We sat down with George Marage and Ifedayo of The Harlem Gospel Travelers to chat about their new record, the new New York Music Scene and the ongoing influence of gospel music in the US. Stay tuned for the end when the pair riff off in a feisty game of song association!
(This interview has been edited for brevity)
Harlem Gospel Travelers, what is this summer looking like for you?
Ifedayo: Busy. And we like to keep it that way. For a long time we were sitting in our houses, writing songs and recording just hoping to get back on the scene. Before the pandemic, like so many others, we had so much stuff lined up and then coronavirus was like, SNATCH. We are back in the game, reintroducing ourselves to the world. This is our first time as a trio and we have a new look and a new sound – it’s all very exciting.
George: To be able to go on our first international tour – we are about to leave for France. We’ve toured the US but to go international is exciting.
So you are all New Yorkers, but none of you are from Harlem?
I: ‘The Harlem Gospel Travelers’ name was invented by Eli Paperboy Reed who is our manager and producer. Me and George were working at this foundation and it wasn’t until I started writing songs that we had a name. We traveled from all parts of New York; me from Long Island, George from Staten Island. Our other member, Dennis, is from Houston. We’re from all over.
‘Look Up’ has been a hit on The Face Radio. How did the single come about?
G: It was written by Eli and Aaron Fraser. They played it for me and Ifedayo and we knew we could do something with this.
I: I think it matches perfectly. We are like the younger version of them. They wrote the song and gave it to us to sing. We have similar voices and we were able to bring their vision to life. We recorded it when we were going through a transition of four to three (members). It was just me and George in the studio that day!
Ifedayo, when you spoke to Jamie Stocker on Lock And Stock about the album, you said there were no skips…
I: Every last one of these songs on this album goes hard.
G: They’re all originals but it sounds like it came out of the 1960s.
I: It sounds so current and it still hits you in this phase of 2022 and the lyrics are effective to today’s life. The feeling that you get is something you don’t really get from music nowadays. I didn’t write the album for the sake of writing an album. I wrote an album because we were in a pandemic and I was just trying to not die. I was trying to not allow depression to take over me. What inspires me now is to talk about the things that need to be talked about. To let people know that there is the other side of (depression).
‘Fight On’ is an incredibly powerful single which uses archival as well as recent footage of Black rights protests. What do you think is the relationship between praise and protest?
I: I am a born and raised Christian preacher’s kid. One thing that was always instilled in me is to love others and always stand up for what is right. For me, I’ve taken that on in anything I do in my life. My family is very adamant about learning Black history. I’ve read books and articles – I knew what was happening wasn’t new. What was shocking is that it was still going on. Eli approached me about doing a cover to a song and I told him, no. I didn’t want our people to feel depressed. I wanted them to feel empowered to keep on fighting to make change. I told Eli to give me five minutes and I wrote the song in five minutes in the bathroom.
What are the ways the gospel genre can be used to push boundaries? What makes gospel relevant?
I: During the civil rights movement, African Americans went to the church. That’s where African Americans were allowed to rally without people knowing. The pastor would preach the sermon and also talk about what was going on. People like Martin Luther King Jr would go to churches and connect with pastors and have meetings in homes. Then you had artists like Mahalia Jackson, Aretha Franklin and Sam Cook who came together and used their gifts to support causes. Our history as America was built on religious freedom. Read your textbooks!
The church and gospel music has always played an influential part in social issues. When it comes to gospel music, it is the good news. It is the outcry of the soul. That’s why when people hear gospel music, you feel something – because it is the truth. That’s the difference between gospel music and any other music – it’s the strength of the truth within it. It’s the truth within the musicians, the chords, the lyrics. If you say gospel sounds like pop, it’s the other way around – pop sounds like gospel. When people hear that music, they feel inspired because of the truth and power of the music. I want to use my music and my gift to make a change.
G: I grew up in Catholic church. Anytime I was upset I would sing to myself and people would ask me what was going on – I was just singing what I’d heard in church. It touches people in ways they don’t understand. I wasn’t a preacher’s kid and I didn’t grow up in the church, gospel music is my life now.
Listening to your music, each song is so different…
G: You’ve got ballads in there, rock songs, funk songs…
I: I’m a church boy but I always wanted to be a rockstar!
How do you feel about the music scene in New York since the pandemic?
G: In today’s music, when I turn on the radio, they are all giving the same kind of beat and the same vibe. Where’s the versatility?
I: For the New York scene, the bands and artists are coming back stronger than ever. These shows have been on fire because people are not playing games. They sat in their houses for two, three years. They are ready to go! A lot of these people are coming back with their best work because all they had was their artistry and themselves. Everytime I go on the stage, I’m going for broke. I am not taking no prisoners! Now that we’re back out there, it’s a trickle effect. All performers are going crazy because they missed being on stage. As a consumer, this is the best time to go and see shows. Support everybody because everyone is pouring their heart and soul into them. Down to the shoes because we miss it!
Are there any New York artists you’d like to shout out?
G: Shout out to Union Pool – we love y’all.
I: And the taco truck outside Union Pool! It’s delicious. I want to shout out Saint Jane, their music is amazing. I’ve been working with them and doing shows with them – they have been going bonkers. Of course shout out to Eli “Paperboy” Reed and his new record.
G: And of course Aaron Fraser.
Listen to the full interview to hear more from George and Ifedayo about gospel music, their new release and the New York music scene. Listen to the end to discover which of the two is the ultimate Song Association assassin!
Photography by Rosie Cohe.