The Mama Foundation is a nationally recognized organization whose mission is to present, preserve and promote the history and fundamentals of gospel, jazz and rhythm and blues music for current and future generations. It’s best known and most important program is its Gospel for Teens effort, which annually serves 300 young people, ages 13 to 19, from low-income families in Harlem and other minority communities throughout New York City. This free, afterschool program provides rigorous training in vocal technique; history and instruction on the evolution of gospel music; as well as performances throughout the metropolitan area teaching teens about music’s heritage while improving the discipline, focus and teamwork needed to compete academically.
Last April, Gospel for Teens was featured in an extended segment on CBS’s 60 Minutes. The broadcast brought an immediate increase in the program’s popularity, accelerating the need to handle more applicants and improve its programming.
While every community has a history worth remembering and preserving, there are only a few places anywhere which have had as profound an impact on so many facets of a nation’s social, political, and especially cultural history as has New York City’s Harlem. It was with this imposing, yet too-frequently-underappreciated history in mind that in 1998 Vy Higginsen founded the Mama Foundation for the Arts, a non-profit organization dedicated to reestablishing Harlem as a leading artistic and cultural center, principally by training singers, actors and actresses, and by producing theater and musical productions.
Based in a five-story brownstone in the heart of Harlem, superficially, Gospel for Teens resembles nothing so much as a youth choir group. With practices and classes taking place each week on Fridays and Saturdays, since 2005 it has grown from just a handful of teens to more than 300 strong, with 75 new enrollees annually selected from hundreds of hopeful applicants.
As youths master breathing, harmony, pitch and control, they are learning about the history of black music in America and its impact on the country’s culture. Even more importantly, the rigorous training required to study and perform gospel music at a professional level helps students learn lessons about self-discipline, delayed gratification, and teamwork. Although not formally an academic program, Gospel for Teens facilitates the transfer of these lessons into other aspects of the youths’ lives, from academic performance to character development and interpersonal relationships.
Approximately 75 low-income teens, aged 13 to 19, qualify each year to participate in Gospel for Teens through an open audition which is widely advertised in schools, churches and community centers throughout New York City. Typically, 400 or more teens turn out to audition, with the only qualification being a basic ability to carry a tune, and the willingness to dedicate oneself to the practice necessary to excel. Few enrollees have ever had any formal voice training prior to acceptance into Gospel for Teens, nor are there any academic or other requirements.