For the young artists of Washington Performing Arts Children of the Gospel Choir (COTG), which is celebrating its 30th year, being a member of the chorus is about far more than the intense arts training, performing at fancy venues and wowing audiences with their powerful voices. While the cool opportunities are added bonuses, Michele Fowlin, COTG’s artistic director, is most interested in forming young artivists, who learn about issues important in their communities and the world, and use their voices to inspire and speak–or sing– truth to power.
“We love to say all the time, ‘young people are the next generation they’re coming up,’ but we do absolutely nothing as adults to help nurture the gift of that within them. So that they can be these dynamic, forward-thinking activated humans in society,” Fowlin told The Informer.
The artistic director and former schoolteacher has a major charge for the young artists, all of whom audition to participate in the chorus: “[Be] aware of what is happening on a socially conscious level so that you can speak to these things that are unjust, unfair.”
“You have a voice and then here’s how you use your gift– your music and through keeping gospel music alive,” Fowlin said she emphasizes to her students.
Like gospel music itself, COTG has evolved over the years.
Beginning in 1993 under the artistic direction of Eric Torain, who died in 2002 at age 39, COTG started as an outlet for young people to sing gospel music to the masses, as opposed to solely in their church environments. With Torain pulling from music ministers and arts educators throughout the DMV, and, in turn, they recruited children they knew, COTG became a huge choir of about 200 young singers.
However, as church choirs gained popularity for larger performances and megachurches emerged, the choir’s size decreased somewhat, but it never lost its heart and outstanding talent.
“So it has taken that turn where now, under my tutelage, it’s not just music for me,” Fowlin said. “I mean, I was born and raised in the church, loving gospel music, loving all kinds of music. But it’s also really important to me that these young people are woke.”
Though she said she knows “woke,” has become a cringy word for some, she explained the realities of why “wokeness,” is key for her choir members.
“It’s about having this conscious mindedness of the fact that you are a human being who needs to be understanding of what is happening to you politically, economically, emotionally, from how you’re going to school, your educational practices, religion, the food you eat, everything.”
Young artivists with multiple talents, the members of COTG are using their wokeness to inspire audiences through the student-produced show, “Stay Woke, Still Woke.”
Presented at the Montgomery College Cultural Arts Center on Friday, June 2, “Stay Woke, Still Woke,” explores social justice themes and incorporates more than just songs, but a script, choreography and lesson in wokeness from young changemakers.
The project was first birthed in 2018 when Fowlin sat down with her young “kings and queens,” and talked about the years of racists killings they had witnessed in their young lives– from Trayvon Martin (killed February 2012), to Freddie Gray (killed April 2015), Alton Sterling (July 2016) Philando Castile (July 2016), Stephon Clark (March 2018) and others.
“I just had some real talk about ‘How are you feeling about what you are experiencing?’ You know, between that and the violence in schools across the nation — not necessarily in the schools that they attended — but there were just a lot of things that were popping off in that time,” Fowlin underscored. “And that’s how it really started.”
“Fast forward to 2023,” she continued, “and we’re still experiencing what we had in 2018. And so I felt we still needed to put a voice to it.”
30 Years of Choral Excellence, The Legacy Continues
While “Stay Woke, Still Woke,” concludes the 2022-2023 COTG season, Fowlin said audiences have a lot to look forward to in the organization’s upcoming 30th anniversary season.
“It’s the kickoff into the 30th year that says, ‘Hey, we’re different. We’re fresh, where we have a new way of thinking– but not so much new, as it is reimagined. We’re trying to share that with the world and we need other people to get on board, whether Black, white, Asian, Hispanic, it doesn’t matter,” said Fowlin, a Queens, New York native. “We have got to become the change that we seek.”
Over the past 30 years, COTG has been able to share their empowering messages through music at such sites as the White House, Washington National Cathedral, inaugural prayer services for President Barack Obama, historic Howard Theatre, and appeared on NBC’s “Today.”
Children of the Gospel Choir alum Ayden Williams, who participated in COTG from 2013-2021, has some pretty special memories over his eight years.
“Some of my most memorable experiences were when I performed at the National Tree lighting with Mariah Carey and when I sang at the Norwegian Embassy,” Williams told The Informer.
However, for Williams, 18, COTG was more than the cool opportunities. He implements what he learned as a member in his young adult life.
“I learned how to speak and sing from my diaphragm and I use those techniques when I’m public speaking,” he said.
Having been a part of the strong force that is COTG, Williams said the choir’s 30th anniversary should not only be a celebration of artistry, but its ability to offer opportunities and an outlet.
“COTG celebrating 30 is an amazing feat and it should be recognized and honored.”