Reflecting on 20 years of keeping the faith and singing His praise at AU
Sylstea Sledge continues to lead and encourage the gospel choir with support from administrators
by Emily Martin
“Keep your eyes on the prize, hold on, hold on. One day when the glory comes, it will be ours, it will be ours.”
The American University Gospel Choir opened their brief set on April 24 at the 17th annual R. Bruce Poynter lecture with this gospel mashup of the famous spiritual “Hold on” and “Glory” from the 2015 film Selma. The message of strength and endurance matched that of the lecture, which was titled “The Momentum of Hope: Driving Towards Justice During Difficult Times” and delivered by Vanita Gupta, the president of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights.
The choir, which stepped and clapped in rhythm to each piece performed, has been singing about love, equality, and praise at AU for nearly 43 years, through songs like, “I Love the Lord,” “It Is Well With My Soul,” “Lift Every Voice and Sing” and “How I Got Over.” The director at the heart of it all, Sylstea Sledge, is widely credited by choir members, leaders, and administrators for nurturing and growing the group into what it is today through 20 years of leadership.
As a member of gospel choir, I have been touched by Sledge’s personal commitment to each member, but I felt it was important to document his service to AU through reporting on his impact on the choir’s history. Dr. Fanta Aw, the vice president of Campus Life, has attended several choir concerts, and while she said her involvement with the choir started back when she was a student at AU, she has worked closely with Sledge to develop more opportunities and sees his potential as a leader.
“Sylstea is an incredibly, incredibly gifted leader, and also someone who is really centered and has committed his heart and soul to the choir,” Aw said. “Sylstea is thoughtful, Sylstea is committed, Sylstea is focused. He believes in mentorship and investing in young people and those are traits I know I have appreciated in my partnership with him over the years.”
Chris Kennedy, the business manager of the choir and a member since 2013, echoed the same sentiment that Sledge has become a mentor to many gospel choir members. Kennedy gave the example of Sledge often offering to buy button down shirts, slacks and shoes for young men in the choir that did not own them or could not afford it.
“One thing Sledge has done and consistently does is empower and encourage,” Kennedy said. “Whether you want to believe in God or not, or whether you believe in a higher power, the one thing that Sledge always does is he encourages the young people to keep pressing on. He encourages them that better is coming, that you can do it. Everyone who comes to this choir, we’re his children, and he treats us as such, as growing young adults, but he still lets us know that someone cares.”
Others may credit Sledge as the leader of the family, but Sledge said he has never seen another group “love on each other” like this year’s choir. After starting out as a director of the gospel choir at the University of Arkansas, where he completed the William Grant Still graduate assistantship, Sledge has continued to teach the power of gospel music. He said he chose colleges because he loves the community among students.
Sledge said he originally hails from Northeast D.C., where he learned to love gospel music by playing the piano at the Trinidad Baptist Church, so he returned to D.C. and came to direct the Georgetown University choir for 10 years.
But in 1999, Monroe Weeks, the choir director at American University, was retiring, and Sledge applied for the job after insistence from his friends in the field and despite his plan for a sabbatical. After a pre-interview conversation with the then-president of the choir, Kerwin Speight, during which Speight said he could wear the director’s robe, he was hired — and he’s been here ever since.
When I asked Sledge why he has stayed at this university for 20 years, it became evident that he is passionate about helping students find their way because his answer was all about the students.
“This is a very special place,” Sledge said. “Each year, there is something special, there is a student or students who need the choir and they need what is offered. Sometimes, I’m afraid if I leave I don’t know if someone might not receive the blessing that the Lord has for them being here in the gospel choir. Each semester is different, it’s never boring by no stretch of the imagination.”
Rachel Mitchell, a sophomore in CAS, became president of the choir this semester. She said she took on the role to help lead the choir that she joined because of her interest in gospel music, but now the choir has evolved into a family for her. And she credits that feeling to Sledge.
“My relationship with Sledge is more than just seeing each other on Wednesday nights and at performances,” Mitchell said via email. “He is my director, but most importantly my father. He has been a positive influence in my life.”
Sledge said, though, that he wouldn’t be able to do it without support. He credited the support he’s received from administrators, like Aw and University President Sylvia Burwell, and from his friends at First Mount Zion Baptist Church in Virginia, where he is a music minister.
He said if he didn’t have that strong support or recognition of the value of the choir, he doesn’t know if he could stay longer. And seeing the impact the lyrics of the songs have had on students has driven him to continue in his role.
“We sing the songs, ‘The Best Is Yet To Come’ and ‘the Prayer of Jabez,’ and you can see it happening. The students that came in last year, you can see a change in their lives and I hope that it helps them to be successful, not only here but successful when they matriculate,” Sledge said.
In addition to the close relationships he’s built with students, Sledge said his favorite thing about the choir is the energy the choir gives off when it sings, and he called it a “spiritual light” that may not be caught on camera.
With Sledge’s 20th anniversary of nurturing that light approaching in October of 2019, he, Kennedy and Aw have reflected on how far the choir has come and what it needs more of: financial support. Many collegiate gospel choirs are university-funded, meaning membership can count as federal work study, scholarships can be granted and the choir can tour across states, but AU gospel choir has been limited to D.C. so far.
Sledge hopes to change that, and Aw plans on supporting that change.
“I would love to see university invest in the students of gospel program that we have here, so one day that’s gonna happen I believe, I hope I can be around to see it,” Sledge said. “I would like to see that. Right now we don’t quite have that and I kind of do my own little thing to encourage and promote scholarship, but I’m anxious for big things.”
Aw similarly said that she’s previously worked with Sledge to make the choir count for credit as a class and then helped purchase redesigned robes, but she hopes to help support the choir financially because it creates a strong knit community..
“I think the choir can really serve as a powerful force for that type of fellowship and community building. It is really my wish that we’ll see more students being engaged in the choir across racial lines, across ethnic lines, or frankly religious lines, socioeconomic lines, geographic lines, etc.,” Aw said.
Kennedy also said he appreciates the administration’s support for a predominantly black art form at a predominantly white institution.
“It’s a true testament that the gospel choir has lasted as long as it has,” Kennedy said. “At a predominantly white institution, it is very uncommon that gospel choirs last as long as they have here. Not only has AU Gospel Choir lasted for 43 years, but we are embraced by the administration.”
With their goals in mind for how the choir will develop in the future, Kennedy, Mitchell and Aw all hope that the upcoming celebration concert will honor Sledge’s service to the university.
“It’s an important celebration of him,” Aw said. “For me, it’s been an honor and a blessing to have not only known him but to have worked with him closely through all the years and to remain so committed and dedicated over this period of time speaks volumes about his character and just the person that he is.”
Sledge, however, true to his character, said he’s excited to gather everybody together, but he’s hopeful the concert will raise awareness of the choir.
“I just would be happy to see the alumni and see everybody coming together and sing together,” Sledge said. “And some people give some money to support. If some people give some scholarships, y’all might see me run around.”