When people think about colleges and universities with a reputation for cranking out world-class talent, rarely are they prompted to mention the University of Pennsylvania, or Penn for short. But my friends and I have reveled in the fact that there are lots of entertainment industry bigwigs and celebs who have come from our student and faculty ranks. And we are often celebrity-adjacent, like Lauryn Hill's big brother, Denzel's son or Michael Jackson's nephew. Not to mention that being located in Philadelphia has a definite advantage to attracting big talent in the first place. This city is a true national cultural mecca, and it's one of the reasons why Your VibeMistress had Penn at the top of my list when college application time came around.
One of the other things that's true about Penn is that a cappella groups are a huge part of the campus performing community, and alumni are invited to remain in an active role in whatever way they most desire. Giving money is great and encouraged, but there are a ton of ways that alum can remain engaged in making Penn a top-notch destination for all interested parties. We artsy folks come back to sign our new books, as guest lecturers, to screen films and--if you're a vocalist--to perform live for all manner of events. Such is the case of me meeting and singing on stage with John Stephens, now known as John Legend.
A cappella groups may seem cultish to folks who are looking in from the outside. The rehearsal hours are excessive, show preparation is something like military boot camp, and the debate over repertoire can be intense. But once you belong to one such group, the connections are usually life-long. I was a charter member of a group called The Inspiration, and have served as its Music Director as both student and as an alum, proudly accepting my distinction as an Oldhead. John is younger than me, but came to Penn as a highly-regarded gospel musician, and his reputation preceded him in the performance circles. He even tried out for The Inspiration, I'm told, but ended up singing with and directing Penn's acclaimed jazz a cappella ensemble, Counterparts. Penn is no Julliard, but we get plenty of love for the quality of talent we crank out. John was, and is, one such bright light. He was already gifted, but he cranked up several notches by being nurtured in Penn's performance environment.
Anyhoo...John had recently graduated and was being managed by another Penn alum, Jason Wiley, who had hooked him up with Kanye West and given him several opportunities to write and perform with budding stars in the hiphop and R&B worlds. I was working regularly in musical theater, back and forth between Philly and NYC, and doing gigs with my band Muses Wild at Zanzibar Blue, a hip and trendy downtown jazz restaubar. Some students and alum put their heads together and thought it would be cool if John and I would both come back to campus to do an intimate vocal thang for Homecoming. Thus, the Soulcoming concert.
Seeing John singing the title role for NBC's reimagining of Jesus Christ Superstar last weekend was a reminder that immense talent is indeed a gift and a blessing, and each of us are offered our own platform and spotlight to share those gifts with the world. He also followed me on Twitter the next day, which made me chuckle. A Legend may too have had a pleasant memory about these moments of introduction and soul singing with a chick who does what she can to spread positive vibes all around the world, either on the mic or behind the mixer.
Superstar or niche market. What matters most is the music, and the people we meet along the way who consider the artistry (and our respective roles within it) a true privilege.