How “Gospel for Teens” is Saving the Music!

  • By Melinda Caroll: “My first introduction to music as a child was Gospel. This 60 Minute special by Lesly Stahl about a determined and passionate Song Leader, Vy Higginsen and her work with NYC Harlem young people was more than inspirational. It made me remember and realize the deep need for more music programs like this! It is my sincere wish that this story travel the breadth and length of the world to inspire others to do what she’s done…share the Healing Power of Music!”
  • Play CBS Video Video Gospel for Teens, Part 1
    Lesley Stahl spends a year following the inspirational leader of a gospel music program for teenagers in Harlem and her students as they learn to sing this original American art form and build the confidence and character it inspires.
  • Video Gospel for Teens, Part 2
    Lesley Stahl spends a year following the inspirational leader of a gospel music program for teenagers in Harlem and her students as they learn to sing this original American art form and build the confidence and character it inspires.
  • Video Extra: “Go Down Moses”
    Hear “Gospel for Teens” perform “Go Down Moses” at their spring concert.

(CBS News)There’s a street in Harlem that comes alive every Saturday with the sound of gospel music. You won’t find any church there – just a brownstone full of teenagers and the woman who draws them in.

Her name is Vy Higginsen, a New York radio personality and theater producer. Five years ago she created something called “Gospel for Teens.”

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Video: Gospel for Teens, Part 1
Video: Gospel for Teens, Part 2

Never heard of it? Well, we think you’ll be glad you did. And if you’re thinking that Higginsen thought up this program as a way to save the teens, you’d be wrong. She did it to save the music.

The faces and voices of Gospel for Teens include kids between the ages of 13 and 19 who gather in Harlem each week from all over New York and New Jersey to study the tradition and the art of singing gospel.

“It’s uniquely American. It’s a story of a people in song created out of an American experience,” Higginsen told correspondent Lesley Stahl.

“And you are not gonna let it die,” Stahl remarked.

“No,” Higginsen replied, with a beaming smile.

Higginsen runs an advanced class, but each fall she brings in a new group, putting out a call for auditions in local papers, on radio, and in churches. She calls them her “beginners.”

Extra: “Go Down Moses”
Extra: A gospel duet
Extra: Why the program is free
Extra: The risk of losing gospel

Yolanda Howard, age 14, had arrived by subway from the Bronx before the microphones were even set up. “I was so happy because I was the first person,” she said.

And she brought along her friend Rhonda Rodriguez, who started off a little shaky. Asked if she was nervous, Rodriguez told Stahl, “I was really nervous.”

When Stahl asked Rodriguez if she thought she had gotten into the program, she admitted, “No.”

“Did they really have to be great in the audition?” Stahl asked Higginsen.

“Absolutely not,” she replied. “They simply have to carry a tune. We don’t expect them to be great. They’re teenagers.”

Of course great is welcome too. Higginsen’s goal is to bring gospel to kids more likely to have been raised on hip hop. One girl who auditioned only knew the first six words of Amazing Grace. “That’s why we have this school!” exclaimed Higginsen.

So she and the teachers she calls music masters – including her own daughter Knoelle – want to accept as many kids as they can, but there were a few who seemed to throw them, like 16-year-old Gabby Francois.

Something about her seemed to puzzle Higginsen. “I was curious. And I couldn’t put my finger on it,” she said. “What is it? There was something else going on behind the music.”

While singing “This Little Light of Mine,” Francois stopped singing mid-phrase, looking down and rubbing her eyebrows.

“Part of me wanted to say, ‘Is this gonna be trouble?'” Higginsen said.

“Why didn’t you say that?” Stahl asked.

“Something stopped me from saying it. It’s almost like, ‘I want to take a chance with this,'” she explained.

If there was a star of this audition, it would be 14-year-old David Moses from Brooklyn, who walked in just before the audition ended. He sings in his church choir and knew the song “Amazing Grace” all the way through.

“It fills me with a lot of joy when I sing. So I just sing,” he told Stahl.

David Moses had heard about Gospel for Teens from a friend and thought his dad was going to drive him to Harlem that day.

“He said, ‘Listen, Dad, you gonna take me to the audition?” I said, ‘What audition?'” his dad admitted.

Turns out his parents had forgotten about the audition.

So they asked a friend to take David and hold up a cell phone during his audition so they could listen in.

“My son was singing. The place was going crazy. Let me tell you, the next week, I made sure Daddy and Mommy was bringin’ him back to class,” David’s dad said, laughing.

And that next Saturday, there they were: the 46 kids Higginsen chose as her new beginners class, including Yolanda Howard and her friend Rhonda Rodriguez, who thought she wouldn’t get in.

Gabby Francois also got in. Higginsen had decided to give her a chance.

(CBS News)  Higginsen scrapes together the money for this program from grants, small donations, and ticket sales; she insists that the kids learn to sing gospel for free.”I want you to begin to shake your hands. Shake. Shake. Shake,” she instructed her class.

Why shaking before singing? It’s part warm-up, part message: leave everything but the music outside the door. Kids progress from shaking to shaking and stomping, to doing both and saying ‘Ah,’ then smiles.

“Any worry, any pain, any problem with your mother, your father, your sister, your brother, the dog, the boyfriend. I want that out now of your consciousness. That’s your baggage. Leave the bags outside, because this time is for you,” Higginsen explained.

“You feel all their troubles go?” Stahl asked.

“I feel it. I see it. The next thing I see (is) a smile. And I know that’s when they’re ready. And I’ll make ’em shake until I get it,” she replied.

And then music master Greg Kelly started working his magic. By the end of their first lesson, a single two-hour class, this group of 46 strangers had learned not one, but three songs, each in three-part harmony.

But a few weeks later, we were surprised to find Higginsen coaching the kids not on a challenging piece of music, but on something you’d think would be easy: saying their names.

It’s an exercise she developed after the first auditions for Gospel for Teens, when she could barely hear the kids introduce themselves. And it troubled her.

“They were mumbling. And they were saying it under their breath. And I just (thought) ‘This is terrible,'” she explained.

“To have those little teeny voices that you can’t hear is almost to say, ‘I’m ashamed,'” Stahl pointed out.

“I’m ashamed of who I am and where I come from. No,” Higginsen replied.

The kids took turns saying their names, ages and neighborhoods, but when it was Gabby Francois’ turn, she was silent.

This wasn’t the first time Francois had drawn attention.

“Did any of the music masters come to you and talk to you about Gabby?” Stahl asked.

“Yeah,” Higginsen said. “Chewing gum, slouching, watching, not singing.”

So during the next break, Higginsen was in there, trying to draw Gabby out.

And that was just the beginning of the drama in the room that day: Rhonda, the girl who had been so nervous during her audition, meekly called out her name, and then got teary. She broke down.

“You wanna do it later? She’s gonna do it later,” Higginsen said, as Rhonda walked back to her seat. “But you’re coming back!”

“At that point, did you know anything about what her personal life was like?” Stahl asked.

“Nothing,” Higginsen said. “Only what was presented in front of me. I saw her tears. I saw her eyes. I saw her nervousness about saying her name. ”

Later in the class, Rhonda came back to the stage and tried again, but still said her name quietly and through tears.

Higginsen started Gospel for Teens with the clear idea of leaving all the baggage at the door, but as she’s learned – and as we saw – sometimes it creeps back in.

We wondered about Rhonda’s life outside this place. What might make the simple act of saying her name feel so overwhelming? And when we asked, it led us to one of the toughest parts of New York City, the South Bronx, where Rhonda is being raised by Carmen Rivera.

Rivera is Rhonda’s great grandmother, and she’s had Rhonda since she was a baby. Rhonda told Stahl she knows her mother but that she only sees her two or three times a year.

“That’s painful,” Stahl said.

“Yeah. It’s been happening all my life, so I’m pretty much used to it,” Rhonda said.

And she’s not alone: it turns out that the entire building where Rhonda lives is set aside for kids being raised by grandparents; Rhonda’s friend Yolanda, who had been the first to audition, lives two floors up, with her great aunt Melvenia Smith.

(CBS News)  Yolanda met her father for the first time ever just last year.”He came to my house, and he told his big, elaborate tale about, ‘I’m here for you.’ He gave her $20 and, ‘I’ll be back on Sunday to take you to the movies.’ She stayed home from church that Sunday, waiting for him. He never showed up and that’s been a year ago,” Smith remembered.

“I mean I forgive him because it wasn’t his fault,” Yolanda said.

“What wasn’t his fault?” Stahl asked.

“‘Cause he had to work. That was his excuse,” she replied.

Yolanda wrote a song about it, which she agreed to sing for Stahl. “Even though I may not know you, I suppose. Even though I kind of miss you, that I know…”

“We are women. We can take the mother place, but we can’t take the father place. ‘Where is he?'” Yolanda’s great aunt Melvenia Smith asked.

“Oh Daddy, Daddy, Father, where were you, when I needed you the most? Oh Daddy, Daddy, Father, where were you? And where are you now?” Yolanda sang.

“That is unbelievable. You’re smiling, and I’m not. Why do you say you forgive him? I don’t forgive him. I don’t. You’re a child,” Stahl remarked.

But up on stage four months into this program, Yolanda was not a girl struggling with an absent father: she was one of 40 kids stomping and clapping and singing their hearts out in the first gospel music competition Gospel for Teens had ever entered.

“They tore that up. I’m sorry, they tore that stage up,” Higginsen proudly said.

They won the grand prize in the competition.

“I just wanted to hug ’em. I wanted them to see what it feels like to win,” Higginsen said.

And this is where the story should end, shouldn’t it? But life is sometimes more complicated, as we discovered as the Gospel for Teens beginners moved into their second semester.

When Higginsen started Gospel for Teens, she had no intention of creating a therapy program for at-risk kids. And in fact many of the teens who go don’t seem to be at risk at all. They come from stable, intact middle-class homes, like David Moses’.

Darrell and Veronica Moses sing with their children, and make sure they’re home for dinner as a family every night.

“We have to raise our children. If we don’t, someone else will, meaning the streets, drugs, gangs, you name it,” Veronica Moses said.

“Do you think it’s harder, to raise a young black teenager?” Stahl asked Darrell Moses.

“Yeah,” he replied. “I grew up in the projects, and I watched my father go through a lot to hold onto his family. And one of the reasons why you see me here, not just my wife, but you see me here also, is because I vowed that I would walk this walk with them. They can turn around years from now and say, ‘My father was right there.'”

Gospel for Teens has a theme song, “How Can Anyone Ever Tell You.” Higginsen says she chose it for a reason: “I actually wept when I heard it. ‘Don’t let anybody ever tell you that you’re anything less than beautiful,'” she explained.”That song is designed to empower you and to think about yourself differently than you think somebody else may have thought about you, to change your mind,” Higginsen added.

It certainly seemed to change something in Gabby Francois, who sang powerfully in front of the whole group.

“Gabby, of all people, gets up and starts singing this song,” Stahl remarked.

“Surprised, I was surprised, touched. I mean, she wanted to,” Higginsen said.

But what touched Higginsen even more was an e-mail Gabby sent when the year was almost over explaining what this place has meant to her.

Gabby read Stahl the e-mail. “I may seem quiet in class or upset, but it’s only because I build up all my pain so I can sing it all out…. My mother doesn’t really appreciate the fact that I sing. I actually snuck out for the audition for Gospel for Teens. That’s why you never see her around or my dad.”

“Miss Vy, you believed in me when no one else did. That’s all I had to say,” Gabby added.

“My God. We had no idea what it meant to her,” Higginsen reacted. “It’s a big lesson for me, because if I had only looked at her surface, that judgment, it’s so quick to dismiss. Out. I don’t like your attitude.”

Then, one rainy Saturday in early May, just weeks before their final, end-of-the-year performance, the kids – and we – walked into something none of us were expecting. We found a shaken Higginsen reversing her own policy, and asking kids to bring their baggage in.

“How many of you have lost somebody recently?” she asked.

“Oh my God!” she said, when many hands went up.

It seemed more hands were up than down. “I lost my cousin when I was going into my sophomore year,” Larry said,

Larry’s cousin was stabbed to death in front of him.

Another girl told Higginsen her cousin, aged 13, died a year ago in a drive-by shooting.

The amount of violence and loss in so many of these young people’s lives seemed to come as a shock to Higginsen. What prompted her to ask when she hadn’t wanted to know?

It was the news that David Moses’ cousin had just died – a 15-year-old like David, killed by a gunshot to the head.

Higginsen asked him to come before his classmates and sing it out.

“The music, the words are about struggle, and a lot of these kids are there.

They’re struggling,” Stahl remarked.

“They are struggling. We live in a violent society. So now what do you do with all that?” Higginsen replied.

“How do you get it off of you? How do you live?” she asked. “You have to go somewhere where there’s sacred ground, where there’s hope, where there’s possibility, where there’s a better life.”

Which of course is exactly what gospel music was designed to provide in the first place.

“Do you tell the kids the history how this music grew out of slavery?” Stahl asked.

“I tell them that the first right as African-Americans in this country was the right to sing. That was allowed during slavery. Before reading, writing, school, church, we could sing,” Higginsen explained.

So as Gospel for Teens erupted on stage for their big spring concert, before a packed hall, we’re not sure how much the kids were thinking about this music’s history, but for two hours, they sure captured its power. And when it came time for their theme song, Higginsen selected a surprise soloist: Gabby Francois.”How do you think she did?” Stahl asked.

“I thought she was wonderful. She needed to sing that song,” Higginsen said.

We wondered whether Gabby’s parents had come to hear her sing this time. They had not.

“What do you think about these kids whose parents never come?” Stahl asked.

“I can only think that they do it anyway. With or without their parents, they do it anyway. So what does that say about who they are their commitment, their resilience, their drive. All of those things are necessary for success,” Higginsen said.

And then came that moment they’d been preparing for: announcing their name, loud and proud, to the audience.

She didn’t want them to just say their name – she wanted them to shout it, to belt it out, because, she says, of who they are, and where they’ve come from.

“They’re survivors. Stand up, stand up and let people see you. Be proud of the fact that you are survivors,” Higginsen said.

When it was Rhonda’s turn – who had had trouble calling out her name during an earlier rehearsal – she nailed it.

“You spend nine months with these kids. You give them everything. And they finally get up for this performance,” Stahl said.

“I couldn’t stay in my chair. My heart’s dancing. My mind’s racing. I’m watching everything. And I’m watching everybody,” Higginsen said.

And what she, and everyone else, saw that day was a group of teenagers transformed.

“I can’t even describe it. It’s the most wonderful thing I ever been a part of with my life,’ Gabby Francois said.

David Moses told Stahl he’d “definitely” be back next year.

“What’s going on inside?” Stahl asked Yolanda Howard.

“Joy. That’s what’s inside my heart all the time when I’m in here,” she replied.

“Do you ever think that you’re actually saving some of these kids?” Stahl asked Higginsen.

“I guess I’m thinking that this music can make it better. It will make life better,” she replied. “It’s victorious. And it grabs you. I mean it’s like, ‘Yeah, I gotcha. Whoo.'”

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