For Kitchener-based musician and educator Darren Hamilton, gospel is part of his DNA.
“I grew up, born and raised, in a gospel church,” he said. He spent his youth singing in gospel choirs. But, outside of the church, there wasn’t much representation for gospel and other forms of Black music in the school music curriculum.
The music he loved, like gospel and R&B, wasn’t being offered; so he had to rely on the community for his music training.
He eventually decided to go to university for music education. There, too, he felt isolated because the classes he took didn’t have a lot of people who looked like him, nor were there many Black professors.
“At times, I didn’t feel like I belonged in the space. I also didn’t have the opportunity to study Black music in post-secondary,” he said.
Many of his friends, other Black gospel musicians, dropped out because they didn’t possess the level of music theory background the institutions wanted -- even though they possessed strong aural musicianship skills, something he says shouldn’t be viewed as less than notation skills.
This made it challenging for him to stay engaged, but he made it through, and is now a music educator, and pursuing his PhD at the University of Toronto. Part of his research is dedicated to considering the issue of anti-black racism in music education, and how those barriers can be broken down.
He is also working to break those barriers down himself: In 2019, he started the first gospel music credit at the University of Toronto.
“[It’s] important for institutions to be able to [include] music from different cultures,” he said, noting that programming tends to be eurocentric. That becomes problematic as well, he says, because those students go on to be music educators, and perpetuate that lack of music diversity because it’s what they were taught.
He also teaches at David Suzuki Secondary School, earning a nomination for the MusiCounts Teacher of the Year Award for his work there. The winner will be announced at the upcoming Juno Awards.
“I’m a firm believer that representation matters, and so to be recognized for this work in this way is a huge accomplishment, and a huge honour.”
He has been teaching for 14 years now at the high school level.
“I’ve been a representative for a lot of racialized students, other Black students, and they’re now able to see that there are possibilities for them that I didn’t see when I was younger, and also being introduced to a variety of music.”
However, for the past five years, Hamilton says he has also been impacting youth indirectly, by offering gospel music workshops for music educators at the Ontario Music Educators Association. These workshops provide music teachers, “most of whom do not have a background in gospel music, with the pedagogical tools and historical background needed for them to introduce gospel music in their classrooms, which may have Black and other racialized or marginalized youth in them,” he said.
Along with his educational endeavours, Hamilton is the founder and Artistic Director of the multigenerational Waterloo Region Mass Choir.
When Hamilton moved to Waterloo Region with his wife in 2017, he realized there wasn’t much happening with gospel music in the area, so he founded the choir.
Because the choir is still fairly new, and the pandemic put live shows on hold, they decided to make a 5-part documentary series to connect with and reach new audiences.
They also took that time to prioritize recording, which resulted in their new EP, Not Powerless, set to be released on April 29th. The album has a total of four tracks, including a variety of forms of gospel music, and their single of the same name.
Hamilton wrote the song himself 10 years ago.
“It was an honour to finally be able to release it,” he said.
The choir will be performing their first live show of the year at the upcoming Mel Brown Festival and Symposium at THEMUSEUM in May.
You can watch the first part of their documentary series here.