The Gospel According to Jonathan
Jonathan Dudley’20 incorporated his love for music and history into one experience last summer—one that his McNair Scholar mentor and major advisor Professor of History Beatrice McKenzie knew would fit him perfectly.
Last August, Dudley was invited to be choir director of Gospel Express, a nearly two-week-long day camp for elementary and middle schoolers at Bethel AME Church in Beloit.
Playwright and arts camp director Guenada Meaux-Lambert—a native of Alabama whose husband, Derek, grew up in Beloit—founded the camp and wrote the play students learned and performed, which incorporated dancing, acting, and singing. The play walks through Beloit’s role in the Great Migration, the mass movement of African Americans from the South (in Beloit, specifically from Mississippi) that shaped the city into what it is today.
McKenzie recommended Dudley for the project after the two had worked together the previous summer on his McNair Scholars project about the evolution of black power movements. As Keefer Chair of Public Humanities, McKenzie has helped direct funding toward public humanities projects that connect students to the greater Beloit area. The Lamberts called her, searching for support in their third year of running the camp. They were also looking for a student intern.
“I thought it was a perfect opportunity for Jonathan to give back to the community and also see another aspect of black history in Beloit,” McKenzie says.
Dudley says he’s grateful for McKenzie’s constant support. “I can’t speak for others, but she is very invested in me,” he says.
The gospel gig was a great fit for Dudley, whose devotion to gospel music runs deep. “I love gospel because if you listen to it closely, it’s a melting pot of different genres—R&B, hip-hop, indie, country, jazz, classical—with a sprinkle of Jesus and some positive words.”
Music is solidly in Dudley’s family tree, and he started off by playing the drums. “My mom is an assistant pastor at her church, so I kind of just grew up with gospel,” he says. “My dad was a musician—everything I do got directly passed down from him. My mom’s best friend kind of took me under her wing and brought out the singer in me.”
He began to sing at age 7 and directed his church’s choir at 10, but Dudley discovered this summer that bringing out the singer in young people is no small feat.
“Some of the children I worked with did not know how to sing,” he says. “It was a huge learning experience for me. You have to explain more to them. Some of them are there and they don’t want to sing, so you’ve got to meet them halfway.”
When it was show time, Professor of Music Daniel Barolsky was in the audience.
“It was one of the best performances I’ve been to in Beloit,” Barolsky says. “The kids learned so much in such a short amount of time and were really devoted to the project.” His own son, Oscar, age 7, participated in the camp with enthusiasm. “After the performance, he asked if he could do it again next year. He was asking questions about all the people he was reading about. I had not seen my son like this before.”
This fall, Dudley started his own community gospel group. “It’s an ambitious project because I wanted to get people from Rockford, Beloit, and Janesville. There are community choirs, but they’re usually just concentrated in one city,” he explains. “I’m very nervous about it, but I’m excited because it’s the first time I’m creating something on my own.”