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Q&A: Allen Bailey, founder of the Harlem Gospel Choir

BY JUSTUS FLAIR | FEBRUARY 14, 2013 5:00 AM

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Founded in 1986, the Harlem Gospel Choir is of the most influential gospel choirs in the world. The choir will travel to Iowa City this weekend for a performance at the Englert at 8 p.m. Friday. Tickets are $25 to $35. Allen Bailey, the founder of the group, spoke to The Daily Iowan about his experiences with the choir over the years and his preparation for the event.

DI: You were promotional director and advance man for Lionel Richie & the Commodores, Prince, and Michael Jackson in the past. How did that prepare you for founding and leading the Harlem Gospel Choir?

Bailey: It gave me the experience. I was basically a tour manager, and you have to make sure that everything you can imagine in terms of the tour is taken care of, so I apply that to the Harlem Gospel Choir. No matter what type of music you’re into, the same basic things have to be taken care of: housing, transportation, marketing, so on and so forth.

DI: You have been involved in countless fundraisers, including work on We Are The World in 1985. How do you choose which charities or organizations with which to become involved?

Bailey: We’ve been involved with children’s charities. When I did the USA for Africa, we were raising money for children’s charities in Africa. Another big charity I worked with was the Save the Children charity. Throughout the world as we travel, we always try to connect with charities that are children’s charities.

DI: Your website says the Harlem Gospel Choir was born through your work with the Martin Luther King Holiday Campaign. How did that lead to the founding of the choir?

Bailey: I always wanted to pay my respect to Dr. King for what he believes in. Our choir was based on the foundations of Dr. King’s beliefs of bringing nations together and giving back and paying tribute to him because he was a very important person in our lives.

DI: You co-directed the Harlem Jazz Festival, the largest festival in the world. What did that experience mean to you?

Bailey: Harlem is the black entertainment capital of the world. Every black artist basically had her or his roots in Harlem. For example, Miles Davis Jr., Louis Armstrong, people like that. Besides their international fame, they all had their background in the black Harlem churches. We discovered a lot of new talent in the jazz festival. We try to invite talent from all over to come to Harlem for the festival, so we find a lot of young up and coming artists to showcase their talent. I get the opportunity to work with these dynamic, talented young people.

DI: How do you find members for the choir? They are all from churches in the Harlem and New York area, but do they go through an audition process, or are they recruited?

Bailey: We have two ways; we get people through our website or we get referrals from members of our choir themselves. We have 65 members now, but sometimes when we have three tours going out, divide into groups of 15. We had 15 members just come back from China, 15 are in Russia, and 15 are in Europe. And we have the local group that travels the United States.

DI: Where does the nickname Angels in Harlem come from?

Bailey: People call us the Angels in Harlem for the work we do for young people — and we have a lot of young people in the choir — so they call us that for the work we do all over the world, raising money for children’s charities. Pope John Paul II invited us to perform in the Vatican, and what made that trip so special was he invited us to spend Christmas Eve with him in the Vatican because he wanted to thank us for the work we do with charities around the world.

DI: Is there a most memorable performance or venue you have visited with the choir?

Bailey: Nelson Mandela. In August of 1990, when he was released from prison, he invited us to perform at Yankee Stadium for more than 80,000 people. He went through 27 years of solitary confinement to become president. I’m glad I shared the same stage with him.

DI: The Harlem Gospel Choir’s mission every time it performs is “bringing people and nations together and giving something back.” How will the performance at the Englert accomplish that goal?

Bailey: That’s founded on the principles of Dr. Martin Luther King, and the choir was founded on his birthday. Once you see the show, you’ll see. Everyone can participate. We reach out to all the people; it’s a family show — kids, grandmas can come to the show. Everyone has a great time.

What: Harlem Gospel Choir Performance
Where: Englert, 221 E. Washington
Admission: $25-$35, Reserved Seating


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