Sep 25

The Harlem Gospel Travelers

Jammin Java All Ages
Doors 6:30PM | Show 7:30PM

About the event

“When I grew up, on the way to church, you’d listen to gospel music,” says Ifedayo Gatling of the Harlem Gospel Travelers. “Then on the way back from church, it was ‘Back That Azz Up.’ Music is music, as long as it makes you feel something. I always tell people, no matter what you believe in, it’s about how does this makes you feel? Does it make you feel like you want to be a better person? Does it make you feel like you want to love somebody that you didn’t want to love before?”

With their new album Rhapsody, the extraordinary vocalists of HGT—Gatling, Dennis Bailey, and George Marage—are able to fully explore the entire range of music that influenced them. The follow-up to their acclaimed 2021 release Look Up!, the record is a dive into a lesser-known but hugely important era in the evolution of gospel music.

Starting in the mid-1960s, gospel groups and singers began incorporating elements of popular soul and funk styles. Local church bands across the country were recording these ferocious grooves and pressing them up on small batches of 45s. But it wasn’t until 2006, when Chicago-based reissue label Numero Group released their first volume of their gospel funk series, Good God! A Gospel Funk Hymnal, that these revelatory singles were collected and made widely available.

HGT’s longtime friend and mentor Eli Paperboy Reed approached the group with the idea of digging through the Numero catalog and recording some of the gospel funk material, reinterpreted in their own way. “It allowed us to take these songs that a lot of people might not know and put our own spin on a genre that we built our livelihood in,” says Gatling, “and also expand people’s mindset about how they view gospel music and how they view us.”

“Once we got the catalog of different music,” says Marage, “I was like, ‘Oh, I can see myself putting my own little twist on this song.’ If music connects to my soul, it speaks to me. I have a church background, but I didn’t necessarily grow up the same way Ifedayo did, as a pastor’s kid. So when I hear this music, even though they’re talking about God, I enjoy the passion and the message that they put into the music and I could find my own passion in it.”

Gatling and co-producer/guitarist Reed homed in on songs by Chicago’s Pastor T.L. Barrett, Cleveland’s Shirley Ann Lee, Brooklyn’s Jonah Thompson, and many more. At the group’s studio home base, Hive Mind Recording in Bushwick, Brooklyn, they set to work reimaging and rearranging the selections, calling on the same rhythm section featured on Look Up!—Noah Rubin on drums and Jesse Barnes on bass—with the addition of legendary gospel organist Gregory Kelly.

“A lot of this music sounds like traditional high-energy, high-power soul music,” says Gatling. “On a song like ‘God’s Been Good to Me,’ I mapped out how I was going to sing based on Aretha Franklin.” (He’s also proud that on that track, he hits the highest note he’s ever recorded, “a whopping E flat five.”)

Gatling points out that Rhapsody is intended to showcase the full power of HGT as a collective. “It was important for all of us to have our own creative lens,” they say. “So we picked all of the material based on the different sides of our voices and our personalities that we wanted to show. On ‘Get Involved,’ Dennis can lean more into his hip-hop roots and have that Tupac vibe, that rough kind of soul. When you’re in a group, you play your part, but I wanted people to see that we are strong together but we’re also strong individuals and that’s what makes us so great.”

Marage singles out “God’s Love,” originally recorded by Rockford, Illinois quartet the Spiritual Harmonizers, as a breakthrough. “For the most part, I can sing anything,” he says, “but in order to really get the message, I have to envision myself creating the song and make it my own. When we got into the studio, I was a little nervous, because of the high notes—I mean, I can hit high notes, but this was a little higher than expected. But I’m gonna give it my best.”

“This entire album pushed all of us beyond what we thought was our vocal peak,” says Gatling, “so to hear the way that he sang that song, to tell the story and really paint the picture, is amazing. His artist is Mariah Carey, mine is Brandy, and in ‘God’s Love’ we were able to pull those inspirations into the harmonies and how we supported him. It’s probably my favorite song off the record.”

The Harlem Gospel Travelers story began when Gatling and Marage met in high school. The group put out their debut LP, He’s On Time, to rave reviews in 2019, earning them high profile fans like Elton John (who invited them to appear on his “Rocket Hour” radio show on Apple Music) and landing them festival slots everywhere from Pilgrimage to Telluride Jazz. Originally a quartet, they brought in Bailey and reconfigured as a trio prior to recording Look Up!. their first album of all original material.

The genre-busting approach of Rhapsody also encouraged the members of HGT to further embrace their own identities within the context of gospel music. “There are a whole bunch of queer people in the traditional church,” says Gatling, “but the openness hasn’t been there, people are very hush-hush about it. We want to represent people being free and sharing love and understanding with each other. That’s something that I see in our show all the time, people are inspired by us to go and spread love.

“It’s great to be a representation of a positive force and gospel music that is accepting of

all people,” they continue. “To allow people to see themselves, see full freedom of expression—and how I express myself is completely different from how George or Dennis expresses himself. To have three different representations of Black queer people who happen to sing gospel music is something that, to my knowledge, has not been done before.”

At a moment when projects like Beyonce’s Cowboy Carter album are leading to reconsiderations of genre and category and who’s allowed to participate in which traditions, HGT are squarely on the cultural pulse. “We’ve been blessed enough to be ahead of the game,” says Gatling. “There’s so much conversation going on now about genres being just a construct, and we always found it difficult to stay in this one lane of what people think gospel is supposed to be. This record allowed us to hear people that were innovators in their own time, pushing how gospel music sounded, and in 2024, we’re having that conversation again. We’ve created this project that is message-wise gospel, but the feeling and the sound can be whatever you want it to be, with all these things that hit different notes on the taste buds.”

“Jesus Rhapsody,” first recorded by Preacher & The Saints, gives the album its title and perfectly encapsulates the group’s ambitions. “When I first heard this song, I was like, this is the embodiment of that blurred line,” says Gatling. “This could be played in the club—and depending on how lit you are, you don’t even know that he’s saying Jesus—or it could be playing in a very progressive church. It allows for it to be received by everyone and it has that feel that allows you to lose yourself in the music. It’s that energy that Soul Train brought, where people would just go out to dance and have a good time and it didn’t matter how fucked up their lives were as long as they were on that dance floor.

“That’s what I want people to feel—to know that when you come to see HGT, you’re coming to see a show, and you’re gonna feel better about yourself, you’re gonna feel better about the world, you’re gonna want to do better.”

“We have people that come,” says Marage, “and they’re like, ‘I don’t believe in God, but I believe in the music and I believe in the message that you’re spreading.’ So I feel like we’re doing good work, and we’re gonna continue to do what we need to do and represent good vibes, good energy, and glory.”

This show is at Jammin Java

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227 Maple Ave East
Vienna, VA 22180
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