The University Gospel Choir of the Year competition is an event which has captured the hearts and minds of gospel music loving university students throughout the country over the past decade. Gospel groups from various universities have painstakingly put months and months into perfecting their repertoires with the aim of showcasing their God given gifts and talents in front of judges, their counterparts and the audience members at-large. This event has been the highlight of the university gospel choir season ever since its inception in 2011 leading to the pandemic and this year (2022) it has returned. This year’s event has been a collaboration between UCGY and AStepFWD.
Back from a two year hiatus because of COVID restrictions, the gospel choirs reconvened at Trinity Baptist Church in Croydon on the 2nd April 2022 for the first time since the pandemic. “A great reset,” Lorraine Wright, the founder of UGCY, described the momentous occasion as. In the time since the last outing in 2019, students have come and gone. Such is the turnover of university students, the choirs have drastically changed in personnel. For the majority if not all students, this would be their first time singing at a UGCY event. And what an experience it would turn out to be.
As a result of the aforementioned factors, the format this year was inevitably different to past editions. For the first time, choirs were not to be competing against each other. Instead of a competition and having a winner crowned, there was a festival with each of the seven choirs afforded the time and space to perform. MOBO and multi-award winning rapper Faith Child who presented the night’s event remarked very approvingly of the format, “in the 10th year, I think it is a monumental time to introduce change and showcase the talent of the university gospel choirs throughout the United Kingdom not in a competition but a festival. This is a fantastic initiative and I am proud of the work that has gone into it over the years.”
This initiative, birthed by Lorraine Wright MBE, was created with the desire to give a platform for young people to develop and showcase their skills and abilities in a “choir meets X-factor” style competition which has never ceased to entertain onlookers since it’s inaugural event in 2011. Lorraine was recently conferred an MBE for her services to gospel music in the United Kingdom and internationally over the years. In addition to running its annual event, UGCY has worked in hand with partner talent agency UV talent to supply choirs for nationwide events and the likes of Britain’s Got Talent, The Voice and X-Factor. These efforts have further enhanced gospel music’s standing in the UK music industry and made it a force to be reckoned with.
In a collaboration with AStepFWD, this year’s festival featured performances by choirs from University College London (UCL Voce), Portsmouth, Kent, Durham, Brighton & Sussex (Sounds of Zion), Keele and Warwick. Even though there was no winner to be crowned, each choir gave a great account of itself. Song choices ranged from the traditional gospel to the contemporary as well as congregational which we could come across in our regular Sunday services. What was to be admired was that even when we were familiar with songs, their delivery and arrangement gave a special lease of life. Leaders and members of each choir are definitely to be commended for their efforts to the festival in preparation and on the night itself. Medleys of classic songs such ‘Take it to the Lord in Prayer’ and ‘There is a Balm in Gilead’ shared the same stage on the same night as modern anthems like ‘Excess Love’ (Mercy Chinwo), ‘You are Good’ (Israel Houghton) and ‘He Turned it’ (Tye Tribbett) in what was a glorious celebration of an this special brand of music made for the purpose of glorifying God.
Students from different backgrounds and cultures played a prominent role in the festivities taking place. One student, Sara, was an international exchange student from Spain at the University of Kent. She studies Social Linguistics and joined the gospel choir there in order to broaden her musical skills and expand on her background of singing having been in groups in the past. She was very excited to be at the festival and it was very pleasant to later watch her lead the solo in an energetic interlude of ‘He Turned it’ with her team.
The common view held by those present on the night was how needed Gospel Choirs are and the blessing they become to the lives of not just the people who hear them but also people who are a part of them. Students have been not only able to sing and fellowship with others but found a family away from home with likeminded individuals. They have not only honed their singing skills but learned invaluable skills like an increase in self-confidence and how to work effectively in tandem with others. Leaders who had never thought of themselves as leaders have emerged in this season of UK Gospel Choirs. Ebube, a medical student at UCL led their VOCE Gospel Choir and displayed a prime example of the leadership potential being tapped at this event.
Eric Melvin, who led the Sounds of Zion’s rendition of Israel Houghton’s ‘Lord You are Good’ said “I have become more sociable since joining the gospel choir. Friends I have made here have become like family to me and I have grown in confidence.” Peace and Seyi, members of Keele Gospel Choir echoed his sentiments as they stressed how important it has been to fellowship with other believers and bond with them over a love for gospel music. The friendship bonds formed in university gospel choirs can serve a lifetime and we hope all students will certainly have been transformed for the better by being in gospel choirs.
Of course, the night was never short of spectacular performances. The choirs did a wonderful job of giving us their meticulously prepared musical arrangements but to take us to another level, we were graced by the special guest performance of Volney Morgan & New-Ye. Volney, leader of the MOBO Award-winning Gospel group, is a familiar face to the UGCY events having been a judge, UGCY mass choir director and a guest with his choir New-Ye in the past. A rousing ministration by them really brought into perspective how grateful we should be in knowing we have made it through the turbulent past two years due to the pandemic.
Volney, in our conversation, highlighted how admirable the tenacity and character of the youth has been to be able to make this happen in the midst of a pandemic. Many choir rehearsals began on zoom before meeting in person further down the line to prepare for the big day. “This event is important for the community of gospel choirs. University students over the years really look forward to this event. It is awesome and definitely needed not just for the music but for them as individuals. People get the training as leaders that transfers to other areas by leading their gospel choir,” he said while also playing up the undeniable importance of the “help which singing does for mental health.” Studies have shown this to be true and how much more so would this be when songs are sung which proclaim the goodness of God.
The whole event went without a hitch and AStepFWD founder O’Neil Dennis could be seen in various places backstage, no doubt working with the team to ensure this. The UGCY and AStepFWD teams seemed to work as one unit to execute this year’s festival and celebration of a decade of excellence from choirs up and down the country. Well done to everyone who worked on the event, as it was a thoroughly enjoyable experience for all involved. As announced by Lorraine Wright MBE, the competition will return next year. We look forward to seeing the growth in the choirs not just numerically but in musical ability and creativity in arrangements when they return next year to battle for the prize of being “University Gospel Choir of the Year 2023”.
Not only are we to appreciate this unique genre of music, but we must endeavour to hold on to the message of the gospel because it has the power to save all who believe in it. With its unique stylings and otherworldly sensibilities, gospel music has strongly influenced and shaped the musical landscape of today – sacred and secular. UK Gospel music has its own unique history and story to tell. We are glad to say UCGY has played its part in this rich history. We eagerly await next year’s competition as the choirs return to their universities looking to explore new ways to thrill the audience in what will be an even bigger and better showcase of glorious gospel music tradition.
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