Last updateWed, 16 Sep 2020 2pm


Students Represent University at White House Workshop

White HouseTen Monmouth University students participated in the “History of Gospel Music” workshop, introduced by the First Lady Michelle Obama at the White House on April 14. Seven Asbury Park High School students were invited by the University to join the program produced by the GRAMMY Museum, led by University alumnus Robert Santelli.

The University and Asbury Park High School students joined over 100 students from across the country in the State Dining Room, and were introduced to musical guests Rodney Crowell, Rhiannon Giddens, Darlene Love, Lyle Lovett, and Michelle Williams. In an Asbury Park Press article, Eileen Chapman, Associate Director at the Center for the Arts at the University, said that the University was inspired to invite the Asbury Park High School students after the Summit for Success event last year, which encouraged the community to help improve the success rate of Asbury Park youth.

Joe Rapolla, Chair of the Music and Theater Arts Department, selected the ten University students based on their contributions to the department. The students who attended were Samantha Bastone, Guy Battaglia, Taylor Bernosky, Andrew Boxman, Jonathan Chang-Soon, Shayna Conde, Courtney Davis, Michael Grant, Kate Latkovich, and Elizabeth Newcombe.

Latkovich, a junior music industry major, said, “I was honored to be selected because as soon as I heard that the GRAMMY Museum and the First Lady were involved, I knew this was a very prestigious event. I felt lucky too, because there are a lot of talented students in our department.”

The event paid tribute to gospel music’s role in the American musical tradition. In a live stream video of the event, Santelli described American music as blend from previously existing  musical roots that were stirred together in the nation’s melting pot. Specifically, Santelli said that gospel is essential to American music because it has roots all the way back to the founding of the country and it has connections to music that is still listened to today.

Battaglia, a junior Music Industry major, said, “In music, all genres feed each other and gospel went on to influence the blues, and rock and roll music in such huge ways.”

Davis, a sophomore Music Industry major, said, “The significance of gospel music in America is to uplift people and give them hope. Gospel allows people to connect with God, with each other, and with themselves.”

In a live stream video of the event, the First Lady said that the White House started hosting these workshops because of their work with the GRAMMY Museum and a desire to connect entertainers and artists that are visiting the area to young people across the country. In a live stream video, the First Lady said, “One of the most exciting parts about the music series is that we get to open the house up to you all.” 

Battaglia said, “It was almost unreal to sit in the same room as Michelle Obama, but she was quite calming and not too intimidating. She was a warm spirit to be around.”

Chang-Soon, a senior Music Industry major, said, “Meeting the first lady was inspiring, to say the least. The fact that she stresses the importance of music and arts in a culture that does not see those subjects as a necessity by any means is inspiring in itself. Her attempts to shift the cultural views that are placed on the importance of music and arts is very admirable.” 

Over the years, country, soul, classical, and other musical genres have been discussed; however, the April 14 series focused on gospel music. In a live stream video, the First Lady said, “Gospel music has really played such an important role in our country’s history from the spiritual sung by slaves, to the anthems that became the soundtrack of the Civil Rights Movement, to the hymns that millions of Americans sing every single day in churches all across the country. For so many of us, these songs are some of the very first melodies we ever hear. That was certainly true for me.”

Chang-Soon said, “During a time when racial segregation was at the forefront of the minds of every American, gospel music seemed to be one of the only forms of racial integration. Americans would find refuge and purpose in gospel music, despite skin color. Although it primarily stems from African American music traditions, its crossover into White European music traditions created a unique and special genre that also benefited our culture entirely.” 

The First Lady went on to say that everyone will face struggle, even the guests sitting on stage were up there because of what they had overcome. In a live stream video, the First Lady said, “When you hear that music, it gets your feet tapping and your heart pumping, it gets you ready and prepared to take in that sermon for the day, it’s what helps connect us to God, to that higher power. For so many, when times are dark and when you’re struggling, gospel music is that ray of hope and it gives you that strength.”

In a live stream video, the First Lady exemplified this resiliency by sharing a synopsis of Darlene Love’s story. The First Lady said that Love sang the lead on the song ‘He’s a Rebel’ in 1962, which went to the top of the charts; however, due to her race, the record was released under someone else’s name. She continued to sing back up on the biggest hits of the 60’s, singing with Elvis Presley, Cher, and so on, yet her name remained completely unknown.

Battaglia said, “Darlene Love stood out to me because of her story and struggles of making it in the music industry because of her race. She told a story of her cleaning a bathroom at one point in her career and hearing someone else singing one of her songs on the radio. After that incident, she fought back and had a monumental career ever since.”

According to the First Lady’s live-streamed summary, Love eventually returned to singing, first on a cruise ship and then writing her own album and getting more recognition for her original classics. Love is now a member of the Rock N’ Roll Hall of Fame. 

In a live stream video, the First Lady said, “That’s the main thing I want young people who come through this house to understand is that life is inevitably filled with hurdles. You’re going to fail and fail big a lot, but the best way to prepare yourself for recovering from that failure is to get your education.”

The First Lady ended her introduction by encouraging the students to take advantage of their experience. In a live stream video, she said, “We wanted to talk about the genre, but we also hope that you walk away a little bit more inspired to be as great as you can be because we’re counting on you - President, First Lady, we’re all counting on you to take over that baton and to be the leaders of tomorrow, and you all can do it.”

Following the First Lady and Santelli’s speeches, the panel of guests shared their experiences with gospel music as well. Lovett said, “If you are a believer you can be inspired by the words, by the message in a hymn or a gospel song. But even if you’re not, you can be inspired by the music, you can be moved to that emotion that’s built into those words...And in a way it’s a great privilege as a believer to sing to people who may have different beliefs because if you connect through the music, if you’re able to portray the emotion in that music and other people can feel that, it just might bring them a step closer to believing as well.” 

Williams said, “Gospel music just sometimes reminds you of your purpose. It reminds why you should stay relentless and be strong and be resilient.”

After hearing the guests speak of their individual experiences with gospel music, Davis said, “The one that stood out the most was Williams. She was the one I knew the most about being that she was in Destiny’s Child. She answered a lot of the questions that students asked and it was great to hear her opinion and feelings about gospel and the industry, and even how she combines the two.”

The students also had the opportunity to participate in a question and answer session with the panel of guests. Latkovich said, “I had the privilege of asking a question to the panel of five artists and four of them answered, which was incredible. I asked if they had any advice for someone looking for a job in the business part of the music industry, and after they chuckled Love, Giddens, Williams, and Crowell gave some extremely valuable advice. Giddens told me to build a circle of people around me that I can trust. Crowell said that if I have creativity and passion, the industry desperately needs it. Williams encouraged me to seek out information about industry conferences and workshops and read everything I can about the industry.”

To conclude the workshop, Giddens sang a gospel song “I Know I’ve Been Changed”, followed by Love, who sang “Why Should I Feel Discouraged?”. Davis said, “They sang it acapella and it was wonderful to be able to hear these talented people sing.”

The students also had the opportunity to listen to and sing with Howard University’s gospel choir. 

Davis said, “I learned the powerful impact that gospel can have on people. Hearing the choir sing really made me feel something and connect to what they were singing. Many people have said during the workshops that gospel helps them in life as well as get closer to God.”

Battaglia said, “There is so much opportunity and if you have the drive and the commitment, you can do whatever you want. Along with sightseeing and traveling, this trip as a whole motivated me to continue to do what I love and after a five hour drive back, I dove head first in to a sweaty, loud, aggressive band practice with the people I love. Music has been and always will be the passion that flows through my veins and I want to thank Professor Rapolla for this once in a lifetime opportunity.”

PHOTO COURTESY of Monmouth University

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