Becoming a gospel musician or music producer is a path that often goes through a church. But a university in Richmond hopes to offer another path.
One of Hezekiah Walker youtube flashmob videos has over 92 million views. It’s just a sign of success for the pastor. Another is his multiple Grammy awards. Now he has another accomplishment to add to the list: starting a gospel school.
Although he’s originally from Brooklyn, Walker has recently been spending time in Richmond, a city close to his heart.
“Richmond was probably one of the towns that kept calling me back to do gospel gigs back in the day,” Walker shared in a recent Zoom interview. “So I have to say Richmond is like one of the cities that put me on the map.”
Walker recently found his way back to the capital of Virginia as a college student. He earned his master’s degree in theology from Virginia Union University.
“And what really made me want to go back to school was because I was singing, but I didn’t really know the Bible,” he said. “And so I didn’t really want to keep singing about something that I didn’t really know.”
About a year into her program, word got out that a famous gospel singer was on campus. Headteachers approached Walker asking for his help in starting a music program. It seemed a natural choice.
Virginia Union is Richmond’s only historically black university. The school was founded after the Civil War for black freedmen who wanted to enter the ministry. Today, many religious leaders call VUU’s seminary their alma mater.
“And so if it’s the hub of theology. It should be the hub of gospel music,” Walker said.
Those plans came to fruition last summer, when Virginia Union announced plans to open the Hezekiah Walker Center for Gospel Music. In December, the new center hosted a single five-hour master class. Now they are gearing up for their first full semester of course offerings.
Classes include a business class on publishing and licensing, and a history class on gospel legacy.
Reverend Zynora Manson will be one of the teachers in the program. She is herself a longtime teacher, pastor and musician from Richmond.
She gave me a glimpse of what students can expect when she sat down on the piano to play and sing “Swing low Sweet Chariot”, while explaining the important context of the spiritual as a coded song sung by slaves.
“Swing low meant going down, in other words preparing to escape slavery,” Manson explained. “But the master thought they were just singing a beautiful song.”
Manson is excited to bring this information and more to a group of students.
“It’s going to be a life-changing, engaging and inspiring experience, because I have the opportunity to share what I literally heard myself, not just studied…but literally heard my mother and my dad singing when I was a little girl,” she said.
Spring classes are online and registration is open to everyone, not just VUU students. Each course lasts four weeks and students can enroll in a single course or multiple courses. Registration is open now.
Mallory Noe-Payne is a journalist and the Richmond bureau chief for Radio IQ.