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Hezekiah Walker, Virginia Union Center for Gospel Music collaboration will focus on the business of the industry, too

The university to open the Center for Gospel Music in spring 2022

Bishop Hezekiah Walker’s accomplishments are worthy of praise alone, but now he has added founder of the Hezekiah Walker Center for Gospel Music at Virginia Union University to his repertoire. Walker and the university are partnering to bring the one-of-kind gospel center to the campus in Richmond, Virginia.

It will provide education and resources to help musicians and budding gospel artists learn the cultural and business aspects of gospel music and the industry. Courses will be available to all VUU students, and certification courses related to work in the industry will also be available to the general public. Students will be able to sign up for classes for the spring 2022 semester.

“I have many goals for the center, but I want to establish gospel music at Virginia Union,” said Walker. “I want Virginia to be the hub of gospel music. So, whenever you speak about gospel music, at any HBCU, we want everybody to think Virginia Union.”

Virginia Union president Hakim Lucas (left) and Bishop Hezekiah Walker (right).

VUU is no stranger to being the blueprint for others to follow. Formally established in 1941, VUU’s Samuel Dewitt Proctor School of Theology is one of the oldest schools of theology in the nation. Virginia Union is also the first historically Black college and university (HBCU) in Virginia (1865) and the only HBCU in the Confederate capital. The university is the only HBCU that can tie its founding to a former slave jail.

“Virginia and its founding by the American Baptist Home Mission Society were known as the freedom school of the South,” said VUU president Hakim Lucas. “We began historically in the Lumpkin Slave Jail, where a white slave master on the largest trading block in a port city in Southeast picked out his Black woman. Somehow, he did not just take her, he fell in love with her in a way that made him leave everything to her, including the slave jail. She took it and expanded it into an education institution.”

Walker is a second-year student at the school of theology. With the Walker Center for Gospel Music, he will be able to connect with students as they share their learning experiences with him while he uses his industry expertise to help them excel. He is working closely with the university to formulate the curriculum and will participate heavily with the school’s administration.

“Before I was a student at the school, I had already heard so much about the great things going on over there,” Walker said. “My experience has been amazing. I think I like it because their approach to theology surrounds our culture. Usually, when you go to other schools, it is always centered around another culture. To go to an HBCU and learn the Bible, our culture is right there in the Bible.”

For Lucas, the new center is an opportunity to commit to some of the core values that VUU was founded on. The center highlights VUU’s commitment to social justice, the Black church, gospel music and the songs of liberation in the spirit of it all.

“I think I am also excited because just like N.C. A&T, Howard, Morehouse, Spelman, Hampton, Clark Atlanta and others, you get to attract these great people who are rediscovering the university,” Lucas said. “To have Bishop Walker discovering our university, I think is another amazing opportunity. All the people that will be in it and will be impacted by his decision. These same people will also be impacted by their own decisions to proceed to a higher education.”

One of the main goals of the new center will be inclusivity. Walker and Lucas hope the center can make the connection between the cultural origins, business side and African heritage of gospel music.

“The sound of gospel music from the very foundations of it needs to be preserved,” said Walker. “I understand there are new sounds coming and different things on the scene, but I do not think that when something new comes along that we should forget about the old. I think we should embrace the old, and let people know this is what was and this is where we are.”

Walker will be a teacher and course developer at VUU. When it came to designing curriculums for several of the programs at the center, he depended on his 30-plus years in the industry and his high music IQ. He explained that he has been listening to the needs and interests of the gospel community for a very long time, and that the launch of his center was the perfect way to execute those needs. One of the courses Walker is most excited about is centered on songwriting.

“Everyone wants to know how to write a song, how to put the song together, and what is marketable,” Walker said. “They also are curious about how to copyright a song and how to make sure you get the right publishing and all of that.

“We are curating a space that others can participate in and benefit from,” Lucas said. “And we know the gospel music industry has no entity like this where people can be trained, discuss gospel music and work to figure out the religious world.”

The VUU gospel choir is expected to do live recordings in October and has already begun rehearsals. The choir is also changing its official name to the Hezekiah Walker Center for Gospel Music Choir.

Next winter, the choir has been invited back to Italy and may possibly perform in Paris. The choir has also received an invitation to work with the renowned singer-songwriter Jose Feliciano. Along with Feliciano, other artists have reached out to the choir. They will be bringing their talents to the pope and some of the choir members will be able to meet him.

The center has partnerships with the Gospel Music Workshop of America and Edwin Hawkins Music and Arts Seminar Mass Choir. LaShun Pace and Lena Byrd Miles each plan to send one of their family members to the center. In the coming months, the school plans to announce a Bishop Hezekiah Walker fellowship. Through the fellowship, his goal is to teach collaboration.

“As we grow and as we partner, I do not see why our center cannot have sites on other HBCU campuses or at least partnerships,” Lucas said. “But even if they do not want to be incubated, it’s just certainly no reason why other students from other HBCUs can’t participate.”

Alexis Davis is a senior multimedia journal journalism student from Prince George’s County, Md. She is a sports and culture contributor for The A&T Register, the campus newspaper at North Carolina A&T in Greensboro.