Social media whirred feverishly as Karen Gibson and The Kingdom Choir performed a hallelujah-evoking performance at Prince Harry and Meghan Markle’s royal wedding on Saturday morning.
As the couple and their high-profile guests listened quietly to the gospel ensemble’s rendition of “Stand By Me” and “This Little Light of Mine,” Black folks at home shouted praise at the casket-sharp crew’s soft blue-and-pink outfits, the soul-stirring arrangement and at what has come to be known as the Blackest wedding St. George’s Chapel has ever seen.
For over 30 years, the award-winning UK conductor has directed vocal groups, taught music in schools and led large-scale ensembles. At around 9 or 10 years old, Gibson—born to Guyanese parents and whose grandmother was in a singing group—coupled her classically trained piano lessons with the soul singing she picked up at her Black, Pentecostal church. It is the foundation for which she eventually launched the trajectory of her prestigious career. “We were going to church about two or three times a week,” she says. “And in the church, you're learning orally. I learned to sing alto from a large lady who actually sat right across the church from me.”
But after making history as the first all-Back gospel choir to play at such as occasion, how does one maintain a semblance of normal, everyday life? Gibson isn’t quite sure. “People keep saying things will never be the same again. But you know, I don't want to just run off and leave things behind.”
Essence spoke with Gibson to discuss life after the royal wedding, meeting the Duke and Duchess of Sussex and why she never fusses over her natural hair.
How did you begin directing the Kingdom Choir?
I learned the skill of choir conducting in my local church under the mentorship of a good friend of mine, Noel Robinson. He worked in radio and he brought me in to work with him on putting out this weekly music show. We would take a choir, a group of singers, and we would sing but we didn’t have a name. Well, one day, I received a phone call from TV producer Diane Reid, who produced a nationalized faith-based program called Songs of Praise. It was their 35th birthday, and she wanted to invite us on. So the night before we performed, I dreamt of the name, The Kingdom Choir. And I couldn't think of anything better, so that stuck.
Tell me how The Kingdom Choir came to be invited to the royal wedding?
It wasn't the Kingdom Choir who was invited to the wedding, it was myself. And of course, I brought my choir along, the Kingdom Choir, and invited some other old friends, some old members of the Kingdom Choir, and some other friends, to join in. Some as far as Bristol, Manchester, and for example, Wayne Ellington, who was on the UK Voice. He used to sing in the Kingdom Choir, a long time ago.
What was it like getting that call from Prince Charles’ office to come perform?
I had been told I was going to get a call, but I wasn't told what the call would be about. I didn't get the call that day, not the next day, and I thought, "Really? Is this going to happen?" I was actually riding on the bus when I finally get this call. We didn't get the call until about two months before the actual wedding. And when the contact said, "Would you like to perform? You've been invited to perform at the royal wedding." Well, my first response was, "You're kidding, right?" She just went silent on the other end. I felt so silly. I said, "Of course! Of course you're not kidding at all!" [Laughs] So that was my response. You know, complete disbelief. And I just want to be honest and say, even when organizing it, even through the rehearsal, and the contact with the Palace, I didn't quite believe this was really happening.
Now, the Duke and the Duchess chose “Stand By Me” and “This Little Light of Mine,” but who arranged the particular rendition, especially of “Stand By Me”?
The couple were very hands on in how they wanted the song sung. They wanted it very stripped back. And you know, as gospeliers, gospel practitioners, we would have been perhaps a bit more florid. But we stripped it right back, because they knew what their service would be. They knew where that song would be in the format of the service, and I guess they knew the feel that they wanted. But it was arranged by one of the choir members, Mark DeLisser. He is a fabulous arranger and vocal coach. He's getting so much interest, and people keep telling me that they were crying when they heard it.
It was absolutely gorgeous! How long did you all rehearse?
I'll be honest, we had only two proper rehearsals. So we had an acoustic rehearsal at the chapel, just to check how the voices would sound, and we had another rehearsal with the BBC, for the purposes of scripting and positioning. Then, we had the run-through with everybody, the day before the wedding. But as for proper rehearsals, we had two.
I don’t know if you’ve seen, but social media was also obsessed with your hair! Who coordinates the styling of the hair and outfits?
When we knew that we were going to be singing, of course we were thinking, "Well, it's going to be a wedding. It's going to be on the telly. We can't just ruck up." I had decided quite early that I didn't want to do ‘rows, so I called in a very good friend of mine, Jeanette Young London, who designed my dress and the whole of the choir and my hair was actually done by my niece, Nekela Alleyne.
Which products do you use for your hair?
I use everything in hand (homemade)! I don't follow the YouTubes or anything. I've got to wash and go, I haven't got time! You know? When my hair's got to be done, I'm just like, ‘Nekela, have you got time?’ It's very, very informal. When I was a child, with natural hair, I don't remember doing all of that. I don't remember any of it. My hair's not going to drop out, from not pre-pooing. It's going to be fine.
Okay, let’s get into Bishop Curry’s sermon. I mean, there’s a Black choir, a Black Bishop—how did it feel for you to experience so much Black culture at the royal wedding?
Number one, I don't really feel it was a Black wedding. A black wedding doesn't go down like that, normally. But what I do feel is that it was an honor to be able to bring gospel to such a platform. it's not the first time that gospel music has been presented to the royal family, but it's the first time you've had black gospel at a royal wedding sung by black people.
Yes, it’s definitely a first! You guys made history.
That is an honor and a privilege, and still very special. And I'm very happy about it. Now, we didn't know that Bishop Curry was going to be preaching. We were actually were immediately after his address, so we had to be lined up at the back. We hear this voice, I am shocked. His preaching sounds like what we have been listening to all our lives! And I can see the choir getting excited, I'm getting excited, I'm pretty sure that some people wanted to shout out "Hallelujah, Amen," and what have you, but of course, we can't interrupt everything. Not like the normal Pentecostal church where you get to join in with the preachers.
But it was very powerful. And to hear something like that, so impassioned, and so sincere, and so genuine, and so inspirational, in a place like that. He was giving all of himself. He was pouring out of his spirit. He was.
What was it like meeting the Duke and Duchess?
A small total of the choir got to meet Prince Harry and Ms. Meghan Markle to talk about the song and the arrangement. It was exciting. They were lovely and like any other young couple about to be married. It was a real privilege.
So what’s next for the Kingdom Choir? An album hopefully and touring!
There's offers coming in all over the place, so we have to sit down and think very carefully about the way forward. Of course we'd love to record, of course we'd love to go on tour. We want to meet Oprah, we want to meet Obama, we want to meet all these icons who are our absolute heroes.
Have any of these people reached out after the wedding?
Not all of them, but it’s our wishlist.
Has the reality of it, the whole experience, settled in yet?
Well, it's still quite surreal. I'm still processing it, because of course I've never been here, you know? The wedding is one thing. I thought that would be phenomenal, and it was absolutely stunning. It was magical, it was heavenly, it was an absolute joy. But then, I didn't expect the response to the song. Not at all.
It's really impacted the people. The song, the arrangement, the sound of it, has really touched people, at least. So that is, you know, people have been hitting YouTube millions of times. It's on Spotify, thousands of streams. I believe the last time I looked, yesterday, it was number seven on the iTunes chart.
So I guess you don't go back to your normal life after this, do you? Everything's so new.
Everything is very new, but it's not like that for me. Like I work in schools, I work with children, I teach choirs, and children are really important to me. I hate to think of the disappointment. I can't just leave people behind. There are people who count on me and who are important to me, so I don't want to just walk away from that.