The graphic video montage of violence against people of color that accompanies Isaac Cates & Ordained’s sobering neo-spiritual “Hold On” brought the hosts of the 2020 online music festival Vox Virtual nearly to tears. Lydia Salett Dudley commissioned a clip with similarly vivid imagery for “Whatcha Gonna Say?,” a funky song released this summer that commands listeners to speak out about inequality or face the consequences of inaction today and in the afterlife.
These recent developments in gospel music are striking: Although singing spirituals and hymns has energized generations of protesters to stand up against oppression, few of the genre’s songs recorded over the past 30 years have explicitly condemned injustice. This gap is due in part to a trend toward praise and worship songs that celebrate God and give thanks for personal blessings. And like the anonymous composers of the spirituals, Black gospel singers learned early that survival sometimes meant veiling their anger in biblical imagery that only those in the know could decode.
However, the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery and the protests they sparked have prompted gospel singers to begin lifting the veil and making their outrage more public. The roots for this moment can be traced back to an album celebrating its 50th anniversary — “Right On Be Free,” the debut by an African-American youth choir called the Voices of East Harlem. Released by Elektra in late 1970, the record tied protest messages to an appealingly groovy soundtrack that mixed the soul-cleansing power of gospel with R&B, funk and rock. It was as if Sly and the Family Stone and gospel’s Edwin Hawkins Singers had linked arms in solidarity.
The Voices of East Harlem came out of the East Harlem Federation Youth Association (E.H.F.Y.A.), a nonprofit community center founded in 1968 by the activist Chuck Griffin to give youth — his own children included — a sanctuary from the neighborhood’s heroin-infested streets. Griffin’s wife, Anna Griffin, and her friend Bernice Cole were veteran gospel singers and recording artists.
“When the Voices of East Harlem first started, there were like 32 of us, because it was basically an all-souls call,” said Gerri Griffin Watlington, one of the couple’s two daughters, who replaced Ronnie Dyson on Broadway in “Hair” in 1969. “Anybody interested in singing in a choir, come.”
The choir sang only gospel songs and spirituals at first, and while its initial appearances were at churches, at some point Chuck Griffin began transporting the troupe to perform for local colleges, where he would preach the social value of integration to the mostly white audience. It was the late ’60s and “a time when people were becoming socially aware of color,” said Kevin Griffin, another of Chuck Griffin’s children.
The Voices’ big break occurred at a youth association fund-raiser at Electric Circus, a New York club owned by the music entrepreneur Jerry Brandt. Moved by the Voices of East Harlem’s unbridled spirit, “he approached my parents and Bernice and basically pitched them,” Gerri Watlington recalled. “He said, ‘I see something here and I’d like to manage these kids.’”
Brandt loved the group’s sound but hated the preppy orange blazers, and directed the kids to come to rehearsal in street clothes. They returned wearing what became their signature “freedom suits,” what the screenwriter Denis Watlington, a youth association participant, later described as “working-class jeans and dungaree jackets with red, black and green fists” painted on their backs.
The Voices of East Harlem also modified their repertory, adding protest music and songs of social significance, including Nina Simone’s “To Be Young, Gifted, and Black” and Bobby Darin’s antiwar ode “Simple Song of Freedom.”
“That was the time we were in,” Gerri Watlington said. “It was about folk songs, protest songs.”
The group’s performances featured dancing — sometimes choreographed but more often free-form — that evoked freedom and Black Pride, and Brandt worked to secure it a national platform where audiences could take in the whole package. The Voices appeared on Dick Cavett and Ed Sullivan’s shows. They opened for the Kinks at the Fillmore East. Their performance at the January 1970 Winter Festival for Peace, alongside Richie Havens and Blood, Sweat & Tears, moved a Billboard journalist to gush, “The least known group on the bill earned the first, most unanimous, and most immediate standing ovation of the evening.”
With positive reviews pouring in, Brandt felt it was time to take the Voices into the studio. Produced by Brandt, “Right On Be Free” was among the first albums recorded at Electric Lady Studios in Manhattan’s West Village. Eddie Kramer was the recording engineer, and session veterans including the bassist Chuck Rainey and the guitarist Cornell Dupree joined the Voices’ musicians.
“In those days, if you didn’t have Rainey and Dupree on your album, you didn’t have an album,” the Voices member Monica Burruss Pege, the lead soloist on the group’s 1973 hit “Giving Love,” said in a phone interview.
“Right On Be Free” spotlights fiery turns by female vocalists, reinforcing the traditional role of African-American women as community spokespeople. Gerri Watlington leads the Buffalo Springfield protest anthem “For What It’s Worth,” and Cynthia Sessions Vaughn sings “Simple Song of Freedom.” In a nod to earlier generations, Anna Griffin and Cole render gospel songs. The album ends with a six-minute psychedelic cover of Richie Havens’s “Run, Shaker Life” built on the relentless vocal power of Kevin Griffin, one of two featured male leads. The critic Robert Christgau compared his effusive energy to Michael Jackson.
Gospel didn’t often crack through to the mainstream, though the Edwin Hawkins Singers had a crossover smash with “Oh Happy Day” in 1968. Elektra, already in discussions with Brandt about another of his artists — Carly Simon — picked up “Right On Be Free” and released it as summer turned to fall in 1970.
By October, it had charted on the Billboard 200, after the Voices carried their freedom message to the Isle of Wight Festival in England, where they received several standing ovations. Returning to the States, the choir dazzled audiences at the Apollo and appeared alongside Harry Belafonte at the Westbury Music Fair. The Voices rang in the New Year by opening for Jimi Hendrix at the Fillmore East.
On March 6, 1971, the Voices joined Santana, Ike and Tina Turner, Wilson Pickett, the Staple Singers and the pianist Wayne Shorter at the Soul to Soul festival in Accra, Ghana, which was filmed for a documentary by Denis Sanders. As captured on film, they are a kaleidoscope of sound and motion. What the Voices were singing was significant but supplemental to how they were singing it. The music of the African Diaspora had come full circle.
The group went on to record two singles in 1972 for Elektra produced by Donny Hathaway, and made two more albums for the indie label Just Sunshine, which were reissued in 2017 by the United Kingdom-based Soul Brother Records. After the 1974 album “Can You Feel It,” Just Sunshine and the Voices of East Harlem parted ways. “I don’t think the record company knew what to do with us,” Kevin Griffin said. “We represented a very balanced message of unsettling times and they didn’t know how to market it.”
Besides a baffled music business, an acrimonious separation between Chuck and Anna Griffin and the fact that group members were facing the realities of adulthood contributed to the Voices’ demise in 1975. “It wasn’t like an official ending,” Pege said. “We just weren’t getting gigs anymore, and we were having to find other things to do that paid.”
Pege became part of Lady Flash, Barry Manilow’s backup trio. Gerri Watlington attended college while appearing on Broadway and singing in local clubs. Vaughn became a community mental health psychotherapist. Kevin Griffin entered the religious ministry.
Looking back, Vaughn and Kevin Griffin still believe the group was not only ahead of its time, but a necessary voice then and now. “The E.H.F.Y.A. and the Voices were the crown jewels of East Harlem,” Kevin Griffin said. “We became the voice of the entire social movement.”
Vaughn added: “It’s really sad that we are experiencing the very same things this many years later.”