Mama Foundation for the Arts Preserves Gospel Music in an Evolving Industry

Dissatisfied with the music program at her performing arts high school in New York, Ahmaya Knoelle Higginson and her mother, Vy Higginsen, along with Cissy Houston, decided to create an alternative.

They started Gospel for Teens, a program within the Mama Foundation for the Arts, a nonprofit organization based in Harlem. Since 2006, Gospel for Teens has helped preserve gospel, jazz and R & B music by offering free vocal training to 1,400 students.

“‘Mama’ means to nourish, encourage and fine tune. ‘Foundation’ means to educate, experience and gain access to opportunity,” said Ms. Higginsen, who uses a variation of her family name, Higginson. She wrote the 1983 musical, “Mama, I Want to Sing!,” with her husband, Ken Wydro.

“We often have talent and no access or no outlet,” she said. “We are driven to make sure that our young people are seen and heard. I’m not promising you fame and fortune, but I’m promising that you’ll be seen and heard.”

But acclaim, along with opportunity, followed. The CBS news program “60 Minutes” featured the Gospel for Teens program in 2011. Its extension is called Vy Higginsen’s Sing Harlem Choir, and it is an advanced ensemble that has performed alongside an array of artists, including Madonna, Chance the Rapper and Ariana Grande. At the 2018 Grammy Awards, the choir performed with SZA.

Vy Higginsen, founder of the Mama Foundation for the Arts, singing along with the foundation’s Gospel for Teens choir as they rehearse for a show. The Mama Foundation is a non-profit based in Harlem that gives teens and young adults vocal training in gospel music. Ivan Armando Flores/NYT Institute

Every school semester, the Mama Foundation hosts auditions for students to become members of the Gospel for Teens program. The foundation, which was created in 1998, produces musicals and offers classes, workshops, and seminars to students in the Harlem community. In summers, the foundation hosts a singing boot camp.

David Moses was one of the earliest recruits to Gospel for Teens, spending several years in the program. He said his time there helped him blossom.

“I was in music before the foundation. However, I was also an introverted kid growing up,” Mr. Moses said. “When I first started with them I wasn’t really putting myself out there. However, during my time with the Mama Foundation, I was able to come out of that shell that I was so trapped in.”

Today, Mr. Moses is a songwriter and said he has singles coming out this summer.

Elijah Ahmad Lewis, the godson of Ms. Higginsen, grew up with music all around him in church and through his family members, who were in the industry. He then joined the Mama Foundation and pursued music as his profession.

He found success as a solo artist, playing Stevie Wonder in the Broadway musical “Motown the Musical,” and he sang and performed with Mr. Wonder.

Mr. Lewis returned to the Mama Foundation as an art director and co-director of the choirs, alongside Ahmaya Knoelle Higginson. He said he wanted to give back by helping mold the children in the program.

Ebony Spicer is part of that new generation. The 11-year-old said she joined Gospel for Teens after hearing about the auditions on the radio.

The Mama Foundation created a music curriculum, which involves students learning music by ear, in addition to methods Ms. Higginson said she learned in college and adapted for the foundation.

“After a couple of years we realized that music is really like medicine, because at first we were just trying to preserve the history because we knew the industry is changing,” she said. “And then we realized that we have an enrichment program on our hands.”

“It’s evolved to be a very comfortable place where these kids can come in and it’s something for them, and not for their parents. When they come in, there’s a different family other than theirs. Then they can sing it all out, that’s like a dream,” Ms. Higginson said.

Gospel for Teens, a choir within the Mama Foundation for the Arts, rehearsing before an upcoming show. Since its formation in 1998, the Mama Foundation in Harlem has offered vocal training and performance groups to teens and young adults. Ivan Armando Flores/NYT Institute

Amyah Wright, 16, another member of Gospel for Teens, said being a part of it allows her to “express herself” and “let everything go” after she enters the Harlem brownstone that is home to the organization. A fellow singer, Christopher Lane, 13, said the group is like a family.

For the last nine years, Vy Higginsen’s Sing Harlem Choir has inspired audiences at the Gospel Sunday Brunch, held weekly at Ginny’s Supper Club in the basement of the Red Rooster restaurant. The choir also performs at Whole Foods in Harlem on Thursdays.

One recent Sunday, Nikki Moore Samson was attending the Gospel Sunday Brunch with a friend, Dawn Mandeville, to celebrate Ms. Samson’s birthday.

“I didn’t even go to church today,” Ms. Samson said, “but I feel like I was at church.”

Ms. Mandeville said: “It gives me goose bumps. I have no words for the talent.”