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Vy Higginsen Discusses "Mama I Want To Sing" And Gospel For Teens

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Ahmaya Knoelle of Vy Higginsen's Gospel for Teens directs the choir onstage in DC.
Ahmaya Knoelle of Vy Higginsen's Gospel for Teens directs the choir onstage in DC.

Vy Higginsen was born and raised in Harlem and graduated from college in the 1970s, quickly rising through the ranks in the urban magazine world -- as the first female advertising executive at Ebony and then as a contributing editor for Essence. She then took a chance and created her own magazine, titled, Unique NY. She also worked at a number of radio stations in New York, and was the city's first black female radio personality in primetime. In other words, if there was the opportunity to be first, Vy took it. In 1983, the gutsy editor co-wrote, "Mama, I Want To Sing," a Gospel musical that became the longest-running Black Off-Broadway musical in history. Five years later, she began the Mama Foundation for the Arts, and in 2006, Gospel For Teens. Gospel For Teens supports gifted kids at a time when many public arts programs are underfunded and overextended, and we're happy that Higgensen is finally getting some attention for her good deeds. HuffPost Arts got the opportunity to interview the lovely and talented founder over e-mail. Scroll down to see a trailer from the film version of "Mama" as well as the 60 Minutes video of Gospel For Teens.

HuffPost Arts: What was the inspiration behind "Mama, I Want To Sing?"

Many years ago, I was telling the story of my growing up -- the story of my family -- to a friend. I was the youngest of four children growing up in Harlem. My father was a Pentecostal minister; my mother was very involved in the church. My oldest sister, Doris, sang in the choir and was eventually discovered by James Brown at The Apollo while working as an usherette. Doris had a hit in 1963 with the song "Just One Look."

[My friend] said that it was "a story in music," and he encouraged me to write it down. This writer was Ken Wydro, who became my partner, both in life and in regards to "Mama, I Want to Sing." As we were working together on the show, further analysis of the material proved to us that wasn't just the story of my family, but the story of many African-American families in America. It's the combined stories of musical families that grew up in the church; of family members who found themselves on world stages. It's the story of performers of a certain era who took a piece of the church with them on their journey towards stardom. Those who put a piece of church into modern music.

We were so convinced that this story was one for our community -- an audience that was being underserved -- that when we were met with a lack of support from the theater community, we decided to put it up ourselves. We believed that the show was worthy, and went into "combat," really, with both energy and determination to make the idea a reality. When you find yourself having true passion for something, then you find a way to be heard. "Mama, I Want to Sing" opened in 1983. It was initially meant to be a limited run, and ended up running for eight years in New York.

HuffPost Arts: How did music shape you when you were growing up?

Music was automatic. At home it was the radio -- my mother always tuned into the Gospel music station. And if we were not at home, were probably at church, where there was the choir and Gospel concerts and events. I remember being [5 or 6 years old] at church and listening to the Gospel music; the music was so powerful and infectious that I automatically got up, started moving and clapping my hands. When it was over, I looked down and saw how red and swollen my hands were from clapping so hard. So, I remember getting caught up in the music at a very young age. That spirit has lived with me forever. It was part of my DNA growing up.

Now it wasn't always Gospel - when my mother wasn't listening to her Gospel station, we would turn the dial and listen to the popular music of the day. From the Doo-wop groups, like The Cadillacs -- that evolved into artists like Chuck Berry, which led to Motown. Transitions and evolutions. I was on the radio for years, and I had the privilege to be during a time when I could play artists like Aretha Franklin, Steve Wonder, Ashford & Simpson, Otis Redding, Sam Cooke, Nancy Wilson. Great, great artists. At that time period, we had a total taste experience in sound.

HuffPost Arts: I was wondering how your sister's work influenced you.

My sister was such a big influence on me. I got to see the world at a very young age, standing by my big sister's side. The story of "Mama [I Want To Sing]" is hers. It's ours. During the initial run, Doris played the role of our Mother and my brother played the role of our Dad. My daughter, Knoelle, is currently playing the role of her Auntie Doris. The show isn't only about our family. It was and still is family.

HuffPost Arts: How has gospel music evolved over the years, and what is your place in it?

Well, the main thing is access. Once you only had access to Gospel music through the church [or] at concerts, events, or through Gospel radio. But technology has bought Gospel out of the churches. It's now truly worldwide. Today, German, Greek, Italian, Asian audiences have been introduced to Gospel music. Gospel music is an American art form. And one thing that we as a culture must remember -- it's that Black American music is one of our nation's biggest exports.

I'm thrilled that I had the opportunity to take my Gospel-based musical overseas, where it helped introduce that music to other cultures. To people who might not have ever heard it otherwise. The responses we received! That hasn't really sunk in on a cultural level -- Just how revered African-American music is around the world.

So, my place in it? Our place in it? It's to continue to work to spread the music nationally and internationally. We've been doing it since 1983, when "Mama, I Want to Sing" first opened. And we still work every day to fulfill that. Our place is to make sure that the music never dies.

HuffPost Arts: How did Gospel for Teens begin and what barriers have you come across when you have been promoting their work?

It started mainly because of my daughter, Knoelle. I wanted to make sure she had what I had growing up. Just like my sister, Doris, said to my mother, Knoelle said to me one day "Mama, I want to sing." And there were few places that taught this music. And then, I discovered that when we auditioned young people for productions of "Mama, I Want to Sing," they could not sing a Gospel song all the way through.

I wrote a book, "This Is My Song," which was a collection of Gospel music with an introduction meant for young people. Then we started classes in 2006. Which was an experiment at the time. But I was so struck by the passion of those who absorbed and received this instruction. So I decided to open it to the public. And it's been an incredible experience since then. The program has grown so much. So when you ask me about barriers, I can say that number one: I could serve more children if I had more space. And more funding. Because I insist that on the program being free. And that it remains so. Right now, we do and have grown so much, but are limited by space and funds.

Another challenge? On one level, it may also be to overcome the perception some might have that our work is theology-based. We are not proselytizing. Some people can be unaware of the artfulness of the music until they experience it. We want everyone, everywhere to experience how rejuvenating it is. And now that Gospel for Teens is performing nationally, I want to let everyone know that when these kids get to the performance level of their instruction, they are professionals. They are teens, but they are professionals who are fortunate and blessed to be performing on world stages, just like the artists represented in Mama . . . That's why I call this revival "Mama, I Want to Sing: The Next Generation." We accept amateurs, and put professionals onstage.

If you're in New York, catch "Mama, I Want to Sing" (featuring members of Gospel For Teens) at the Dempsey Theater from February 25th - April 28th.

See a video of Gospel For Teens on CBS below:

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