Voices Rising 

The Celebration Male Chorus gives reasons to celebrate.

The CMC has appeared on NBC's "The Today Show" and will so again this December. They've recorded two albums and have just completed a whirlwind tour of New York. But this is more than just a musical endeavour.

"When we came together, the whole idea was that we would try very diligently to serve as role models for young African-American males," explains Willis Barnett, the choir's artistic director. "They were, and still are, a very, very high-risk group in terms of the murder rate, not finding jobs, prison, et cetera."

Barnett, who is also minister of worship at the Fifth Street Baptist Church, as well as Virginia Union University choir director and music department coordinator, was one of the founding members of the CMC in 1994.

The chorus is made up of black men of all ages, from all walks of life. Some are respected members of the church and others are from tougher backgrounds. An elderly, well-dressed gentleman in a pressed suit and tie sits just across from another much younger man in a Redskins T-shirt. Farther back, another chorus member sits with a box of hamburgers in his lap.

"Guys come in because they've heard about us," says CMC President Ronald Robinson Sr.,"and they don't have to audition, anybody can join."

While the mayoral candidates are making electoral promises to help Richmond's black youth, the CMC is already taking action, raising up the community from within.

"We have brothers here who have struggled, who have come a long way, and this group holds them up," says CMC Business Manager William H. Joyner. "So, other than the singing, our main purpose is the spiritual aspect of it, the fellowship, people coming together, having camaraderie."

All profits from the two new CDs, "Show Me The Way" and "Christmas With The Celebration Male Chorus," will go toward the CMC scholarship fund, which has already helped five young men go to college this year.

And it works both ways. Many of the young men the CMC has helped along the way are happy to return the favor.

"There was a young man at Virginia Union who came here about three years ago, and he didn't have money to pay his rent," Barnett recalls. "They were going to put him out of the apartment, and the night he came in, he looked like he had about had it. He didn't know where he was going to go. Well, he graduated last year and [went to play for] the Philadelphia Eagles! He told me 'I'm coming back to the group and I just want to do something. What can I do?' I said, 'Well you know, we always need money! You got to endow our scholarship fund!'

"Those African-Americans who are successful — basketball players, movie stars, entertainers, recording artists, athletes, that's just a small percentage of people," Barnett continues. "The CMC exists to show all the young kids that there are other possibilities. You know, this gentleman drives the bus, or he's an engineer, this guy is a teacher, this guy is a policeman. There are a lot of other ways of earning a decent living and being a positive influence in your community, and you don't have to walk around with your pants hanging down and all those negative kind of things that you usually see in the press."

So, while others are content to just talk about the problems facing young black men, the CMC will continue to set an example and take positive action. "If you can just help one, if you can just save one, if you can change one life," Barnett says. "That's our whole thing." S

The Celebration Male Chorus will be at the Westwood Baptist Church, 915 Glenburnie Road on Sunday, Oct. 31. "Show Me The Way" and "Christmas With The CMC" will be released on Oct. 25, and will be available from Barky's Spiritual Store or directly from the CMC. Call 264-2125 or visit www.celebrationmalechorus.com. The chorus will be on "The Today Show" again this December.


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