Program History

In 1991, VocalEssence created WITNESS to celebrate the artistic contributions of African Americans to the fine arts and to our common cultural heritage. By commissioning new works and programming rarely heard works by African American composers, we help broaden ideas about African American musical expression and introduce important new voices to our audiences through concerts, recordings and radio broadcasts. Michael Abels, David Baker, Ysaye Barnwell, William Banfield, Larry Farrow, Jonathan Bailey Holland, Joseph Jennings, Bobby McFerrin, Rosephanye Powell, Patrice Rushen, Evelyn Simpson-Curenton and Alvin Singleton are some of the people who have written new works and arrangements especially for the VocalEssence WITNESS program. The first commission—David Baker’s WITNESS: Six Original Compositions in a Spiritual Style—inspired the name for our program.

Our VocalEssence WITNESS concert artists have included James Earl Jones, Rita Dove, Billy Taylor, Melanie DeMore (pictured above), Jubilant Sykes, Stephen Salters, Anthony Elliott, Patrice Rushen, Paul Shaw, Marietta Simpson and Yolanda Williams, and vocal ensembles Moore by Four, the Morehouse College Glee Club, The Steele Family, The Fairfield Four, the Leigh Morris Chorale and the Fisk Jubilee Singers. Many of the featured artists have made return appearances on other VocalEssence concerts.

VocalEssence WITNESS has made it possible to initiate collaborations with African American artists in many disciplines. A Minnesota State Arts Board Cultural Collaborations Grant supported our partnership with St. Paul visual artist Ta-coumba Aiken, whose art has become the visual representation of VocalEssence WITNESS on all ads and publications. Aiken’s large, colorful banners provide a stunning visual backdrop for VocalEssence WITNESS concerts, and his artwork adorns our VocalEssence WITNESS CD covers.

VocalEssence WITNESS is critical for many of the students who would not otherwise have the opportunity to attend a professional event at a major concert hall. We believe that an educational and performance experience such as VocalEssence WITNESS gives students an opportunity to learn from exceptional role models, increasing their self-esteem and creating a desire to continue exploring ways to express themselves through the arts.