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Virginia Union strives to become ‘the hub for gospel music’

Becoming a gospel musician or music producer is a path that oftengoes through a church. But one university in Richmond is hoping to provide another route.

One of Hezekiah Walker’s flash-mob youtube videos has more than 92 million views. It’s just one sign of success for the pastor. Another is his multiple Grammy awards. Now he’s got another accomplishment to add to the list: start a gospel school.

Although he’s from Brooklyn, Walker has recently been spending time in Richmond – a city close to his heart.

“Richmond was probably one of the cities that kept calling me back to do gospel concerts back in the day,” Walker explained over a recent zoom interview. “So I have to say that Richmond is like one of the cities that put me on the map.”

Walker recently found his way back to Virginia’s capital city as a student. He’s getting his master’s in theology at Virginia Union University.

“And what really made me want to get back into school was because I was singing, but I didn’t really know the Bible,” he said. “And so I didn’t really want to keep singing about something that I didn’t really know.”

About a year into his program word leaked out that a famous gospel singer was on campus. School leaders approached Walker to enlist his help in starting a music program. It seemed a natural fit.

Virginia Union is Richmond’s only historically black university. The school was founded after the Civil War for Black freedmen who wanted to enter the ministry. Today, many religious leaders call VUU’s seminary their alma mater.

“And so if this is the hub for theology. It should be the hub for gospel music,” said Walker.

Those plans came to fruition last summer, when Virginia Union announced plans to open the Hezekiah Walker Center for Gospel Music. In December, the new center hosted a single five-hour long master class. Now they’re gearing up for their first full semester of course offerings.

Courses include a business class on publishing and licensing, and a history course on the heritage of gospel.

Reverend Zynora Manson will be one of the program’s teachers. She’s a Richmond local, long-time teacher, pastor, and musician herself.

She gave me a glimpse of what students can expect as she took to the piano to play and sing “Swing low Sweet Chariot”, all while explaining the important background of the spiritual as a coded song sung by the enslaved.

“Swing low meant come down, in other words get ready to escape from slavery,” Manson explained. “But the master thought they were just singing a beautiful song.”

Manson is excited to bring this information and more to a group of students.

“This is going to be a life changing, engaging, inspirational experience, because I get the opportunity to share what I literally heard myself, not just studied… but that I literally heard my mom and my dad sing when I was a little girl,” she said.

Courses for the spring are online and enrollment is open to anyone, not just VUU students. Each class is four weeks long and students may register for a single course or multiple. Registration is open now.

Mallory Noe-Payne is a Radio IQ reporter based in Richmond.