Spirit has been meeting soul in supernatural ways since 1988 at Baylor through the Heavenly Voices choir of gospel-singing students
Sing out! Shout! Tell the world the good news! Lift every voice and sing! That’s been the goal of Baylor’s Heavenly Voices Gospel Choir from the group’s humble inception in 1988, and it will forever be — until Earth and Heaven ring.
The university’s historically small Black student and faculty population — currently only five percent of Baylor’s 15,000 undergraduate students are Black — plus the school’s founding as a whites-only school and history of catering to a white-centric culture has given the choir a special role among its participants. In fact, many of the performers have found through the choir a deep, meaningful way to express their faith and at the same time, honor Black history and their personal roots as youth singing in Black churches.
“I just got chills, remembering Heavenly Voices,” said Michael McFrazier (’91, MM ’93, MS ’95), professor, Vice President of Administration and Chief of Staff at Prairie View A&M University.
As a Baylor undergrad music major, McFrazier joined Heavenly Voices in 1989 as musical director, accompanied by accomplished student pianist Gloria Alexander David. “We were able to support the matriculation of minority students, especially Black students, with the synergy of coming together and using our faith and belief in goodness and sustaining power to navigate that environment,” he said.
As the choir’s former director, McFrazier always remembered the dynamic and morale boosting potential of Gospel.
“Gospel at its core is sharing the good news. And it is an amalgamation of a number of styles. It comes from the tradition of spirituals that were indigenous to Africans who worked in the fields and brought in sounds and rhythms of their homeland and other influences. Gospel music brought in blues and jazz to the spiritual tradition,” said McFrazier.
Heavenly Voices has always been open to all Baylor students regardless of race, even while providing a place for Black students to connect with each other and to African American culture. In recent engagements, the choir also provides a living connection to the treasures held in Baylor’s Black Gospel Music Restoration Project (BGMRP), the world’s largest repository of recordings and other materials that reflect the art and history of sacred Black gospel music.
“It always thrills me when I hear one of the old songs from the Black Gospel Music Restoration Project performed by the Heavenly Voices,” said Bob Darden (’76), Professor of Journalism, Public Relations, and New Media at Baylor University and founder of the groundbreaking BGMRP. “It’s clear to me that the students understand that one of gospel music’s greatest strengths is the connection between each song and each singer. It is an essential part of an almost apostolic line of shared experiences and emotions since the first gospel songs were performed.”
Past and present members of the Heavenly Voices choir are definitely in tune with the spiritual power of gospel music. From Heavenly Voices founder Tonja Frazier Carpenter (‘91) to current Heavenly Voices president Forche Bridges (‘22), the common threads are the spiritual expression and Black community that the choir provides, in addition to camaraderie and good times.
Heavenly Voices represents a continuance in the tradition of Black sacred song, said Dr. Horace Maxile, Jr., Baylor associate professor of music theory, himself a gospel music musician.
“Styles will change from generation to generation and so will musical tastes, but there are performance practices and cultural emblems that transfer and maintain value — in fact, those practices and emblems are usually expounded upon to create new styles. Heavenly Voices’s presence speaks to and embodies the dynamic nature of gospel music, as it continually evolves while simultaneously honoring the past,” said Dr. Maxile.
The Heavenly Voices humble pilgrimage began when founder Tonja Frazier Carpenter came to Baylor as a freshman in spring 1988.
If singers feel like they need a band, it’s because they’re not feeling the song and they need the music to try to help them. But someone who’s tied in with the feeling of the song doesn’t need a band. They can slay singing a capella.
-Pastor Ron English
“I wanted to not get into trouble, and I wanted to do something on campus that I’m passionate about,” she recalled.
Today Carpenter is an international board-certified lactation consultant and a postpartum certified doula who owns Postpartum Doula and Lactation Services of Waco. She also founded and leads Community Doulas of Waco, a non-profit that provides doula support for low-income families.
As one of eight children in a Christian home, Carpenter grew up singing gospel music in churches every place that her family lived as they followed her father’s military career moves.
“My family was the church choir for most of the churches we went to, especially if the church was small,” said Carpenter.
From this foundation and love of spiritual singing, Carpenter tried out for the Baylor Religious Hour (BRH) Choir, the only choir open to non-music majors, and was turned down because she didn’t read music.
“You didn’t read music in the African American church,” she explained. “We learn to play and sing by ear, and the choir director guides you,” with freedom to include vocals and movement that come from the heart and God, not books or notation.
Not one to give up, Carpenter explored starting a gospel music choir at Baylor, home at the time to only two other choirs.
“I was told (by a music department professor) that Baylor had enough choirs. So I prayed and said, ‘God, what do I do? I feel like this is what I’m supposed to do,’” said Carpenter.
The plucky freshman struck out with administrators, but God provided other people and avenues to help the choir move forward. While doing her work-study job in the faculty dining room, Carpenter approached Dr. Nancy Harrison, an African American Assistant Professor of Curriculum and Instruction in the Baylor University School of Education. Dr. Harrison provided support and also enlisted her then husband, Dr. George Harrison, pastor of First Baptist Church-NBC in Waco and a veteran church musician, to become the first director of Heavenly Voices.
The school did not consistently provide the group rehearsal space and student activity funding for many years, but Heavenly Voices was launched, attracting fifteen students.
“At that time there weren’t extracurricular activities outside of athletics that were explicitly from Black culture. Sometimes you want to do things with people who look like you and who have some common shared experiences. It was a place where the space was all our own and we could all be ourselves as Black people,” said Carpenter.
After McFrazier began directing Heavenly Voices in 1989, the choir blossomed to as many as 60 members. The seeds Carpenter had sown began to bring forth fruit. As their reputation grew, so did requests for the choir’s presence at festivals, churches, and universities across the state. While they started with hand-me-down green and gold robes from a local church, Baylor later purchased new ones for the group, who joking called themselves “the Sprite cans” thanks to the robe colors.
Called on to sing regularly at Black churches in Waco, the choir found a home away from home at Pleasant Olive Missionary Baptist Church there. The church would host the choir every month for a singing engagement and afterwards feed the hungry college students, while moms and deacons in the church mentored and nurtured Heavenly Voices members.
“They adopted and checked on us,” said McFrazier, who was himself a first-generation college student. “It was a bridge for students of color to have a solid foundation from which to be successful.”
A humble group of students passionate about singing the gospel had become a close fellowship that enriched the community at Baylor and beyond.
Today, Pastor Ron English (’94, MDiv ’99), Strategic Intervention Program Manager at Baylor, serves as Heavenly Voices’s campus advisor. He attended the university as an undergraduate and went on to Baylor’s George W. Truett Theological Seminary. Having grown up singing in gospel choirs, English went to the first Heavenly Voices rehearsal.
“I fell in love with being in the choir. You can’t buy the experience of the road trips and the singing together that we had. It just meant so much for my personal walk with Christ. And I believe that the choir has helped people through some really tough times,” English recalled.
English wasn’t the only member to feel this way. Carpenter shared an example of this personal walk with Christ that she, too, has experienced with the choir. She once led the choir members in a fast, during which they prayed for a message from God about the choir’s future.
“One of the things that we heard is that we should worship God in our singing, and not just perform. From then on, we didn’t call our singing ‘performances.’ They were engagements where we worshiped God,” she explained.
Over the ensuing years, the choir expanded and contracted with various directors and different degrees of instrumental accompaniment. English enjoyed being in the backup band for Heavenly Voices at one point, but he pointed out that having musicians isn’t a necessary component for gospel music. In fact, he said, some contemporary gospel performers rely too heavily on musicians and veer too far into pop music.
“If singers feel like they need a band, it’s because they’re not feeling the song and they need the music to try to help them. But someone who’s tied in with the feeling of the song doesn’t need a band. They can slay singing a capella,” said English.
Today’s Heavenly Voices is a small, dedicated choir of ten-to-fifteen participants, with Forche Bridges serving as president. Like Carpenter, when Bridges came to Baylor, she knew she wanted to try “a lot of different, new things that I hadn’t before, but I also still was looking for a community that I was familiar with.” She set her sights on Heavenly Voices right away, thanks to her love of singing gospel music, which was nurtured throughout her childhood.
You can’t buy the experience of the road trips and the singing together that we had. It just meant so much for my personal walk with Christ. And I believe that the choir has helped people through some really tough times.
-Pastor Ron English
“They welcomed me with open arms, which I really loved,” said the film and digital media major who is also double minoring in creative writing and media management. Since its inception, Bridges pointed out, Heavenly Voices “emphasizes that it is a non-audition group. You pretty much just show up to practice and if you like it, then we can talk about you being a member.”
The recent history of the group, like most organizations across the country and the world, has been transformed and affected by the realities of the pandemic. During the early days of the pandemic, Heavenly Voices had to curtail meetings, rehearsals, and performances. In 2021, the annual Gospel Fest, which brings together gospel choirs from universities around the state, was held virtually.
However, the choir’s performances have begun a slow but steady resurrection. Last November, when the new Black Gospel Music Restoration Project listening room was opened, the dedication ceremony was an in-person event and Heavenly Voices performed. This year has brought more in-person opportunities for the choir, and Baylor’s marketing department recently featured the group in a kickoff video for Black History Month.
“We’ve definitely gotten back to having more performance requests and are actually having to turn people down because our schedules are crazy. We recently sang ‘The Star Spangled Banner’ at two basketball games, and we’ve been invited to sing at Welcome Week events,” said Bridges.
Heavenly Voices hosted gospel choirs from other Texas schools at Baylor’s Gospel Fest in April, with the support of the Baylor Activities Council. This was on the heels of Heavenly Voices participating in gospel fests at Texas State University, University of North Texas, Texas Christian University, and other schools in the state, restoring a sense of normalcy to the choir’s engagement with the community.
“The more gospel music spreads, the better it’s going to be for everyone because it’s beautiful,” Bridges added. “It’s been an art form performed by Black musicians, writers, and composers for so long. It’s a tradition that’s not going to leave our communities.”
For Bridges herself, gospel music is an important expression of her spirituality: “There are definitely times when it’s just overpowering. It strengthens my relationship with God, which is something that’s very important to me. It also influences how I interact with people around me. If I’m feeling overwhelmed with gratitude or whatever’s triggering my emotions from the music, even if I can’t verbalize what I’m feeling in that moment, people are still able to hug you, or they might say a prayer over you, or vice versa. The people who are performing with you are able to sense what you’re feeling and be there for you.”
For Heavenly Voices founder Tonya Frazier Carpenter, that sentiment is echoed. “Music is the language of the heart, no matter what culture you come from. In the African American culture, we touch God through our music. And in gospel music, we sing what we feel. I know Heavenly Voices is a place for students who want to express their musical gifts to the Lord,” she said. “It’s a place where they can find a home.”