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By royal command

The gospel choir who sang at the wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle have released their debut album. Conductor Karen Gibson tells Claire Brine how the Kingdom Choir were asked to sing at the royal wedding and about their aim to spread a message all over the world of the goodness of God

As a choir, we want to remind people that God is a good God

KAREN GIBSON was on the No 87 bus, travelling home after work in London, when she received an unexpected and life-changing phone call. She remembers: ‘The woman on the other end of the line said: “We’d like to invite you to sing at the royal wedding.” I replied: “You’re joking, right?” The woman went silent, and I realised she wasn’t joking at all.’

Karen accepted the invitation on behalf of the Kingdom Choir, a gospel choir she had founded more than two decades before. But she couldn’t quite believe that in two months’ time, on 19 May 2018, the group would be singing in front of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle as they celebrated their big day.

‘When I hung up the phone, I just didn’t know what to think,’ Karen recalls. ‘I didn’t allow myself to believe it for a good couple of weeks. I kept thinking the plans would fall through and it wouldn’t happen, simply because it was such an amazing opportunity.’

But it did happen, and earlier this year millions of people across the world tuned in and saw the Kingdom Choir sing ‘Stand By Me’ in St George’s Chapel at Windsor Castle. It was an experience that Karen will never forget.

‘The day was magical,’ Karen says. ‘Quite surreal. But very lovely.’

The Kingdom Choir had sung for royalty before. In their earlier years, they had performed in front of the Queen, as well as other esteemed individuals, such as Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Nelson Mandela and President Bill Clinton. Karen explains how a group made up of individuals from London churches came to such prominence.

‘There are two phases to the choir’s life,’ she explains. ‘The first phase was from about 1995 to 2008, after which we took a break for several years. In the beginning I was part of a choir that belonged to my church in London. The gentleman who led it worked for Radio 2, recording services in black Pentecostal churches. He asked me if I could build up the choirs in the churches he visited by pulling together some members of our own church choir. So that’s what I did.

‘After a time, those radio recordings stopped happening at churches but instead took place at Christian events such as Greenbelt. Again, I was always asked to arrange a choir. Then one day, Songs of Praise phoned me up, asking if my choir would sing on their 35th birthday programme. At this point, we didn’t even have a name! We were just a host choir that had been performing at various venues.

‘The Songs of Praise woman said I needed to come up with a name by the next day. That night, when I went to sleep, I dreamt of the name the Kingdom Choir. I decided to stick with it. But I had no clue what the name really meant until years later.’

In 2008, after years of radio and television appearances, Karen felt that the choir needed a break. She went on sabbatical and moved to America for nine months, where she attended a school of ministry in California. She found the experience changed her entire outlook.

‘When I came back home, I was in a very different mindset,’ she says. ‘So when I started the Kingdom Choir back up again – in about 2012 – we had changed. We performed at very low-key church events. Until the royal wedding, of course.’

So how did the invitation to perform at such a high-profile event even come about?

‘It was all down to connections,’ says Karen. ‘It turns out that Prince Charles really likes gospel choirs and he wanted one to perform at his son’s wedding. His deputy head of communications was good friends with a woman who used to be in my choir many years ago, and she asked her for some advice. My former choir colleague said: “Karen Gibson. That’s the woman you want.”

‘Soon afterwards, I received a phone call from my choir friend with whom I hadn’t spoken for about ten years. She said: “Karen, I suppose you’re wondering why I’m ringing. Well, you’re going to get a phone call. I can’t tell you what it’s about, but it’s big.”’

A few days later, when Karen was on the bus, the big phone call came through.

After accepting the invitation to sing at the royal wedding, Karen and the choir began making preparations. She emailed a selection of songs to the wedding organiser that she felt would be appropriate for the choir to sing. The wedding organiser replied with some further suggestions. Together, they came to an agreement.

‘One of the songs I suggested was “Joyful, Joyful”,’ says Karen. ‘But then the wedding organiser came back with the song “Stand By Me”. We had a version ready with all the bells and whistles, but Prince Harry and Meghan wanted it to be very stripped back. So we sent them through an amended version. They felt the song still wasn’t stripped back enough, so in the end, we met with the couple at Kensington Palace to give them a little live performance. They came across as warm and down-to-earth. And very much in love, just like any other couple about to get married.’

After a few more tweaks, the Kingdom Choir came up with a version of ‘Stand By Me’ that met with royal approval. Less than two months later, the choir’s big day – along with Prince Harry and Meghan’s – had arrived.

‘We weren’t nervous, we were ready,’ remembers Karen. ‘Yes, we were aware of the TV cameras and the fact that we were singing in a beautiful location, but our focus was on doing the best job possible. I just hoped the couple would be happy with our performance.

‘Before the choir sang, we prayed together. We prayed all the time that the wedding guests in the chapel would be touched by the song. But we also had people praying all over the world, for Prince Harry and Meghan and what their union would do in the country.

‘The moment when we came to sing was magical. It was just such a beautiful day.’

Since the performance, which has been viewed more than five million times on YouTube, Karen says that life for the Kingdom Choir has gone a little crazy.

‘We have made a record deal with Sony, recorded an album and lined up a national tour for next year, which includes singing at the Royal Albert Hall,’ she says. ‘But I never expected any of this. When we sang at the royal wedding, I thought we would have a great day out and find enough of a platform to release our own EP. I never imagined that we would end up singing on TV programmes, doing photo shoots, filming an advert for our album and travelling as far as Australia.’

Released last week, the Kingdom Choir’s debut album Stand By Me features a mixture of secular and faith-based songs such as ‘Fix You’, ‘Make You Feel My Love’, ‘Amazing Grace’, ‘I Say A Little Prayer’ and even an original song called ‘Chases’.

‘All of the songs contain messages of love, hope and inspiration,’ says Karen. ‘And although I wouldn’t typically sing most of them in a church setting, I have found myself worshipping God through them. God can speak through anything he wants. Music doesn’t have to be gospel or Christian for him to work.

‘One of my favourite tracks on the album is “Make You Feel My Love”, which was covered by Adele. Before we recorded it, I always felt that it was a sad song. But then I saw God in the words and it became very powerful. The message of God’s love resonated with me.

‘Another song I love is “Golden” because it’s so optimistic. It’s about living your life like it’s golden, and it talks about God living in each of us.’

God has been important to Karen since childhood, when she started attending Sunday school. As she grew up, she developed a personal relationship with him.

‘On my journey I have discovered different facets of God through reading his word,’ she says. ‘I’ve begun to understand that my identity is found in Christ and that he loves me unconditionally.

‘I’ve also begun to understand much more about the Kingdom of God, which is what the name “the Kingdom Choir” is all about. The Kingdom is God’s realm. The Bible says that the Kingdom of Heaven is righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit. As a choir, we need to spread this message wherever we go. We want to remind people that God is a good God and that he’s good all the time.’

Made up of churchgoers with ‘a strong faith’, the Kingdom Choir claim that a love for God is ‘part of their DNA’. When they perform, they view their singing as an act of worship to him.

‘Pardon the pun, but we all sing from the same hymn sheet,’ Karen says. ‘And we are not just singing for entertainment. We are singing to see lives impacted and hearts changed. Seeing people transformed is wonderful. Whether we are singing Coldplay’s “Fix You” or the worship song “Reckless Love” or whatever, I believe God can work through any song.

‘My hope is that, in the future, the Kingdom Choir will continue introducing people to the goodness of God. When we sang at the royal wedding, people said that it moved their spirits. I want us to do more of that – to show people that God wants a relationship with us. Because that’s why Jesus, his Son, came to earth. He came to see people transformed, to bring them joy and to show them how to live abundantly. If the Kingdom Choir could spread more of that message all over the world, I would be so happy.’

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