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Black Gospel Festival unites Christians in the community

Some 250 members of the Christian community swayed in unison in the State Theatre to the songs of the gospel performers at the 38th Festival of Black Gospel. The festival, completely run by both Cornell and Ithaca College students, is one of the only events for all members of the Ithaca Black Christian community to get together, said event chair Olivia Davis.

“I think that this is the perfect model for us all to come together, once a year, no matter what your background is, to really celebrate gospel as an art form,” Davis said.

In Ithaca, there is a lack of communication between different groups that represent the Christian faith in the Ithaca community said Davis. She’s been involved with the festival for the past four years at Cornell.

“I think in some ways gospel music can fill a gap but I also feel like Ithaca is so diverse, in terms of music,” John Rawlins III, a singer-songwriter performing at the festival, said.

The first time Rawlins ever performed his own music in front of an audience was eight years ago, at the Festival of Black Gospel. “It was the first time I sang something I wrote and produced, and it was an incredible feeling.”

When he first came from Washington D.C. to Ithaca for college, he wasn’t use to being in a quieter place with a lot less people. “When you’re in a place where you’re kind of by yourself, you ask yourself, what are you going to do?”

To find a connection to his new community in Ithaca, Rawlins joined a local gospel choir through the Calvary Baptist Church. “It was important for me to find my outlets and find my community,” Rawlins said. “I found that community linked through a passion… a passion about gospel music.”

Other students too used gospel choirs to find a community. “I wanted a community of Christians as a base that I could also go back to when I need encouragement so I thought it was important to surround myself with those people,” Kelechi Umoga said. He is a student from Nigeria and a member of the Cornell gospel choir, Chosen Generation, one of the choirs that performed at the festival.

“From my experience, the African American community has a tendency to disintegrate but gospel is something that brings everyone together,” Umoga said.

The fist national gospel festival, Negro Gospel and Religious Music Festival, took place in 1950 at Carnegie hall according to the “Encyclopedia of American Gospel Music.” The festival was founded by William Bostic, one of black radio’s earliest personalities. The festival was very successful because of the headlining artist, Mahalia Jackson, one of gospel’s all time greatest artists.

Currently there are several other gospel music festivals in both the New York area, and across the United States. Two of the biggest are McDonald’s Gospel Fest in Newark, NJ and Gospel Super Fest in Chicago.  Additionally there is the annual Gospel Music Awards hosted by Dove since 1969 in Nashville, TN.

“Gospel music is an art form that was started by Black people and embraced by them during a lot of the historical struggles,” Davis said. However, Davis said the event is focused on gathering all members of the Christian community together and celebrating.

“I hadn’t been to [the festival] in a long time and I decided I wanted to come to see what it was about now,” Christa Bissell, an attendee at the event, said. “Black gospel music is so full of life and spirit.”

“The interesting thing is that I never belonged to a church where there was black gospel music, I always thought their music was better than any of the music played at my church,” Bissell said.

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