Gospel Star Helps Co-Op Raise The Roof

Lucy Gellman | April 14th, 2022

Gospel Star Helps Co-Op Raise The Roof

Co-Op High School  |  College Street Music Hall  |  Downtown  |  Education & Youth  |  Faith & Spirituality  |  Music  |  Arts & Culture

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Kim Burrell. Lucy Gellman Photos. 

Co-Op freshman Shamya Danae Still leaned back into the red plush of her chair, making herself small in the front row of the auditorium. She lifted a hand over her face, covering one eye. Just moments before, a songbird had escaped from her throat as she sang the first lines of “Amazing Grace.” It filled the whole auditorium with a low, honeyed sound. Now, her face crumpled into something close to a scowl.

From the stage, gospel star Kim Burrell shook her head. She wasn’t having it. She asked Still to repeat her name out loud, pronouncing it boldly until it was a proclamation. 

Thursday morning, Burrell gave a masterclass in self-confidence from the stage at Cooperative Arts & Humanities High School, telling the story of her own voice as she pushed students to find theirs. The choir, led by Vocal Music Director Harriett Alfred, will open for her and Tye Tribbett Friday night at College Street Music Hall as part of the city’s first annual gospel concert. For over an hour Thursday, she focused on building up students as they head to the stage, and out into the world.

The event is an initiative of the New Haven Youth And Recreation Department (YARD), using federal American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) dollars leftover from last year’s $6.3 million summer reset. In addition to Burrell, Tribbett, and the Co-Op choir, the concert will also feature The Williams Singers, Zak Williams and 1/Akord, Kergyma Community Choir, Kevin Monroe and Devotion. Tickets and more information are available here.

“I was listening to you, and what a beautiful sound,” Burrell said as students sang her in with a sweeping rendition of “Ride On, King Jesus.” “I love art. I love song. I love music. And I love the fact that it's in your hearts. I started so long ago, so to see and to hear it remaining in the earth is just an encouragement all by itself.”

A sense of excitement hummed through the auditorium from the moment Burrell—a gospel giant, who has performed with and advised artists including Charles Jenkins, Kenny Lewis, Pharrell Williams, Whitney Houston, Brandy, and Beyonce among others—walked through the doors, and headed towards the brightly lit stage. In the first five rows, students cheered her in, first in song and then with applause and a resounding “Good morning!”

After receiving a welcome from Principal Val Jean Belton and Mayor Justin Elicker, she turned her attention to the young people seated in front of her. Alfred, who had moments before been conducting, took a seat on the side of the stage to watch. Bouncing between two microphones, Burrell seemed to glow beneath Co-Op’s bright yellow lights. 

“I heard you singing so I know you’re warmed up,” she said to a few nervous laughs. “’I’m interested in how you warm up.” Scanning the young faces before her, she explained that there was a time in her youth—“ancient times,” she said theatrically— where gospel performers didn’t warm up before singing. Instead, their first cue was “hit it,” delivered as they arrived on stage and brought the mic to their mouths.

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Senior Rachel Kearse leads a warmup.

The problem was that “‘hit it’ didn’t always come out right,” she said. She realized that if she was going to have a career in gospel music, she would have to treat her voice with more kindness. Now, she’s making sure to pass that on to younger artists.

She asked for a volunteer, and junior Chrystophe Obiang Ze slowly raised his hand and jogged up the wooden steps to the stage. ​​Leaning into the mic, he led the class in a warmup of ma me mi mo mu, humming in each key change. As he and his peers slid up an octave, Burrell asked students to hold the note. She laughed as twins Alijah and Aaron Steed, both freshman, competed to see how long they could keep it.

“If you’re still holding, you were made for the actual gospel choir of America,” she said, drawing a few giggles. The ease with which she held herself, sometimes breaking into song and often speaking to students one by one from the stage, became contagious. Students relaxed in their seats, ofen unable to contain smiles as they listened to her and to each other. A few mmm hmms and snaps went up from the bunch as she urged them to summon a belief in themselves. Even junior Noah Johnson, who had started the day quiet in the back rows, perked up as she spoke.

“Who you are is the best of what you’re able to develop in you,” Burrell said. “What builds your outer is your inner. I know we came to talk about music. But so much of what makes your music is your mind.”

She looked out into the audience, extended her arms, and had a student in the third row sing the first line of “Amazing Grace.” A full-bellied sound rose through the auditorium, drawing out the words one by one. When they finished, she pointed to another student, and asked for the same line. Then she pointed to another, and another. No one rendition sounded the same, she noted—which was the point.

“I just heard four totally different presentations from four powerful minds,” she said.

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Shamya Danae Still (in yellow shirt) in Thursday's class."I was very scared to sing in front of her, very very scared, because I knew my voice was gonna crack," she said after working with Burrell. "I feel very good, and I feel confident now. Because I know I have a good voice, I'm just very scared of what other people think. But now I know not to worry about what other people think—it's what I think." Lucy Gellman Photos. 

Her eyes fell on Still, who wore a sunshine-yellow shirt in the front row. Raised in Bridgeport and New Haven, Still has been singing since she was five. Her voice drifted up to the stage and spread through the warm air, muscled at the edges. It slipped up to the back rows and the balconies, something ringing on the words how sweeeeet/The sound. It carried down the side rows, pressing up against the stage door.

But when she finished, her mouth twisted into a near-frown.

Burrell asked for her name. A quiet, almost whispered suggestion of “Shamya” floated up from the audience. Burrell shook her head, stepped forward and tapped her foot, her whole carriage moving with the words. “My name is Shamya!” she said with panache. Still beamed softly in the front row, and then tried it until the words rang with conviction.

Back on stage, Burrell had students repeat after her.

“We are not dealing,” she started.

“We are not dealing,” they cried back.

“With any level of,” she responded.

“With any level of!” students shot back.

“Insecurity!” she said.

“Insecurity!” students bellowed.

“We are powerful!”

“We are powerful!”

“We are strong!”

“We are strong!”

“The Greatest Part Of Who I Am”

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Kim Burrell enters Co-Op Thursday morning. In addition to YARD Director Gwendolyn Busch Williams, Youth Services Specialist Ronald Huggins, Mayor Justin Elicker and Co-Op Principal Val Jean Belton, her adoring public included Assistant NHPS Superintendent Keisha Redd-Hannans, Co-Op Arts Director and Assistant Principal Amy Migliore, and Varick Pastor Kelcy Steele. 

The artist, who is 49 and has an international following, has lived her whole life immersed in gospel music. The youngest daughter of a pastor, Burrell spent a childhood on what she laughingly called “no choice lane,” meaning that she had no choice but to sing gospel music at home and in church. With her siblings Karen, Kevin, and Kathy, she performed as part of the “Four K’s,” a touring sibling act that would perform in churches across Houston. As a kid, she was shy, only growing into the depth of her voice years later.

As a teenager, she knew that she loved God, she told students—but she was more lukewarm on the gospel music that was coming out to praise his name. She found that she had to sneak Stevie Wonder past her mother, whose dedication to gospel music and Christianity kept secular music largely out of their home. When she was 21, Burrell decided that she wanted to pursue gospel music as a full-time career. Almost three decades later, she has dedicated her work not only to the music of worship, but also to teaching students and peers alike.

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Freshman Shamya Danae Still afterward with twins Alijah and Aaron Steed and a friend.  

“It is probably the greatest part of who I am at this point—I look forward to it,” she said. “That always gives me the fuel that I need to keep going. I just love people. I love seeing creation do what they are supposed to do. And having a part of that means the world to me."

Questions bubbled up from the young audience, from Burrell’s time with Whitney Houston to whether she still gets nervous when she steps onto a stage to how she deals with people who want to silence her (“I don’t,” she said matter-of-factly). Over time, she said, the most important lesson that she’s learned—the one she most wants to pass on—is that everyone has their own sound. It’s about having the patience to cultivate it.

“You have to represent who you want the world to see,” she said.

“Thank You For Succeeding”

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YARD Director Gwendolyn Busch Williams, Kim Burrell, and Youth Services Specialist Ronald Huggins.

Even the story of how Burrell landed at Co-Op Thursday morning is rooted in community. The collaboration was born earlier this year, when Youth Services Specialist Ronald Huggins reached out to Belton as he planned the concert. The two have known each other for decades, since Huggins was Belton’s student in yearbook class at James Hillhouse High School.

Back then, Huggins remembered, Belton “pushed us, and she encouraged us, and motivated us,” so much so that he committed his career to working with city youth.

In his current position, he has looked to arts and culture as a way to engage young people, including with a citywide concert for teens at the Westville Music Bowl last summer. So when Burrell became part of Friday’s lineup, Huggins knew who to call—and his former teacher jumped at the opportunity. In between interview questions, both joked that they were a little star-struck Thursday morning.

“We haven’t really been able to perform on our own stage because of social distancing and all those things, so I just thought it would be a great thing to present our school back out in the community and to show them who we are as artists,” Belton said. “The students—they’re artists. And I think that every opportunity that we can afford them to experience this is great.”

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She added the collaboration feels especially tender this year: Co-Op students have been largely unable to sing together, much less in front of an audience, since March 2020. A winter choir concert remained masked and virtual for friends and family; only last month did students return to the stage with the musical Sister Act. Thursday, Belton came to the auditorium to welcome Burrell, and stayed for over an hour to listen to the voices that make Co-Op a vibrant place to work. 

She watched students as they rose from their seats and became a professional choir, with a soulful, kaleidoscopic sound that took the school to church before third period. She listened as they peppered Burrell with questions, some nearly bursting with a nervous, jittery excitement as they spoke. And as a full hour came to an end, she listened as they stood together, and launched into Israel Houghton’s “We Worship You,” their hands and feet in time with the music.

On the keys, Jaiden Shoulders hammered out a melody. Alfred sang them in. As Burrell joined them—“Give me Ha! Hallelujah!”—it was as if students forgot they were in the auditorium. They split into a harmony, their voices rising to the ceiling, and heading heavenward.

“Thank you for succeeding,” Burrell said before she left the stage. “Every time you feel like you’re about to fail at anything, will you allow my voice to speak to you in your heart and head, and say ‘Thank you for succeeding?’”

Tickets and more information for Friday's concert are available here.