Monday, April 3, 2011
Vy Higginson grew up on the mean streets of Harlem in the turbulent sixties, the daughter of a fiery preacher, a Barbados immigrant who died before she was old enough to know him. Her home and church was a block away from the Apollo Theater. Her ambitions took her a long way away from those Harlem streets. She became a popular prime time radio voice in New York City on giant WBLS and then she broke ground as the first female African American morning show host on WWRL. Her gregarious style and big voice opened new doors. She developed talent in the arts and wrote a stage play that became “the longest running Off-Broadway production in American Theater” – Mama I Want To Sing.
As her career matured and the success accumulated, she developed a conviction about music and the arts. She believed that the Gospel music she learned as a little girl prepared her in ways that most people miss. She discovered her own voice in those early years. In worship and praise, she developed a hopeful, energetic, soulful, steadfast belief that she had a place in a world that could be cruel. She had a name. The God of the Universe knew that name. Nothing could stand in the way of her purpose. She knew what joy felt like. She understood the value of harmony. She learned to love the company of a troop of like-minded musicians who could rattle the windows and shake the foundations and fill a room with jubilation. It all spilled over onto her professional career, like showers of blessing.
So she studied the history of Gospel music, focusing on what was once called the Negro Spiritual. In many quarters, African slaves were forbidden to speak their native language or to practice native religion. “The slaves didn’t have freedom,” Vy explains, “except for one – the freedom to sing.” This music, these lyrics, the deep longing and expression of hope run deep. “Go down, Moses, a way down in Egypt’s land. Tell old, Pharoah, ‘Let my people go!’” These melodies made a deep impression on her as a child. She feared that a new generation of troubled kids from her home down, caught up in hip-hop and rap and street life, would know nothing of the rich melodies and heartening lyrics of Gospel.
So she devoted her life to an initiative called Gospel for Teens in the heart of Harlem. Her purpose: to bring neglected youngsters into the experience of the old Gospel music. She believes in its transforming power.
The response overwhelmed her. In the limited space she had, Vy and her daughter soon were forced to run auditions and individually select the teenagers who would be their thirty participants for two semesters. The only criterion was that the young person could demonstrate the ability to hear pitch. Many of the kids came from public housing, tough schools and little parenting. In a year’s time, she would prepare them for competition in Gospel sing-offs.
This week, Leslie Stahl presented two full segments on 60 Minutes, following Vy Higginsen and her students from audition to competition. Bring your handkerchief. This is no American Idol, but the kids take to the microphone and give it a shot. Vy and her team coach and cajole, on the hunt for a voice seeking release from hiding. Michelangelo spoke of the human form breaking free from a block of marble as he chiseled away. Higginsen is a master sculptor, too. But her masterpiece is the uncovering of a human voice, unshackled, free to soar. Gospel music has that effect.
Stahl captured Higginsen’s orientation speech to a crowd of nervous, tentative teens on camera. “While we are here, we leave our baggage outside that door,” she declares as she points to the entrance to her makeshift studio. “All the fightin’ and the gangs, the problems with your mommy and your daddy and your sisters and your brothers and your neighbors, all the struggles in school and in the ‘hood – leave ‘em out there. In here, we are safe. In here, we’re just gunna sing! That’s it.”
And as Leslie Stahl explained, from the start, that was Higginsen’s intent – to create a safe, protected place for music to flourish. The turning point came when she coached the kids to introduce themselves. This would be a critical segment in concerts and competitions to come. Each young person would simply state their name and their hometown for all to hear. Vy wanted each to hold their head up, speak with enthusiasm and zest as they addressed the crowd. But she found something disturbing – many, if not most all of these challenged young people could barely say their own names into a microphone. It was as though they were ashamed, embarrassed, filled with reticence. Higginsen looked for eye-contact, and found little.
That’s when she changed her rule. She invited the kids to go ahead and bring in the baggage. In one night of transformation, these young people who by now experienced singing Gospel together, in harmony, opened up about their pain. Their loss. It was uncomfortable. But powerful.
It’s rare for 60 Minutes to devote two of their traditional three segments to one story. This one merited both. At the outset, Ms. Higginsen, Rev. Higginsen (she is also an ordained minister), predicted that the old Gospel music possesses transforming power. At the end of the segment, as these formerly reserved, apprehensive, faint-hearted kids cut loose in performance, you get the idea that their mentor and coach is also a prophet.
The last couple of weeks, I’ve listened in as teachers lament a perspective on education that is all about test scores and documenting progress. It seems to permeate our schools these days. The very program that is designed to produce results is doing the exact opposite. Rather than enhance the joy of discovery, it robs our kids of motivation to learn. Music and the arts have gone the way of slashed budgets. Something really important is missing.
But not in Harlem.
Copyright Kenneth E Kemp 2011
More on Gospel for Teens – see CBS 60 MINUTES