Singers customarily have amazing, powerful stories of when they first noticed their talent. Unfortunately, mine is much less interesting than the norm. I opened my mouth one day and it was there. Then, a few weeks later, I hit puberty as a 14-year-old and became a baritone. My voice really hasn’t changed much since then aside from gaining a bit more range and control. However, it took a little while for people to become aware of my vocal ability.
When I was a teenager, a group of us from my church went to participate in a city-wide youth choir. During one of the rehearsals, the director noticed my voice in the tenor section and wanted me to sing a solo. Before I had the chance to respond, some of the well-intentioned girls from my church jumped to my defense by telling the director that my voice was too soft for a solo. They had always assumed that the voice they heard around the church belonged to one of the other guys in my age group. After all, I was the quiet one.
It wasn’t until almost a year later that I finally had the chance (meaning I was forced) to sing a solo. I didn’t really have a choice in the matter. By that point, all of the other guys my age in the church choir had managed to become drummers. I was the only male singer left and our new director had chosen a song that required a male soloist. The solo itself wasn’t all that intimidating. I had been singing in concert choirs at school for years. Kirk Franklin’s “Till We Meet Again” had nothing on the bass choir line of Lacrimosa from Mozart’s Requiem or the baritone solo that I practiced regularly in Libera Me from Faure’s Requiem. (Yes, in spite of my gospel roots, I sang in a few classical choirs. I sort of miss it.) Singing in front of the church was what concerned me.
Although I had become the poster child for academic achievement at the church, I still felt like a bit of an outsider. Sure I had managed to make a few friends within the congregation, but I never developed a true sense of belonging. (To this day, it still feels strange going back there.) I am confident that it would have been much easier for me to sing in front of total strangers than it was for me to sing in front of my church that day. Nonetheless, I found myself in front of the church with all eyes on me and all ears listening intently to what would come through the sound system.
I don’t really remember much about what happened when I started singing except that it was clear that no one really expected it. I’m pretty sure the shock was based around how developed my voice was. It was my first solo, and because of my reputation as the quiet academic, I am doubtful that anyone expected me to be a singer as well. Barely two years later, I was singing solos regularly as a member of the Yale Gospel Choir where people looked at me like a veteran. (In a strange turn of events, I was also assigned Kirk Franklin’s “Till We Meet Again” during the spring semester of my freshman year without the directors knowing of my connection with the song.)
People who met me in college can’t imagine there ever being a time when I wasn’t known as a singer. Then again, people who met me toward the end of my time at Yale can’t imagine there ever being a time when I didn’t have dreadlocks. In contrast, people who met me at Temple and Rutgers have no real awareness of my singing voice. That’s not because I don’t sing anymore. On any given Sunday, I sing and play keys at my current church Your Will Christian Ministries. There’s just no mandatory intersection between my spiritual and academic lives anymore. (While I was at Yale, I attended a campus-based church. My time there was interesting to say the least, but I did learn a lot.)
Ironically, the current separation between my spiritual and academic lives has helped me to make peace with some of the awkwardness I experienced growing up in my old church. My life doesn’t always make sense. As much as I complain about being misunderstood, there is no way that I should expect people to get me easily. I have spent a lot of time praying that God would give me a life that could only be explained by his presence and favor. From the looks of things, he answered that prayer. I just have to accept the fact that such a life comes with complications.
Kirk Franklin – “Till We Meet Again”
“Libera Me” from Faure’s Requiem
“Lacrimosa” from Mozart’s Requiem