If you were one of the millions of people around the world who watched the wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle earlier this year, chances are you remember the gospel choir.
The Kingdom Choir, which is based in London, captivated audiences from around the world with their performance. When they left the chapel that day, crowds called out to the members, trying to take selfies, offering a very different experience than hours before when they entered, says choir conductor Karen Gibson.
"It felt almost like we were being mobbed and being treated like celebrities and I was like, 'Whoa, what is this?' and then of course Facebook went mad as did Instagram," Gibson says. "I think that's when I got a bit of a hint at what was going on."
The group recently released its debut album, Stand By Me, that features renditions of top hits from John Legend, Beyoncé and Coldplay, as well as gospel classics that include "Amazing Grace" and "Hark! The Herald Angels Sing."
Prior to this royal wedding, the group had performed for many other notable individuals, including Queen Elizabeth II, Bill Clinton, Desmond Tutu and Nelson Mandela.
Gibson says she thinks this particular event struck a chord because it was a wedding. "Everybody loves a good wedding," she says, especially when "two very special people" were involved.
"I particularly have a soft spot for Harry — and then there's Meghan who is of mixed heritage," Gibson says. "Then there was the fact that this wedding passed by some of the usual traditions."
England's best kept secret
Gibson says she doesn't recall a black gospel choir performing at a royal wedding. The group's performance and the sermon given by Bishop Michael Curry made the ceremony particularly inclusive, she says.
But all throughout Britain — and Europe more broadly — the gospel community is thriving, says Gibson.
"Before I was a signed artist, I was up and down Europe ... teaching gospel music workshops nearly every weekend in places like France, Belgium, Spain, Italy, Poland, Sweden, Denmark, The Czech Republic, Latvia, it just goes on and on," Gibson says. "Gospel music I think is very much alive and well."
Mixing the sacred and the secular
One of the songs the choir decided to include on its debut album is "Something Inside So Strong" by Labi Siffre. The song is known and loved by many, but mainly as an anti-apartheid anthem. Regardless of how people know the song, Gibson says it has a resounding message for all.
"I feel that the song speaks of an inner strength. It speaks of resilience. It speaks of hope. It speaks of identity and knowing yourself," Gibson says. "That despite what troubles come your way, despite the things that will come to knock you down or make you feel low, actually if you reach deep down, you can find hope for tomorrow."
Gibson says it's important that people learn this resilience and "have that understanding that whatever's going on, joy comes in the morning. There's always a brighter day tomorrow. Always."
"Something Inside So Strong" is just one of many songs that provide a mix of anthems, gospel classics and pop.
"We wanted songs that people could connect to, but actually, I kind of think that some of the differences that we put between the secular and the sacred sometimes, you can find the sacred in what we see as the secular," Gibson says. "When I hear the song 'Make You Feel My Love,' that speaks of God's love to me, do ya know?"
The role of gospel music in today's climate
Gibson says feedback has already been pouring in from fans.
"They're talking about washing up the dishes and bursting into tears, or you know, having real, great spiritual moments," Gibson says. "Hearing these songs that we say our pop and we want to maybe put them on that side because they belong to the pop world. But actually, if you listen to the lyrics, some of them, you know, I think you can have great experiences with them."
Though The Kingdom Choir is receiving a warm reception, its album comes at a time of heightening racial tension in the world and in England. When it became clear that Meghan Markle and Prince Harry were dating, Markle received racist hostility directed at her, so much so that the palace had to speak about it.
Gibson says she sees the embrace of the album as an expression of listeners' desire to embrace inclusion, diversity and love.
"I think that it means that people want to hear good music," Gibson says. "I think that it means that people are tired of the ugliness and that they're embracing something that brings hope."
NPR's Gemma Watters and Martha Wexler produced and edited the audio for this story. Wynne Davis adapted it for the Web.
MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Finally today, it's been a hard week. I think we can all agree on that. So before we leave you, we have this little offering for your soul. If you are one of the millions of people around the world who watched the wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle earlier this year, then I bet you remember this gospel choir.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "STAND BY ME")
KINGDOM CHOIR: (Singing) So darling, darling stand by me, oh, stand by me. Yes. Stand by me, stand by me. Stand by me.
MARTIN: That is, of course, the Kingdom Choir, led by the award-winning conductor Karen Gibson. The group, which is based in London, has now released its debut album. It's called "Stand By Me." And Karen Gibson is with us now from the BBC studios in London.
Karen Gibson, welcome. Thank you so much for joining us.
KAREN GIBSON: Oh, you're so welcome. Thank you for having me.
MARTIN: And thank you for singing that song...
MARTIN: ...That beautiful song. I feel better already.
GIBSON: I'm glad you enjoy it.
MARTIN: When did you realize that something huge had happened, something enormous had happened?
GIBSON: I think it was after the wedding and trying to get across the road to the press building. The crowds were still outside, of course, and people were calling out to us, trying to take selfies. And it just felt so different from a couple of hours before when we're going into the chapel. It felt almost like we were being mobbed and being treated like celebrities. And I was, like, whoa. What is this? And then, of course, Facebook went mad, as did Instagram. I think that's when, you know, I got a bit of a hint...
GIBSON: ...Of what was going on (laughter).
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "STAND BY ME")
KINGDOM CHOIR: (Singing) I won't cry. I won't cry. No, I won't shed a tear. Just as long as you stand, stand by me.
MARTIN: Well, you know, it - the royal wedding was not your first big gig. I mean you'd...
MARTIN: ...Previously performed for Queen Elizabeth, Bill Clinton...
GIBSON: That's right.
MARTIN: ...Desmond Tutu, Nelson Mandela.
GIBSON: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah.
MARTIN: What was it about this particular event that you think struck such a chord?
GIBSON: There's a few things, I think. Number one is wedding. Everybody loves a good wedding (laughter). But it's a wedding of two very special people, I believe. I particularly have a soft spot for Harry, I have to say. And then there's this beautiful...
MARTIN: And who doesn't?
MARTIN: Go on. Do go on.
KINGDOM CHOIR: It's true. It's true. And then there's Meghan, who is of mixed heritage. And then there was the fact, I think, that this wedding passed by some of the usual traditions. I do not remember a black gospel choir at a royal wedding in my living memory (laughter). And you had Bishop Curry. So it was a very inclusive ceremony.
MARTIN: Well, you know, speaking of gospel choirs, you said you don't recall a particular black gospel choir performing at a royal wedding. I'm not...
MARTIN: ...Sure that a lot of people perhaps outside of England know that there are black gospel choirs in England. And so...
MARTIN: I just think - well, I'm just saying that I think the image that a lot of us would have would be people who are attached to the African-American experience. In fact, I think you said in an interview that gospel is England's best-kept secret. So just...
GIBSON: Yeah. Yeah.
MARTIN: Tell us a bit more about how the gospel tradition lives in England.
GIBSON: Right. Yeah. Happy to. There are so many gospel choirs up and down the country. And when I say it's the best-kept secret, those in the know know. There is a - very much a thriving gospel community in Britain - not only in Britain, but in Europe. So I - before I was a signed artist, I was up and down Europe. And I'm not the only one. Several of my peers would be teaching gospel music workshops nearly every weekend in places like France, Belgium, Spain, Italy, Poland, Sweden, Denmark, the Czech Republic, Latvia. It just goes on and on and on. Gospel music is very much alive and well.
MARTIN: Well, speaking of which, I mean, one of the songs from the album - I just want to play it...
MARTIN: It's a cover of Labi Siffre's "Something Inside So Strong."
MARTIN: Let's play it, and then you go tell me...
GIBSON: Yeah. Yeah.
MARTIN: ...About why you wanted to put this one on the album. Here, let's hear it.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SOMETHING INSIDE SO STRONG")
KINGDOM CHOIR: (Singing) You can deny me. You can decide to turn your face away. No matter 'cause something inside so strong. I know, I know that I can make it, though you're doing me wrong, so wrong. You thought that my pride was gone...
MARTIN: You know, obviously a lot of people love this song. But...
MARTIN: Many people know it as an anti-apartheid song. So tell me why you wanted to have this on the album.
GIBSON: Because I feel that the song speaks of an inner strength. It speaks of resilience. It speaks of hope. It speaks of identity and knowing yourself - that despite what troubles come your way, despite the things that would come to knock you down or make you feel low, actually, if you reach deep down, you can find hope for tomorrow. And I think that's so important that people learn that resilience and have that understanding that, you know, whatever's going on, joy comes in the morning. There's always a brighter day tomorrow - always.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SOMETHING INSIDE SO STRONG")
KINGDOM CHOIR: (Singing) The more you refuse to hear my voice, the louder I will sing, sing, sing, sing. You hide behind walls of Jericho. The walls come tumbling in.
MARTIN: And it's interesting also that the mix of songs - that you've got a lot of pop songs on it. And I was wondering...
MARTIN: ...About that. What were you going for with that?
GIBSON: OK. So we wanted songs that people could connect to. But actually, I kind of think that some of the differences that we've put between the secular and the sacred - sometimes you can find the sacred in what we see as secular. I mean, when I hear the song "Make You Feel My Love" - that speaks of God's love to me, you know?
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MAKE YOU FEEL MY LOVE")
KINGDOM CHOIR: (Singing) When the rain is blowing in your face, and the whole world is on your case, I could offer you a warm embrace to make you feel my love.
GIBSON: People who have been writing us about the impact the album has had on them - and they're talking about washing up the dishes and bursting into tears or, you know, having real great spiritual moments hearing these songs that we say are pop, and we want to maybe put them on that side because they belong to the pop world. But, actually, if you listen to the lyrics, some of them - you know, I think you can have great experiences with them. We don't have to give them these labels of pop or not.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MAKE YOU FEEL MY LOVE")
KINGDOM CHOIR: (Singing) I'll make you happy, make your dreams come true. There's nothing that I wouldn't do for you, go to the ends of the earth for you to make you feel my love.
MARTIN: Do you find it interesting, though, that you're receiving this reception at a time when there's just so much ugliness - particularly so much ugliness around race and difference in ethnicity? I mean, let's just be real about it. I mean, the fact is...
MARTIN: Meghan Markle did receive some kind of racist hostility directed toward her when it was first understood that she and the prince were together, and to the point where the...
MARTIN: ...The palace even had to speak about it.
MARTIN: I just wonder how you receive the fact that you are being embraced so warmly at a time when there is so much other ugliness elsewhere.
GIBSON: I think that it means that people want to hear good news. I think it means that people are tired of the ugliness, and they're embracing something that brings hope. I was in Marks and Spencers the other day, a big - I shouldn't maybe - not say that, but anyway a big department store. And I was shopping for a coat.
MARTIN: We've heard of it. Yeah (laughter). We know about it.
GIBSON: Great. Anyway, I was shopping. And this lady was also in the mirror trying on the coat. And then she turned around to me and said, you're that gospel Lady, aren't you? And I said, yes. And then she proceeds to tell me that - she said that her grandmother was the biggest racist. I didn't expect any of this. She comes out and says this. And then she said, but they lived in an area which is a very urban area called Peckham in London. And she was then introduced to gospel music. And she said that gospel music helped her to see past skin color and helped her to see black people as people, which was really important for the lady that I was talking to because her children were of mixed heritage. And she said, by the time her nan passed, she was able to accept her jewel heritage grandchildren because she'd been started off on the pathway of acceptance through listening to gospel music.
And I was blown away by that because I did not expect that singing "Stand By Me" on a national stage could bring about racial conciliation. And then there's the other side, where black people have come to me and said, we felt like it was our wedding. Or there's the other lady on the bus, who, when I sat down next to her, she said - started talking about the song and then said, yes, we've made it. So there's that thing of inclusion and that thing of acceptance that it's - that seems to have taken off. And I think it's the right time. I think people are saying, we don't want to do the ugliness. We want acceptance. We want love. We want inclusion. We want diversity. And it's all good.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BLINDED BY YOUR GRACE")
KINGDOM CHOIR: (Singing) Lord, I've been broken. Although I'm not worthy, you fixed me...
MARTIN: Karen Gibson. She is the conductor of the Kingdom Choir. Their debut album as signed artists is called "Stand By Me." Karen Gibson, thank you so much for talking with us, and continued success to you.
GIBSON: Thank you so much. It's been a pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.