Ja Ronn Thompson realized SF State was in desperate need of a gospel choir in the spring of 2004, so he took it upon himself to make it happen.
When reflecting on the creation of Gospel Gators, Thompson recounts the adversity he faced.
“An older guy told me I’d have to be on campus longer to have created a group like this,” said Thompson, who created the Gospel Gators in his freshman year.
Now that group, known as the Gospel Gators, will hold a 15th anniversary celebration on May 4 at the Student Life Event Center. They have invited over 1,000 alumni to reunite with the current Gospel Gators.
The choir celebrates both music and diversity, and students can audition by signing up for an African American Studies class titled African American Gospel Workshop (AFRS 230) that meets Mondays from 4 p.m. to 6:45 p.m.
Students slowly made their way into Rosa Parks D on Wednesday afternoon for the third day of auditions for the Gospel Gators.
A small group formed in the hallway waiting to perform and filled out a form with their information on it. Some even paused before entering the room to give themselves another minute or two to collect their nerves. The room was cleared in the middle to give the students a space to perform.
Thompson, 33, graduated in 2012 but opted to stay in San Francisco to continue teaching the Gospel Gators. He’s been able to pass on a lot of musical knowledge he gained taking lessons from his first vocal coach Janice Maxi Reed and world-renowned gospel artist Allowyn Price. Alongside him on the judges panel was musical director Anthony White, another Gospel Gators lifer. He first joined as a drummer 14 years ago and now helps run the organization.
Auditions for Gospel Gators were held on the week of Feb. 4. Singers of all ages and backgrounds came to showcase their abilities and overcome their singing nerves.
On the third day of auditions for the Spring 2019 semester, Eden Noah Goldberg, an international student from the Netherlands in her third year entered the room.
Before beginning, she expressed her anxious feelings but Thompson was quick to reassure her.
“We sing with passion and no fear,” said Thompson before demonstrating his vocal skills and range.
The room fell silent, stripped of all sound but of the nervous inhale before Goldberg crooned to the tune of “Fire” by Pointer Sisters where a wide smile broke out onto the judges faces.
After Goldberg, Anna Irene Evelina Johansson, an international student from Sweden in her last semester stepped into the room.
“I’ve always loved to sing but I’ve been too shy to do it,” Johansson said. “I want to get out of my comfort zone so I thought, ‘Why shouldn’t I just do it?’”
She belted out “Save Tonight” by Eagle Eye Cherry in her audition, and smiled as she realized and said that she conquered her fears.
Both Goldberg and Johannson made the cut and will be some of the newest members of the Gospel Gators this spring.
Members of Gospel Gators said they’ve watched the group grow quite a lot over the past 15 years. It’s been led by students, which they believe adds to its family-like feel.
Biology major Nyema Edwards is the Gospel Gator’s president, and she, too, helped judge auditions Wednesday. Before her experiences in the choir she said she would have been scared to take on the responsibility of guiding an organization.
“I’ve been encouraged to try something new,” Edwards said.
Another judge, Jace Vincent, is head of promotions of Gospel Gators. She joined the group in fall of 2018 after discovering it was offered as a class.
“The end result is my favorite aspect,” Vincent said. “When the orchestra and the whole band comes together and everyone is jammin and groovin, the music and vibes are taken to a whole new level.”
The family-like bond is a result of inclusion of people of all types, according to White. The bond they share is due to the diversity and acceptance of all.
White describes that the organization is diverse, despite many people relating gospel music to just Black/African American people singing it.
“In 2005, it wasn’t as diverse but now it’s super multicultural,” said White.
White states that everyone is welcome and that they don’t require a religious attitude, and their main motto is to just “preach and love through gospel music.”
The Gospel Gators have earned more than a few accolades in their time. In 2012 they won second place at Verizon’s West Coast House Meets the Sound contest. They were the only musical act invited to perform at President Wong’s inauguration and they also sang at George Lucas’ wedding in front of an audience that included Oprah Winfrey, Tyler Perry and Anne Hathaway.
“Our motto is changing lives one person at a time,” said Thompson.