Lift every voice and sing. The unity call of the Black National Anthem is also part of the mission of UCF’s Gospel & Cultural Choir.
For many Knights, the Gospel & Cultural Choir provides a welcoming space and a sense of community and belonging on campus. For the past four decades, it has also given students a change to actively and regularly connect two of their biggest passions in life: music and faith.
“Most of the people who join the choir, they struggle to find a church or a faith-based community here in Orlando that they can be a part of,” says Tiffany Pugh, a public administration major. “For Black UCF, there are groups like the African Students Organization or the Black Student Union, but there’s no specific organization that also provides that spiritual side. That’s what the choir can offer.”
The UCF Gospel & Cultural Choir started with 23 members more than 40 years ago under the supervision and with support from the Black Student Union and Minority Services Department. According to the a Central Florida Future article published July 13, 1979, the choir was formed “because of the strong interest expressed by black students at UCF to have the organization.”
Bruce Handley (president), Lisa White (secretary) and Patricia Williams (chairman of public relations) served as the organization’s first officers who helped lead the GCC’s debut performance Nov. 14, 1979, at the Minority Student Services Scholarship Banquet.
Victor Thomas, who was president of the Black Student Union in 1979, said in an October 19, 1979 Central Florida Future article that the intentions of the choir were to promote musical talent, fellowship and enhance social life on campus. They had aspirations to become an independent organization, earn recognition and travel — all goals that today’s choir has achieved.
The choir has grown to more than 30 members with a connected alumni network. In addition to being known for their musical talent and ministry, they want to leave a legacy of being a welcoming haven for every student.
“GCC opens their arms to anybody,” says Loulou Lamothe, a public administration major from Miami who joined the choir in Fall 2018. “When I first got to UCF, I was very culture shocked. It’s hard to not feel like an outsider when you don’t look like the people in your classroom. When I joined GCC, it felt like I had a community I could rely on. They made a real effort to make people feel welcome and included. That’s the kind of impact we want to have — help others feel accepted and appreciated.”
Gift of Music
It’s easy to see the gift music gives to each student. It shines through in their performances.
“Singing makes me feel free,” says Hector Garcia, the choir’s president who expects to graduate with a journalism degree this spring.
“Singing makes me feel powerful,” Pugh says.
“Singing makes me feel really good inside — like I’m fulfilling a purpose and that I’m using my gift for good,” says Lamothe.
And the choir has witnessed first-hand the effect their performances can have on others. Before the pandemic, GCC was regularly called upon for various events and programs on campus, in the community and beyond.
“We’ve traveled across the country from Florida to Texas to Georgia to Tennessee for performances and we’ve been able to be a light to those people in the audience who may have had a bad day, or are going through something,” Garcia says. “The words that we sing have so much power to them that you can see when you’re making an impact in people’s lives.”
They feel they also play an important role in enhancing diversity and inclusion on campus.
“It’s a great thing to be able to perform and bring what we have from our culture into spaces with people who may not otherwise be familiar with it,” Lamothe says. “GCC adds to the diversity that UCF wants to embrace and have. I hope we continue to inspire and uplift and encourage people with our singing and influence them in positive ways.”
‘Lift Every Voice’
In honor of Black History Month, the choir recorded a special performance of Lift Every Voice and Sing. The song was written as a poem by NAACP leader James Weldon Johnson and set to music by his brother John Rosamond Johnson in 1899.
Several of the participants were asked what the song means to them. Here are their responses.
Radjeanny Bouzi, violinist: Lift Every Voice and Sing is very empowering. Especially with what happened last year with the Black Lives Matter movement, it resonates even more now. I’m Black and I do want to be seen and I am playing an instrument that is predominantly in the white culture. This song is saying, “You will notice me. I am here for a purpose. I am here for a reason.”
“This song is saying, ‘You will notice me. I am here for a purpose. I am here for a reason.’ ” — Radjeanny Bouzi
Garcia, tenor: It wasn’t until I joined the choir that I learned more about the song. When you first learn songs, you approach it very technically. You don’t really see the impact of the song until you’re performing it or really hearing what you’re singing. The first three words — lift every voice — is a unity call. I don’t want to lift just the Black voices or just the Hispanic voices. I want to lift every voice and sing. I think that song is so powerful and it can move mountains.
Lamothe, soprano: It will always be an anthem. It just has always served as a song that brings us together.
Pugh, alto: I connect with the song because it remembers the past and has hope for the future. I really try my best to not just go through the motions of singing it. I try to connect the lyrics to the song to respect the artist that wrote it. I feel how tired they were of being oppressed and how they honestly had to hold onto the hope of a future that they didn’t really see. I feel empowered to do the same thing now.