Royal Gospel Choir Celebrates 30th Anniversary

I was working for the BBC’s Religion and Ethics Department when Noel Robinson introduced me to a relatively unknown Karen Gibson. Thirty years on, I’m interviewing Karen, Founder/Director of the Kingdom Choir, awarded an MBE (2020 Queen’s Birthday Honours), fondly referred to as ‘the Godmother of British Gospel’ and known to millions. In this conversational exchange, I hope to bring readers closer to this icon-spirited person, favoured as an ambassador of our music today.

Juliet Fletcher (JF): Who inspired the start of your singing journey? Your parents?
Karen Gibson (KG): No, not particularly. But I think my father played in a steel band group. Both he and my mum loved music. However, singing is not where I started. My mother was the catalyst for me and my sister, Kim, to take up musical instruments.

JF: What of your other siblings? Are they musical?
KG: No, they’re not. My three older siblings live in the US, but my sister Kim and I live here.
JF: Tell us more.

THE CLASSICAL YEARS
KG: As life went along, my mum became a single parent. She was a staunch member of the Church of God of Prophecy (COGOP), Tooting branch, now known as Lynwood Christian Fellowship. Mum was amazing then – working three jobs at a time. I was around 10, Kim nine. We were often left alone and Mum decided to preoccupy us with a toy piano. We became sort of obsessed with it. Mum noticed how we picked out tunes and sent us to piano lessons. At the time we thought it was because Mum saw us as quite precocious and clever (soft laughter) but later we learned it was because she wanted to keep us out of ‘trouble’. It worked!

JF: Did this spark your interest in singing at church?
KG: Not at all! Mine and Kim’s focus was on playing instruments. It truly works to encourage our young people to play instruments at an early age. At that time my piano teacher, Debbie Dunne, felt that Kim and I should take up a second instrument. This quest coincided with a friendship group comprising three of our dearest church sisters: Collette Blythe, and two sisters Elaine and Sharon Lobban. We played as an instrumental quintet group called Windsong. It was a deeply bonding time between us all.

JF: There seems to be a deep bonding between the Kingdom Choir members today, too.
KG: There is, and it is like a family. Most of the 40 members I have known over many years. Normally we perform as 30 and I’m very privileged to lead them.

JF: So, what made you move from playing musical instruments in Windsong to that which you’d previously steered clear of – singing? I’m sure nobody would believe there was a time when you didn’t like singing!
KG: Let me explain: What I heard – particularly in COGOP groups of the time (mid to late 1970s) – I definitely felt “I don’t want to do that.”  I feel terrible saying this, but it was the truth. I had an in-built natural standard and what I was hearing then wasn’t it. However, thinking back, this focus on instrumentation and classical music was very important to what we’re doing now.

THE SWITCH: PLAYING TO SINGING
KG: I can pinpoint when my whole interest switched. It happened when I heard The Winans Brothers – their first album.

JF: That would have been around 1981. Introducing The Winans was released on Light Records, produced by Andraé Crouch.
KG: Yes, the first track on that is The Question Is. And what instrument is playing in the intro? Answer: the oboe, which I played. So, I learned that piece and somehow together we decided to learn the song – and found we naturally harmonised. By then we were joined by Carol Frith, who became my stepsister. We found a name: New Dawn. My love for ‘voice’ grew, and using instruments fizzled out as we remained with our singing.

JF: On that note, it makes me think how incredible our churches are. So much talent and creativity. Such a nurturing ground.
KG: Noel Robinson, who was COGOP National Music Director, was intrinsic to our elevation. He spotted our natural talents and gave our gifts room to blossom.

JF: Noel is very special. He really is a ‘Prince’ of gospel music.
KG I’ll also tell you why Noel is special: because he has mentored so many people. And he does this without fanfare and seeking recognition. He has helped so many.

JF: How do you see the standard of choir leadership across the country now?
KG: That’s hard to quantify and answer. I think our choirs have been impacted by the growth of praise and worship teams. It’s really reduced the quality.

THE KINGDOM CHOIR IN ENTERTAINMENT
JF: Where would you position the Kingdom Choir? Is it fair to say the Kingdom Choir is an entertainment choir? The Church doesn’t seem to understand the role of entertainment in everyday life. What would you say?

KG: While we don’t label ourselves an ‘entertainment’ choir, our performances do entertain audiences. Our approach aligns with Jesus’ use of parables, illustrating heavenly concepts with earthly examples. Initially apprehensive about touring America, the birthplace of gospel music, I received divine reassurance: “It’s in your delivery and in your expectation.”
JF: Stick a pin. Let’s quickly look at your music ministry highlights.

Following singing at Prince Harry & Meghan’s wedding, you have:

  • toured the UK and are set to tour again
  • toured the US twice – and are set to repeat that – within five years.  It will be a first for a UK choir
  • performed at the Invictus Games closing ceremony in Australia
  • had sell-out shows at the Royal Albert Hall and Royal Festival Hall

Then you, Karen:

  • have starred in an array of top BBC shows, like MasterChef, Last Choir Standing, Gospel Choir of The Year, and hosted radio shows, for example on Scala Radio

JF: Do you think people’s view of choirs has changed, then, from the handclapping feet stomping stereotype view?
KG: I think so. None of them/us are perfect, but most are making a mark. People see the sincerity in the Kingdom Choir’s singing, even singing songs without any explicit mention of the Lord. Many sought prayers nightly on our tours. One troubled man sought forgiveness for past actions against women, while a woman shared her trauma tied to a song we sang. Her healing surprised us, as we didn’t know her story beforehand. Had I been aware, I would’ve reconsidered including the song. Yet, our rendition brought her release from a memory of sexual abuse.
JF: Powerful! Wonderful!

LOOKS & STYLING
JF: As soon as we see the Kingdom Choir, we know who you all are. How do you feel about your personal style as well as how the choir looks?
KG: I’m appreciative of the fact that we have a look, a style, a branding. I wanted to represent. I wanted us to turn out well. So I secured Jeanette Young, a fashion designer and stylist, for the Royal wedding performance. For me, I haven’t had anyone in management say: “You can’t stay with that hairstyle.” I like the style. I’m not wearing my hair like this because of the brand. I wear it because it’s so easy. I go to bed at night, tied. Then in the morning – quick and easy, and I’m ready for the day! (Laughter)

JF: Do the choir members find it difficult?
KG: We want to look beautiful. We want to look branded. None of the choir members complain.

JF: Are you now distanced from the Royal wedding association?
KG: I think most people just see us and our singing. The association with the Royal wedding will never go away. There are over two billion views on film! The main thing for people is that they love the choir’s authenticity, sound and look.

30 YEARS AND THE FUTURE
JF: Are you OK with the Kingdom Choir being identified as a Black Gospel choir?
KG: We have a member who is not ‘Black’ in terms of skin hue. But I am quite comfortable with being identified as a Black Gospel choir. It’s our roots, our cultural identity.

JF: How does 30 years feel to you?
KG: (Laughter) It makes me feel old! I never thought it would be this way. This whole journey, from Mum wanting us to keep out of trouble to us right now… The 30 years, therefore, have not just been about the Kingdom Choir’s success; it’s about every step of the way leading to here and now.

JF: You’ve announced The Kingdom Choir Foundation. What will it do?
KG: The foundation will do exactly what I have seen gospel music do over the years in people’s lives, particularly young people. There is scientific evidence of how singing and music affect and transform in every age range. This is simply what we believe we should do.

You can’t legislate what Holy Spirit will do with the music. My business is to deliver this music to the listeners; for them to sing, for them to experience this music and have encounters; for them to know about this kind, Father God; and for them to be moved by the music and for the lyrics to resonate within them.

I have heard it said only Christians should sing gospel, but I have repeatedly experienced children fully changed. Even those in prisons, the trajectory of their lives has changed. I will not presume anything.

The Kingdom Choir will be performing a second 30th anniversary concert at the Barbican Centre, London, on Monday 27 May ’24. Visit www.kingdomchoir.com

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