Dr. Braxton Shelley heads new programs for scholarship, gatherings, oral histories and performances
By FRANK RIZZO
Sing hallelujah because gospel music is finally getting its due. Yale University is aiming to be the academic center of the gospel music world with its new interdisciplinary Program in Music and the Black Church, housed in the Institute of Sacred Music at the Yale Divinity School.
“It’s really sad now that only recently has the black sacred music tradition become an object of study,” said minister, musician and musicologist Dr. Braxton Shelley, who has been named to head the gospel music programs at Yale and its new initiatives. “It brings much-needed attention to a vital and under-researched musical tradition.”
With a unique and tenured position as an associate professor serving jointly at the Institute of Sacred Music, the Divinity School and the Department of Music, Yale wooed Shelley away from Harvard last year. The university embraced Shelley’s expansionist vision, offering him the resources to make Yale—and by extension, New Haven—the center of gospel music study.
“I came to Yale over other choices because of the opportunity to build a program that fuses scholarship and the practice of the black church,” he explained. “It’s an opportunity that’s basically a dream come true. The opportunities are endless.”
Many of the initiatives Shelley is planning for Yale will have a public component, with seminars, films, lectures, symposia and festivals with plenty of performances for the general public—and it will be sure to draw for the dozens of gospel choirs around the state.
“There is an emerging and regrowing recognition of gospel music, much in the same way there’s lots of attention being paid to things that have been long overlooked,” said Shelley, who now lives in New Haven. “It’s a moment of a new synergy.”
That is especially true among the cultures of peoples of color and specifically in the area of gospel music where there are relatively few scholars with Shelley’s curriculum vitae. Academia is behind popular culture, he said, which is full of recordings, films and musicals that tap into the gospel music world. Among the higher profile projects are a flurry of biopics and documentaries on Aretha Franklin, Mahalia Jackson, The Clark Sisters and many more leading figures of that genre.
Connecticut Gospel Community
Among those in Connecticut’s gospel music community who are encouraged to see Yale’s move in recognizing and honoring the genre is Mary Morrow of Monroe, who is a recording artist with her Heavenly Gospel Singers.
“I think this is a great thing for Yale to take this initiative, especially for gospel singers and the gospel music community in the state,” commented Morrow. “We have some incredible talent here. Gospel music has not been properly recognized. We have had a couple of great gospel singers that have passed recently, and you don’t hear anything at all about them.”
There are more than 100 gospel groups and performers across the state; most, though not all, are rooted in their local churches. Among them are Voices of Freedom Gospel Choir at University of Connecticut in Storrs, Professor Stefon Hawkins & The New Hope Fellowship Choir in New Haven, J.J. Harrison and Youthful Praise in Bridgeport, Spiritual Souls in Waterbury, The Heavenly Stars in New Haven, Men of Praise in Bridgeport, and Basic with Huey Askew in Norwalk. There’s even a 24-hour gospel music internet radio station, WJRG, run by Jerry Green. The Holla Back Gospel Excellence Awards also honors gospel music in the state.
Shelley envisions that over the next few years at Yale there will be many opportunities for fans of gospel music in Connecticut and beyond to come to New Haven to celebrate the scholarship and the festivals he plans to create.
“I would hope members of the Connecticut gospel music community will start to plan their cultural calendars around our programming because once or twice a year we’ll have some extravaganza for gospel music.”
There’s already a gospel music concert slated for November 2022 featuring Richard Smallwood and Vincent Bohanan, who will perform at Immanuel Missionary Baptist Church in New Haven with other church choirs from the region. Shelley aims for this to be an annual event.
Shelley, 32, certainly arrives with the background and credentials unrivaled in black gospel music talents, scholarship and spirituality. Raised in Rocky Mount, N.C., he was fascinated as a little boy by the large wooden pedals and keyboard of the church organ.
“I started banging on things as early as I can remember,” he remembered. “I was a weird kid. Probably still am. By four or five, I was given my first keyboard. There were piano lessons at seven, more regularly at age nine. There’s always a need for a musician in church so I’ve played in piano churches since I was nine and organ at 12. I started in youth choirs when I was six or seven.”
Shelley graduated with highest distinction from Duke University in 2012, where he majored in music and minored in history. He then entered the Ph.D. program in the history and theory of music at the University of Chicago. While finishing his Ph.D. in 2017, he also earned a Master of Divinity degree at the University of Chicago Divinity School, upon which he was ordained in the Missionary Baptist church.
One of Shelley’s major projects is creating an oral history archive. He said many of the gospel music leaders of the 20th century have died in the last decade or so, such as Andrae Crouch, Edwin and Walter Hawkins; other pivotal figures will be gone over the next years as well. It’s vital, he stated, to get a record of these figures who created the vast movement and who represent different aspects of gospel music.
“There’s a real urgency to get this information so after some years we’ll have hundreds of interviews and millions of words where people can come and read straight from these primary sources.”
And the archives aren’t just for scholars.
“We want to have a place where people can go who are interested in gospel music, its history but also its relationship to any number of social categories,” Shelley expressed. “We also want folks who work in black churches who are seeking information and programming. We want to have resources for members of the public. If you want to know something about gospel music, this is where you can go. You get a sense of a network that can emerge out of all of this.”
But unlike other music genres such as pop and rock, jazz, or country-western music, there hasn’t been a central center like the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame or the Grand Ole Opry. Shelley explained that is because gospel music’s primary venue has been the church.
Does Shelley think his position at Yale is a calling?
“It may turn out that way. Let me put it this way,” he said smiling, choosing his words carefully, “at the very least I felt called to Yale.”