2018 will go down as an amazing, groundbreaking, historic year for Karen Gibson & the Kingdom Choir – and quite possibly for UK Gospel too. It was the first time ever that a Black British gospel choir had performed at a Royal wedding, when the Kingdom Choir sang during the marriage ceremony of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle (who is mixed-race) on May 19.
Furthermore, the choir sang to the largest ever TV audience to see a British choir in action. Two billion, to be exact. Millions more watched the choir’s rendition of ‘Stand By Me’ on YouTube (10 million and counting), plus the millions who viewed it on social media.
In addition, ‘Stand By Me’ went to Number 1 on the American Billboard Gospel Chart. It was the first time a UK choir had hit the top spot in that chart and, to top it all, the choir recently signed a record deal with Sony Music.
In an aside, Karen and the choir have even been described as style icons, due to their fashionable look. It’s a compliment Karen has enjoyed. “It’s very nice. We hired a very good stylist, Jeanette Young, who did a phenomenal job in a very short period of time.”
As you can imagine, the past few months have been a whirlwind of activity for Karen. She shared: “I don’t really have a grip on what’s going on, if I’m absolutely honest. I mean, viewing figures of two billion people watching the Royal wedding. How do you even compute that? If you had asked me how many people would be watching this, I’d have put it in the millions. My brain can deal with millions, but billions?”
The call to sing at the wedding came out of the blue. Karen was on a bus at the time and, after accepting the invitation, she knew it would be a gamechanger but didn’t realise how much interest in the choir would blow up like it has since the wedding, transforming her life and her standing in the process.
She stated: “There’s been a change in my life. I’m rehearsing (with the choir) twice a week – it’s gone up from once every other week. We give lots of interviews. I’m recognised down the road, but I still feel like me. I go to ASDA; I get on the bus; I have to clean my house… I do the things that normal people do, so my world is still my family, my mum, my sister, my nieces, my nephews, my family abroad, and my church friends and family. I don’t want to lose that. I need to stay grounded. I need to stay connected with the people I grew up with.”
Staying grounded for Karen means not only remaining connected to people she knows, but doing activities like taking time out to visit a sick 91-year-old woman, who looked after her as a child when her mother went to work. Karen desires to remain ‘normal’ despite the extraordinary things happening to her at the moment. “I’m not looking to be famous. I don’t care about that. I do care about making music that will touch people, though, and that’s what this record deal will do.”
Some of the current developments in Karen’s ministry were foretold via prophecies she has received over the past 10 years – some during her time studying in America, and some at other times in her life. She explained: “Many of the prophecies were very accurate, and are going back 10 years. Obviously God was trying to get my attention. Those words were very interesting, very encouraging, but I didn’t expect the exceedingly, abundantly and the suddenly that I’m experiencing now. I received so many words of prophecy, and I think I just got used to them.”
She added: “After the Royal wedding, it seemed that those words were pointing to this moment in time. But we are not sitting on the fact that we sang at the Royal wedding or signed a deal with Sony Records. There’s more work to be done.”
The choir is currently busy recording songs for their debut album for Sony. They were planning to release an album independently, prior to being signed to Sony, however the appearance at the Royal wedding changed their plans.
Due out on November 2, the album will comprise of original songs penned by choir members, some covers and, of course, the classic ‘Stand By Me’. They’ll be performing in concert to a sell-out crowd at Union Chapel in Islington on November 28.
Whilst Karen wants the album to do well, and play her part in promoting it, she is trusting God for its success. “None of this is my idea,” she says. “It’s God’s idea; He orchestrated it all. We’re just following the wind of God’s favour. And if He’s brought us this far, I believe He’ll take us through it.”
What she is excited about, though, is the fact that UK gospel music is reaching a new, wider audience. She said, “Gospel music as a genre is powerful. I believe it reaches people where other music doesn’t. I believe music is power, but I believe gospel brings something extra because of the themes of love, joy, hope, reconciliation and victory. It’s more than that, it’s also something spiritual.”
And she’s buoyed by the fact that her fellow UK artists are encouraged by the choir’s signing to Sony. “If I were looking on, and it was someone else being signed, I would feel hope for the genre and the message. It feels, to me, gospel was popular but very underground. It now feels as if it’s being unveiled. I’ve had artists say their bookings have gone up since the Royal wedding. There will be a spill-over. We must manage it well. Steward the thing that we have to do.”
There’s no doubt that Karen, now 54, has come a long way since growing up with her Guyanese parents and siblings in south London. She attended Church of God of Prophecy (a Pentecostal denomination), where she was heavily involved in the music department. She started the Kingdom Choir over 20 years ago, after being asked to form a choir to participate in a BBC Radio recording.
Since then, the choir has sung for numerous international figures, including Pope John Paul, who visited the UK in 2010; the late Nelson Mandela; Desmond Tutu and her Majesty the Queen.
CHECK: Pope John Paul II visited UK in 1982. Pope Benedict XVI visited in 2010
Karen is a respected choir director/tutor in her own right, and has led gospel music workshops in Japan, Latvia, Poland, the US, Norway and Nigeria, as well as in the UK.
She has also appeared on TV. Gibson was a judge on BBC2’s The Naked Choir and, in 2014, she directed Lewes Sings Gospel to victory in the BBC Songs of Praise Gospel Choir of the Year competition. Earlier this year, Karen and members of her choir were featured on the hit BBC series, Call The Midwife.
One unexpected outcome of performing at the wedding is that it is inspiring young Black people. Karen shared: “I was told the story of a little girl, who saw the choir on the TV and said, ‘Look, mummy, there’s people who look like me.’ That story gives me hope. She’s four years old, and recognises there’s not much representation.”
Karen is also inspiring people of all ages and races. Many approach her in the street to tell her how much they loved the choir’s performance at the wedding – and to take selfies. Black people who approach Karen thank her for representing the community.
And her fellow Guyanans have adopted her as their own. Whilst out shopping, one woman went up to Karen and said: “We are so proud of the Guyanese girls that have done good.”
Karen has learnt much through this heady, busy and exciting time in her life and that of the choir. She concluded: “It has really revealed who God is, and He is who He said He is. You can live a life of Christianity and it becomes a life of theory, or you can live a life where you’re proving God daily, and I find everything that’s happened is a testament of His goodness, His reality and His love. And it points a finger to what He wants to see in the world.”
The Kingdom Choir’s album is due out on November 2. For more information, visit www.thekingdomchoir.co.uk.