When thinking about gospel music, Waterloo Region is probably not the first place that comes to mind. The recent Juno award-winning Artistic Director of the Waterloo Region Mass Choir, Darren Hamilton, wants to change that perception. I had the pleasure and privilege of speaking with Darren about his musical pursuits, the gospel genre and choir, and how music has a part to play in the realm of social justice.
At an early age, Darren knew that music would hold a special place in his heart. Growing up in a Black church, Darren joined its gospel youth choir at around the age of nine. Throughout high school, he didn’t participate in a single music course outside of some after school private piano lessons. Darren was involved in two community gospel choirs, one of which recorded a song that was nominated for a Juno award in 1997. This wouldn’t be the last Juno experience for Darren.
Despite there only being classical or jazz music streams available at the time (and not his one true love, gospel), Darren attended York University for music, graduating in 2005 with a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree. During his time at university and after graduating, Darren worked as a bank teller and personal banker. It was there that he identified how much he enjoyed helping and educating people. Seeking to combine his love of music with his desire to enlighten, Darren took an additional year of music education courses at York to upgrade, and then applied to teacher’s college at the University of Toronto (UofT). As serendipity would have it, York had just started a gospel music program! Darren now held a Master of Music degree for music education and would go on to be a high school music teacher in the Peel District School Board for 14 years. As part of his current work towards a PhD in music education, with a focus on gospel music and pedagogy, he has also created and teaches a gospel choir course at UofT.
Darren’s passion for gospel music radiates from him as he speaks. He believes that gospel music needs to be included in school curricula. Not only to diversify from the typical classical, westernized music curricula that is taught (and often required), but also represent an extremely important part of Black culture. To that end, he has facilitated workshops at the Ontario Music Educators’ Association Conference to inform teachers about the gospel genre.
In his words, “It’s not enough to just go out and find a score of gospel music, and teach it from that score, as it’s written, without taking the time to understand all the aesthetics of the music.” He shared that amongst other non-Western/European music stylings, gospel is an aural tradition which is quite different from most sheet based music. This is one reason, he argued, that there aren’t a lot of Black people admitted to music programs or if they are, they don’t stay; their musical stylings and talents are not recognized or appreciated. “Other cultural groups have phenomenal musicianship in being able to play by ear, to improvise, due to their aural tradition, and our institutions need to start to value those skills.”
Darren is passionate about eradicating anti-Black racism in the education system, especially as it relates to music. He strives to ensure that Black music is represented and included in the curriculum to expand education about Black history and culture, as well as “to ensure that our Black and racialized students are engaged in music education”. To that end, Darren was awarded a grant from the MusiCounts Band Aid Program in 2021 that allowed him to create and run a new high school course entitled “The Sights and Sounds of Hip-Hop and R&B” .
The first offering of the course this past Fall was very well received by students, and he hopes to expand it from grades 9-10 this year into grades 11-12 in future academic years. Earlier in 2022, he also co-authored an education resource for teachers entitled “#BlackMusicMatters: Hip-Hop & Social Justice in Canada” which specifically focuses on hip-hop through a Canadian lens as a tool for advocacy and addressing social justice issues .
His dedication to music education and pedagogy has not gone unnoticed—at this year’s Juno Awards, Darren was awarded the 2022 MusiCounts Teacher of the Year Award. The significance of being the first Black educator to win the award since it launched 17 years ago, has not eluded him. It was “a testimony to the reality that there are very few racialized musicians that exist in music education because of all the systemic barriers that have kept us out.” Darren is actively working to ensure that he is not the last!
Teaching and furthering education about music hasn’t been enough for Darren. In 2015, he became involved with the Toronto Mass Choir, one of the more known gospel choirs in the country—first as a singer, but rapidly moving to directing some performances. As Darren noted, “it was through those experiences that I started to recognize the gift I had, the passion I had for leading people in music.” Darren and his wife relocated to Waterloo Region in 2017, and quickly realized that “there’s not a lot of gospel music happening out here.” Darren’s move to Waterloo, coupled with the realization of his gift, culminated in the creation of the Waterloo Region Mass Choir (WRMC) in 2018.
While only having been in existence for four years, the WRMC has already made a major impact on the area. In 2019, WRMC performed with the KW Symphony for the annual Yuletide Spectacular at Centre in the Square—the first time there had ever been a presence of gospel music in the Yuletide’s seventy-year history. The choir was so well received, they were invited back for 2020. However—as with almost everything in 2020— the event was curtailed due to COVID-19, and again in 2021. The exposure from that one Yuletide experience, though, was a boon to the choir who had previously only performed for some church services or community events. After their performance in 2019, bookings began to roll in for 2020 concerts, festivals, and Black History Month events; some were able to take place before the lockdown, but most were cancelled.
The pandemic was quite a blow to the choir, but they did not let it slow them down. Between the Yuletide performance and the events performed pre-lockdown, a lot of interest was generated from the public; inquiries about whether the choir had music available for purchase multiplied astronomically. WRMC saw an opportunity to not only meet that need but also further their reach into the community. In the months of shutdown, WRMC produced an EP entitled Not Powerless which was released on April 29th of this year. The title track, Not Powerless (Pray), and the track They That Wait, were both written by Darren himself (yes, he’s also a songwriter!), and he created the arrangement for the song Wade in The Water on the album.
Darren explained for me that although gospel is an African American tradition, brought to Canada through slavery and the Underground Railroad, Canada’s gospel music often has a unique sound “because there’s a lot of West Indian immigrants here, so the influence of calypso, reggae, and all those Caribbean flavours have contributed to ‘Canadian’ gospel sound.” While he acknowledges that gospel music doesn’t have a large presence in Canada, he does believe that gospel’s influence extends well beyond the Black community. This is evidenced in the choir’s membership which “has a high Black population but is diverse”, as well as by how well-received they have been in this predominantly white region. WRMC is introducing gospel to a brand-new audience, and given his love of the genre, Darren couldn’t be happier— “there’s just something about the gospel choir sound that is so attractive and powerful.”
Accompanying the title track is a music video and a single version, and the choir has also created a docu-series to tell the story of how the WRMC came to be, its members, as well as an episode to complement each track on the EP. The first episode of the docu-series is out now with the second to be released shortly. The choir has also participated in the video for the song Freedom Marching produced by Rufus John as part of the Freedom Marching project, which focuses on the local Black Lives Matter movement. While not a gospel song, Darren says it was “a no brainer” to get involved in the project since “social justice is a huge piece of who I am and what I’m passionate about as an educator”.
For Darren, WRMC is one more way for him to use the music he loves to educate people about Black history and introduce them to a genre of music rooted in Black culture. As he put it at the end of our interview, “One of the important things about understanding history and culture through music is that it opens your eyes to be able to understand who people are. And when you understand who people are, then your preconceived ideas and stereotypes that cause you to hate people…they get demolished.” Education through music is one way for society to work towards equity, justice, and peace… one note at a time.
The WRMC EP and single are available through all online music platforms – Spotify, Apple Music, iTunes – as well as available for purchase on their website. The EP in CD format is also available for purchase there, along with merchandise and information about how to book the choir for performances: https://wrmasschoir.ca/.