Woman of the Week is Stylist’s weekly celebration of women making a difference to society. Karen Gibson, the conductor of The Kingdom Choir, captured everyone’s attention at the royal wedding – but, she says, she’s happiest teaching ordinary people how to sing.
Karen Gibson was on the bus when she got the call from Clarence House, asking if The Kingdom Choir would perform at Prince Harry and Meghan Markle’s wedding.
“My response was, ‘Are you kidding?’” she laughs. “There was complete silence on the other end, so I said, ‘Of course you’re not kidding, are you?’”
Gibson’s surprise belies the fact that The Kingdom Choir – the gospel group she has led for more than 20 years – are no strangers to high-profile bookings. Since she founded the choir in 1996, they have sung in front of the Pope, Nelson Mandela, Bishop Desmond Tutu and President Bill Clinton. In 2002, they performed in front of the Queen for her Golden Jubilee.
But, says Gibson, the wedding of the now-Duke and Duchess of Sussex was a unique experience. “You think royalty is royalty, but this was another level altogether,” she says. “It was a very private and intimate ceremony, but on a worldwide platform.”
The 54-year-old is keen to emphasise that it’s “an honour to be invited to anybody’s wedding”. But, of course, Meghan and Harry are “a power couple. They’re royalty, but their interests and concern for making the world a better place make them a very special twosome indeed.” She met the pair before the wedding, and says they were “like any other couple in love organising their wedding, wanting things to be just right”.
In the immediate wake of The Kingdom Choir’s performance, which was aired live on TV channels around the world, there was a sense of joyous amazement that a group so proudly, emphatically black had been booked for the wedding. Many of the women in the choir wore their hair in natural styles; the songs they sang (Stand by Me and later, Amen/This Little Light of Mine) are both associated with the Sixties civil rights movement in the US.
“It was the awesome power of the Kingdom Choir and its leader Karen Gibson that captivated me,” wrote Salamishah Tillet in her analysis of the wedding for The New York Times. “They did not simply give us a rollicking rendition of Ben E King’s Stand by Me, but rather showcased the sheer breadth of a trans-Atlantic black identity.”
“The twist-outs, the crotchet curls, the Senegalese twists, the feed-in braids, the side-swept ponytail,” read one typical tweet. “We out here.” At the time of writing, that tweet has been liked more than 130,000 times.
Gibson chuckles when I tell her that the choir’s performance prompted a social media frenzy. “What you saw there, that’s how we always are,” she says. “We weren’t thinking about making a statement, we were being ourselves. When you go to a wedding you dress up, don’t you?”
She is similarly reluctant to be drawn on the political significance of the choir’s song choices. It has been widely reported that Prince Charles requested Stand by Me, but Gibson was under the impression that it was Meghan and Harry’s pick.
“I only know Stand by Me as a soul song,” she says. “Apparently they were both protest songs, but when I was growing up in the Pentecostal church, they were only ever songs of faith.” Stand by Me was inspired by a spiritual, she points out, and some of the lyrics are based on the Bible’s Psalm 46. “So we were singing from a faith perspective, not a social protest standpoint.”
Faith is deeply important to Gibson. She grew up in Tooting, south London, and credits her local church with nurturing her passion for music, despite being classically trained on the piano and the oboe – since “everybody sings in a black Pentecostal church”.
She formed her first choir with her sister and other attendees of that church, and then started directing choirs. Two of the members of that original group performed with her at the royal wedding. “I called and asked them to join us, and luckily they said yes!”
The Kingdom Choir was founded after Gibson came to the attention of the BBC, who invited her to bring a gospel group to perform on Songs of Praise. However, choir conducting didn’t become her full-time job until 2007. Previously, she worked as a music teacher in a school and in IT. “Please don’t ask me what I was doing, because I didn’t know myself,” she jokes. “I didn’t like the job, and the job certainly didn’t like me!”
Now that they’re known around the world, The Kingdom Choir are guaranteed to be in greater demand than ever. But while high-profile, high-stakes gigs are a thrill, Gibson says she still gets most satisfaction from leading choirs of ordinary people.
“The big events are wonderful, and I love those,” she says. “But what actually makes me happy in the moment is when I see the transformation in somebody’s face when they understand that they can sing, and that they can have their voice heard in a public space. Or when I see that people’s lives have been turned around just by singing gospel music for two hours a week. Or when I have a hall-full of children, singing at the top of their voices, and you can see all the meaning in their eyes and their faces.
“That is so special to me, and that is without price,” she continues. “Yes, I loved the royal wedding, and I am so grateful and so privileged. But the most special moments are ordinary, in everyday life. That is the absolute truth.”
Main image: Getty Images