LOS ANGELES (AP) — Hezekiah Walker became a student at Virginia Union University two years ago, but the Grammy-winning gospel singer took his collegiate experience to the next level by opening a gospel music center on the campus.
He will lead the Hezekiah Walker Center of Gospel Music at Virginia Union University, in Richmond, Virginia. It’s being dubbed as the first academic center focused on gospel music at an historically Black college or university where students can learn the cultural and business aspects of the genre and industry.
Walker said the center — which opens in Spring 2022 — would provide a tremendous outlet to “house our music.”
“I thought it was a great opportunity to invite people to come to Virginia Union for gospel music and they can learn about our heritage,” said Walker, a two-time Grammy winner. He wants to make Virginia Union a prime destination for gospel music in hopes of breathing enthusiasm into a younger generation about the genre’s culture.
With help from the school's administration, Walker will curate the center’s curriculum geared toward aspiring songwriters, instrumentalists, vocalists, producers, managers and publicists within the gospel realm. He said the school will teach students primarily about gospel music unlike any other college.
Courses will be available to all Virginia Union students. Certification courses related to work in the industry will also be available to the general public.
“When we send our kids to their schools, they kind of learn their music,” said the singer, who pastors a church in New York. “They learn their way of doing gospel. When those kids come back to our churches and come back to our culture, they go ‘We don’t want that.’ We’re losing our kids by the day.”
Two years ago, Walker decided to return back to school. He spent some time researching universities who are known for their theological seminary schools and found that Virginia Union, a private Black university, had one of the best in the country.
After registering, Walker was accepted into Virginia Union’s Samuel Dewitt Proctor School of Theology, where he’s currently a second-year student. But when the renowned gospel singer initially stepped on campus, he was mostly incognito sporting his hat backward with sunglasses.
But Walker’s moment of obscurity lasted for a couple months until he met with Virginia Union president Hakim J. Lucas. The gospel singer said Lucas was unaware he was a student until a faculty member informed him.
Initially, the conversation was about Walker performing in a concert. But the two came up with the grand idea to create a gospel music school and convert one of the buildings on campus into the center, which will don Walker’s full name.
“Gospel is a part of the legacy and story of the journey of Black spirituality, Black social justice and Black religion,” Lucas said. “If we’re going to be serious as an institution, committing ourselves to the empowerment of Black people, you have to create a way to study all of these institutions.”
Lucas said the university felt compelled to embrace gospel because “we understood the academic roots of the music.”
“You have other universities teaching people that gospel music is not Christian music and that it edifies something else,” Lucas said. “We’re here to stand up and say ‘No, gospel music is not only a part of the Black experience, it’s critical for the Black and African American religious experience.’ But it’s also a part of our continued struggle for social justice.”
Walker is known for gospel songs such as “Souled Out,'' ”Every Praise" and the Grammy-nominated "Better.''
He believes his center can help up-and-comers who are willing to take pride in uplifting the genre, which he thinks is disconnected from other areas of the music industry. He said exploring the history and milestones of the genre — like the first time a gospel artist won a Grammy or received a big royalty check — are important to help students appreciate those who paved the way for them.
“We need to teach our people so they can understand it,” he said. “Then they can appreciate where we are today and where we’re going as we look back to where we come from.”
While Walker preps for the gospel center's opening and continues as a student, he's also working on a new album, which he expects to release in October. He worked with Teddy Riley to create a song with a New Jack Swing vibe meshed with inspirational messages.
“I'm ready to minister to another group of people,” he said. “I'm ready to sing to another group. I think the church has been saturated with all different kinds of artists, which I'm grateful for. I'm a part of it. But I'm ready for a new group of people that I bring some inspiration.”
Jonathan Landrum Jr., The Associated Press