Barnes and Menifee: African American Gospel Singing

Marcellus Barnes
, of Chattanooga, has been at the forefront of the city’s gospel music community for over 20 years. Today the pastor at Grace Pointe Church, Marcellus studied under composer, conductor and pianist Dr. Roland Carter, and received his BA in Music Education with an emphasis in voice and choral conducting from the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. His true music education, however, started far from the college classroom. “My parents were quartet singers and they exposed me to gospel music,” he explains. “I learned gospel music by playing the piano by rote, and eventually I learned to sing and play by note. I learned I had this talent at a young age. I realized that I could mimic sounds from an auditory standpoint both vocally and by keyboard. As far as I know, this skill was natural, but I discovered that I had a knack for playing by ear at the age of 15. I developed skills in hearing sounds, notes and mimicking on instruments and vocally.”

Marcellus is the Founder and Director of Unity Performing Arts Foundation of Chattanooga, where he works closely with youth and young adults. He has performed with Grammy, Stellar, and Dove award winning musicians. Marcellus regularly leads workshops where he focuses musically on what he calls the “Soulful Art Forms.” “What we consider gospel is losing its ‘soulful sound’ and becoming more commercial. It’s almost rare to hear it on the radio, but the hunger from the culture has created more interest in the sound again. It’s so important because as African Americans, it’s what Kodaly would call our ‘mother tongue’ and we need to cultivate it and preserve it. It gives life and tells the story and journey of our history.”

As part of the Traditional Arts Apprenticeship Program this year, Marcellus is teaching apprentice Jarvis Menifee his soulful gospel sound, specifically the singing style. “I plan to teach the African American gospel singing tradition, both in its traditional and contemporary soulful forms. This art form is endangered in my community, in my opinion. Many people, especially youth, do not have the opportunities to express themselves through their musical talents. I believe that if it were molded, trained, cultivated, then they would have an outlet, possibly a career. I think that my passion for the art form and my abilities to effectively train vocally, as well as my experiences, can help preserve this art form.”

For Jarvis, this is an opportunity to hone musical skills that have long been important to him. Jarvis was born and raised in Chattanooga and currently serves as music director at his church Resurrected Baptist Church under the leadership of Pastor Eddie D. Jacks. Jarvis comes from a family of singers and musicians and has been heavily influenced by his grandfather. He has sung with many artists in the gospel genre, including gospel artists such as Donnie McClurkin, Kierra Sheard, Judith McAllister, and James Hall, and more, and more. Jarvis writes, “[music is] where our roots have been planted. Music is what we the African American community feed off of. It has played a big part in our heritage. When it comes to gospel music it’s even deeper. Our faith and our beliefs, we pour our heart in music it was always considered another language and till this day it still is.” Jarvis has a passion for music and uplifting people through it while teaching it as well. He plans to take his teaching and vocal wisdom to another level while perfecting his craft.

*This team is funded through a special partnership with the South Arts’ initiative In These Mountains: Central Appalachian Folk Art & Culture.