That year, alumni Tiffany Commons and Jonathan Long met at USC’s Midwest orientation in Chicago, and both decided to join the group before setting foot on campus. Long, a transfer student from Indiana University where he’d been a member of several choirs, introduced a prayer circle tradition to the choir. Sun bumped into a Saved By Grace alumnus and former classmate in her neighborhood the morning of her interview with the Daily Trojan and said she couldn’t believe the coincidence. After 20 years of being apart, they fell right back into conversation, and Sun said the comfort between all members through the choir is something that transcends age, major and race. As Roberts, Whitlow and other alumnae reminisced about their time in the choir, there was one particular memory that stood out. The Spring 1999 choir, which had upwards of 40 members, booked Bovard Auditorium for that semester’s concert. The group prepared skits, dance choreography and matching camouflage outfits in addition to singing with the live band. The idea for the choir group began with an epiphany that Roberts had while on exchange at Howard University in 1997. One of her classes emphasized the importance of taking action for change, and Roberts said she realized she needed to act on USC’s lack of a gospel choir. Among the most notable former members are Jojo Villanueva, the senior vice president for music creative affairs at Sony Entertainment, and Ashley Támar Davis, a professional singer and former background singer for Prince. Roberts and her husband are co-pastors for a church they founded. “The soul that comes out through gospel music … is really important to Southern African Americans,” Richards said. “My parents are from West Africa and they don’t really have gospel music, but in Georgia, it’s totally different. The sound is very upbeat [like a] sunny place … I think people really like that.” Alyse Watson, the current music director and a senior majoring in theatre, is now preparing for the group’s Spring 2020 concert. The concert’s theme is “He’s Able,” and her favorite song selected was one she directed, “Grace” by Ricky Dillard and New G. Creating tradition Whitlow agreed to curate and teach the music. By then, she was working professionally as a background vocalist and had directed the Western Baptist State Convention Choir, which has over 100 members. But the founding members were still nervous about Saved By Grace’s reception. “We had our first rehearsal and we had, I’m sure over 50 people of all races and nationalities come out to the first rehearsal and meeting, which was amazing,” Whitlow said. “We didn’t know how many we were going to get. And from there, we] just kind of took off.” Initially a student organization of the religious center, the group is currently a member organization of the Black Student Assembly. Laylah Fairley, a sophomore majoring in architecture, is Saved By Grace’s BSA representative and, in addition to promoting their events, occasionally sings with the group. “I was really shocked and taken aback that they still maintain that tradition,” said Long on attending the 20th anniversary concert in 2018. “It was just something that I didn’t … even think about but it was something that still stuck with the choir.” The relationships forged among members of the gospel choir on the USC campus transcend the boundaries of race, generation and area of academic study, according to alumna Valerie Sun. (Photo courtesy of Saved By Grace gospel choir, Design: Sophia Quintos | Daily Trojan) Regardless of post-graduation choices, Saved By Grace and gospel music remain significant pillars in all of the member’s lives. Alumni of the group have pursued music and leadership roles in faith. “Some of us, we are from the same area, so sometimes we’ll be going through a song and they’ll be like, ‘Oh I’ve never heard of this song,’ and the others will be like, ‘Oh yeah, I know this song! I play this song in my church all the time, what are you doing?’” Fairley laughed. Bengy Mitchell, a freshman majoring in business administration, said he enjoys the shared cultural experience of the gospel most as a new member. “I remember thinking after that lecture, ‘When I get back to USC, I’m going to do whatever it is I need to do to start a choir,’” Roberts said. “That’s all I wanted.” Fairley emphasized the group’s close-knit nature, stating that many will book the same flights home for winter break, often to Georgia or Louisiana, where Fairley is from. The camaraderie created from shared experiences manifests during rehearsals as they share songs from home. As a student worker at the religious center who hailed from a family of pastors, Roberts spent a semester using her experiences to plan out the choir before launching it in the fall. She put up flyers and put ads in the Daily Trojan that caught the eye of alumna Rachel Whitlow, the choir’s first music director. All aforementioned members and alumni, including alumni Valerie Sun and Jason Gooden, spoke on the importance of singing about their relationship with God. As Sun described it, gospel music gives the singer permission to sing as loudly as they’d like, to express their spirituality however they want and to have fun. Contemporary and lively, the gospel’s music is usually performed with a band of volunteer Thornton students. Current Saved By Grace president Aqua Richards, a junior from Atlanta majoring in biochemistry, spoke about the significance of gospel music to the Black community, but also of its universality. “[Saved By Grace] invited me to the alumni event,” Sun said. “I’ll get up with the choir and it’s great, I’m 18 years old again.” A Close-knit community Established in 1998 by alumna Tanesha Roberts, Saved By Grace is more than a choir — it’s a ministry that spreads the Christian message through music. Its name comes from Ephesians 2:8: “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God.” Lasting Legacy They invite God into the Fishbowl Chapel in the University Religious Center. They discuss roses and thorns or Bible verses, rehearse for their semesterly concerts and worship together. They wrap up rehearsal with a prayer circle where each member crosses their arms, holds hands with their neighbors and shares their prayers and accomplishments. This final tradition is as old as the group itself. “There’s a lot of nostalgia and homeliness and comfort to gospel music,” Mitchell said. “When you’re here [at USC], you don’t really have a lot to grapple onto … I think these things have brought me closer to home … and it’s reminding me how important my religion really is to me.” Twenty years since that performance, Roberts spoke warmly of the group’s legacy and hinted at a possible reunion. Every Sunday afternoon, members of USC’s gospel choir gather to carry on a rich, 20-year history. The instant success of the choir continued as the group’s mission and music resonated with diverse groups of students with different ethnicities, church backgrounds and experiences with music. “I’m more than happy to connect back with the choir, anything that they want or need,” Roberts said. “I’m there for support and I’m thinking about bringing back [original members] for a re-enactment of our spring musical [in the near future] because we had so much fun.”
Guyana’s 50th Independence Celebration Committee (New York) has announced final plans for its one week “Guyana Jubilee Celebration NYC” from June 4-12, in the Tri-State area.This will be the largest celebration outside of Guyana.The celebration kicks off on Saturday, June 4, at 13:00h with an interfaith service at the York College Performing Arts Theatre, at 94-45 Guy R Brewer Blvd, Jamaica, Queens. This will be preceded by an inter-county cricket match at 09:30h, at the Idiewild Park Springfield Blvd & 149th Ave, Rosedale, Queens.A symposium on Guyana’s independence journey is planned for Sunday, June 5, at 09:00h at the York College Large Lecture Theatre, at 94-20 Guy Brewer Blvd, Queens, while on Monday, June 6, there will be an exhibition of Guyanese art from 10:00h at Aljira Centre for Contemporary Art, 591 Broad St, Newark, NJ.The following day, June 7, will see a live radio broadcast from the famous Sybil’s Restaurant at 13217 Liberty Ave, Jamaica, Queens, at 19:00h.On Wednesday, June 8 – which is Guyanese Volunteer Day – Guyanese medical doctors, nurses and lawyers will provide free medical and legal services at various locations in Brooklyn, Queens and New Jersey.Locations are listed on the Committee’s website, www.celebrateguyana50thinnyc.com.On Thursday, June 9, there will be the official flag raising ceremony at Newark City Hall Square, at 920 Broad St, Newark, NJ. This will be done by the Mayor of Newark, Ras Baraka.Friday, June 10 is “Invest Guyana” Business and Investment conference at 09:00h, at the Harvard Club of New York, located at 35 W 44th St, New York, NY.Speakers include Guyana’s Business Minister Dominic Gaskin, Finance Minister Winston Jordan, Natural Resources Minister Raphael Trotman, Public Infrastructure Minister David Patterson, Tourism Minister Cathy Hughes, Public Security Minister Khemraj Ramjattan, Social Cohesion Minister Amna Ally and Agriculture Minister Noel Holder.On Saturday, June 10, there will be the President Cup Soccer Tournament at the South Shore High School Park, located at 6565 Flatlands Ave, Brooklyn, NY (at the corners of Ralph and Flatlands Avenues) at 10:00h.The Black Tie, Red Carpet official Jubilee state dinner will take place on Saturday, June 11, at 20:00h, at the Sheraton New York Times Square Hotel and Towers, located at 811 7th Avenue & W 53rd St, New York, NY. Keynote Speaker is Guyana’s Head of State David Granger.The grand finale of Guyana Jubilee Celebration NYC, the Independence Parade, is on Sunday, June 12, in Brooklyn. The parade will start at 11:30h, at the intersection of Church and Utica Avenues and will proceed West to Ralph Ave, turn South into Ralph Ave and ends at Ralph and Flatlands Avenues – a 3.3 miles route.A grand after parade, unity concert will take place at 16:00h on Sunday, June 12, at South Shore High School Park, at 6565 Flatlands Ave, Brooklyn NY (at the corners of Ralph and Flatlands Avenue).The New York Jubilee Committee is asking all Guyanese to showcase the Golden Arrowhead (Guyana’s flag) during Guyana Jubilee NYC from June 4 – 12. For more information of the New York celebration, visit their website or call 929-263-2556 or 212-947-5115.