For a town nicknamed the Holy City, the number of opportunities to hear great gospel music in Charleston— at least for non-churchgoing folks — tend to be few and far between. For the past couple of decades, MOJA's been featuring gospel choirs from local churches in an annual concert that this year goes by the name A Gospel Explosion. "We have a lot of local talent," says event organizer Theresa Hilliard. "This is one way to showcase those talents in the larger community."
Hilliard, a volunteer who's been in charge of coordinating MOJA's gospel programming for the past nine years, grew up singing with her grandmother at the First Baptist Church on Edisto Island. "It's a very moving, riveting kind of experience," she says. "People think gospel's just about church, but it's not. There's something in the music that really moves people."
Gospel performances are also important experiences for African-American children, she says, as the music can help them create connections with their community. That being said, it's hard to imagine any child, of any ethnicity, who wouldn't jump at the chance to dance and shout along with the performers. It sure beats sitting still for two hours.
This year, A Gospel Explosion will showcase three local all-male gospel choirs from Mt. Moriah Missionary Baptist, Royal Missionary Baptist, and Bethel AME and Greater Zion AME Churches. Minister Mario Desaussure, one of the local gospel community's most beloved singers, will also belt out a couple of tunes when he's not busy acting as the afternoon's emcee.
And don't expect to stay in your seat for long. According to Hilliard, these events are always pretty lively. "People are getting up and shouting, they have tears in their eyes," she says. "I'm really excited about seeing the audience engaging with the music, and with the performers. We've got some really good choirs this year."
Clapping along with a gospel song is surely one of the most fun ways to celebrate African-American culture, even though the songs and the genre itself are inextricably linked to what is, especially in the South, a troubled and tragic history. That's probably why gospel's triumphant, stirring rhythms are so moving — the joy those songs describe is always hard-won. "Gospel songs and singing are part of African-American culture," says Hilliard. "It makes us who we are."