With dozens of international performances, soundtracks, and recordings behind them, the Wiley College A Cappella Choir is continues its 123-year tradition as a premiere musical and artistic force in Marshall, Texas, and beyond.
Founded in 1873, Wiley College is one of the oldest historically black colleges west of the Mississippi River. The college is widely known for Denzel Washington’s 2007 film, The Great Debaters, which celebrates the Wiley team’s national victory in 1936.
The college is not only known for its award-winning debaters, but for its prominent a capella choir as well.
In 2016, the choir achieved international fame for its performance of “Couldn’t Hear Nobody Pray,” recorded on the critically acclaimed soundtrack of Birth of A Nation, Nate Parker’s film about the ill-fated Nat Turner rebellion of 1831.
Under Director Stephen Hayes, the choir performed globally in televised performances at The White House and international concert halls in Europe and Japan.
“I inherited a wonderful group [taught] by some extraordinary people who preceded me,” says Choral Director and Artist in Residence Gregory McPherson. “At one time, the choir had its own recording agreement with RCA records.”
“Couldn’t Hear Nobody Pray” is a traditional African-American spiritual, or religious folk song, associated with slavery, much like “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot.”
Choir members tap their feet in unison during the opening male tenor solo, then add the voices of each section as a somber backdrop. The choir builds volume, movement, and drama with a solemn crescendo while the soloist sings of the world’s trials.
Performances of African-American spirituals are part of the Wiley College A Capella Choir’s tradition, but McPherson is adding more contemporary music.
A recent performance in June of 2020 included a live cover of Michael Jackson’s “Heal the World” as a message of hope after racial tensions and Black Lives Matter protests erupted across the country.
Similar to Jackson’s use of children’s voices in “Heal the World,” the choir’s live version features two children, Breah and Layla McGlothin of Marshall. A Spanish translation adds to the song’s appeal for unity. A career record and music producer, McPherson relied on his skills to release the choir’s live version on major music platforms such as iTunes, Spotify, and Amazon.
At the same concert, the choir performed a traditional gospel penned in 1932 and an upbeat 1979 disco classic. The concert opened with an arrangement of “Precious Lord,” the hymn sung by Mahalia Jackson at Martin Luther King Jr.’s funeral in 1968, followed by ‘’Ain’t No Stopping Us Now,” by the R&B duo Gene McFadden and John Whitehead.
The 40-member choir, including a handful of instrumentalists, is a selective group that follows rigorous standards. All students audition for a spot, and must complete a fundamentals of music class regardless of their major.
Choral members must also follow high moral and behavioral standards.
“My expectation for the young people is to always be in a place where they strive to be the best that they can and to be dynamic and to want to make a difference and make an impact in the world,” McPherson says.
Wiley College closed its campus during the spring and fall of 2020 to curb the spread of COVID-19, though the choir continued to practice and meet through technology. The college is opening its campus in 2021, but is still requiring widespread precautions.
The choir follows similar precautions. Students are wearing masks during rehearsals of the choir’s sections with no more than 10 or 12 members present.
McPherson is using his skills in technology production as he leads the choir’s performances and productions during the pandemic, while continuing to keep the choir engaged in the community.
He hopes to continue leading the choir in creating music as an artistic and healing force for racism in America.
“We celebrate the very crux and foundation of a culture that seeks to unify and heal our land through such a wonderful gift that God has given us through music,” McPherson says. “I am also very humbled in the privilege of serving the institution as the artistic head of this extraordinary group.”
Recent videos of the choir are accessible on Facebook. Click HERE to view them performing “Heal the World.” Click HERE to hear a recording of “Couldn’t Hear Nobody Pray” from the Birth of a Nation Soundtrack.