians and singers and creatives, put the same kind of time in that people did in pop and we started young. The same way Beyoncé or Michael (Jackson) was dancing as a kid, we were listening to records, we were teaching parts, we were understanding harmony. We were learning how to play. I always want to make sure that I also remind everybody this is an art form as well, just like jazz, opera, pop, blues, whatever.
With your leading this new event in England, do you think you’re helping bring Edwin Hawkins’ work full circle, given that his arrangement of “Oh Happy Day” became a No. 1 song in France and Germany?
I don’t think I could bring his life to full circle because “Oh Happy Day” is still one of the biggest gospel songs ever. It’s literally in the 100 songs of the century, right after “The Star-Spangled Banner,” so I don’t think I can outdo that at all. But I am doing something he wanted to do that didn’t get to happen, and that was to have Music + Arts to start to be more global. He never got a chance to mount it outside of the U.S. I didn’t know that until it was brought to my attention. It was just my instinct that I should relaunch it outside of America.
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