Unity Baptist Choir performs for Gospel Music Festival at Weber State University's Val A. Browning Center on Jan. 13. (Source: Weber State University Diversity & Inclusive Programs)

“I sing because I’m happy, I sing because I’m free,” proclaimed the Unity Baptist Choir at the 17th annual Gospel Music Festival presented by Weber State University.

Held at Weber State’s Val A. Browning Center on Jan. 13 at 7:30 p.m., the festival honors Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., while celebrating the civil rights movement and African-American heritage.

While the event was free, book donations from audience members were accepted to aid K-12 students in Utah.

Reverend Monica Hall and local performing artist James Jamison emceed the event. Eight choirs performed, including several local congregations, WSU’s Chamber Choir, Kids are Music, Hill Air Force Base Inspirational Gospel Choir and the Tongan Mass Choir.

In a press release, WSU announced that the festival’s theme, “Rise Up,” was created to promote “unity and strength in the community.” According to the press release, the event focuses on “music rooted in the spiritual messages and oral histories shared during the time of slavery.”

Teresa Martinez, the Diversity & Inclusive Program Coordinator at Weber State, said in the same press release, “This year, the festival focuses on finding the strength to unite and rise up through song, spirituality, and togetherness.”

Soloists also paid tribute to African-American heritage. Riley French, a WSU student double majoring in Musical Theater and Business Economics, performed an original composition. Detorea Oliver, Minister of Music at True Vine Baptist Church in Kaysville, performed the festival’s theme song, “Rise Up.”

Amongst the voices of choirs and soloists, the audience stood to sing the Black National Anthem, “Lift Every Voice and Sing!” by James Weldon Johnson and an “Amen Encore.”

Rose Jones said that her desire to praise God motivated her to attend the event. Jones, who heard about the event through an email from her son’s junior high, explained that gospel music, “is a good way to honor God by thanking him and getting a good feeling.”

Attendee Ian Vincent said that he thinks gospel music is happy and positive. “It was very uplifting. It was nice to get away and listen to good music,” he said.

Reverend Hall also spoke about gospel music’s mood. “Music is often an art form that speaks directly and passionately about a singular message,” she said in her remarks to the audience. “And tonight, we are highlighting the melody that unifies us around the need for liberation.”

Faith and music unified the voices of the Tongan Mass Choir. “This [choir] is three different congregations, different faiths. We’ve combined together on one accord —simply music. So if we can come together, the world can unite in something similar,” said choir director Toilose Moungaafi.

Choir member Lose Nusi echoed that when she said, “Our faith is what brought us together. This performance made us unified. We are so blessed to be able to praise through music.”

Gospel music serves as a more relatable method of worship for youth, as compared to sermons, which appeal to older generations, explained Moungaafi. “I don’t go to church for the sermon. If we’re singing, that’s church for us.”

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