The collective voices of the Gospel Gators travel through the first floor halls of the Creative Arts building at SF State, even as they rehearse behind closed doors.
Guiding the gospel choir through these powerful vocals is director Ja Ronn Thompson, who founded it as a freshman at SF State in 2004.
“At the time, I was really into church and I knew gospel music had the ability to evoke a different type of emotion from people,” said Thompson. “And that’s the type of music combo that wasn’t present on campus, so I really wanted to fill a void.”
13 years later, what began as a nine-member collective has expanded to, at its peak, a 92 person ensemble and has led to sold-out performances in San Francisco theatres and even a performance at the Staples Center in front of an audience of 17,000.
This semester’s ensemble is made up of approximately 45 members, according to Thompson, all of whom come together to simply sing under the direction of Thompson.
“When I first started this, I figured we’d sing and maybe have a concert, I didn’t really think that far ahead I just wanted to be a choir […] never did I expect that we’d sell out Yoshi’s four times,” said Thompson.
Thompson’s goal remains the same: to summon an emotional response from both his students and audiences in the unique way gospel can.
“We’re just literally using the gospel music form as the vehicle for the emotion and the feeling,” said Thompson.
This emotional response can be visceral, according to choir member Elody Dang who has been singing in choirs for 11 years. This semester, however, is her first time singing gospel music.
“It’s really different because in my past choirs –– I mean there [was] energy but it [wasn’t] really visual –– but in gospel music, I feel like you can really see people’s emotion and you can hear it in their voices too,” said Dang.
Having this energy is the secret to garnering a powerful response, according to Thompson.
“I think the emotion that is evoked from our singing is derived from the energy we put into it,” said Thompson.
For Francis Pizarro, a sophomore art major and choir member, releasing this energy into the music can be cathartic as well.
“You have to bring a lot of energy and honestly having that kind of outlet to just let it all out and be more of yourself is the best part about it,” said Pizarro.
“Everybody is so into it, everybody is as one,” said member Toan Nguyen.
The Gospel Gators will hold their next concert on Saturday, Dec. 2 at the Student Event Center on campus.