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Berklee getting high-schoolers into the spirit of gospel music

Emmett G. Price III, dean of Africana Studies at Berklee, says of gospel: "There’s such hope, resilience, and perseverance that comes through this music."Bearwalk Cinema

The first few students who enrolled in the Berklee College of Music’s newest summer program, a five-day “intensive” in gospel performance, are coming from as far away as Australia and Japan. That’s a pretty good indication that today’s gospel music has a reach that extends far beyond the traditional church.

But Emmett G. Price III, the inaugural dean of Berklee’s Africana Studies division, says the summer program is just as committed to attracting students from right around the block. Open to students ages 15 and up, the Gospel Performance Program (which kicks off Aug. 15) will combine the global reach of modern gospel with a local focus on Berklee’s desire to expand its influence in a genre that impacts pop, R&B, and hip-hop.

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With students recruited through Boston-area Boys & Girls Clubs, YMCAs, theater programs, and churches, Price says, “We want to show them that this is their Berklee, too.”

“Gospel is a feeder of all genres,” says Teresa Hairston, citing Lizzo, Snoop Dogg, and Kanye West as three contemporary examples. The founder of Gospel Today magazine and a frequent visitor to Berklee, Hairston will serve as the program’s scholar in residence.

Traditional gospel music’s role in the development of rock ‘n’ roll and soul music has been well-documented. Today, however, some young people have preconceived notions about the category, Hairston says: “Oh, that’s grandma’s music!”

But introduce them to a song featuring Kirk Franklin or Yolanda Adams or Kurt Carr — the latter of whom is this year’s artist in residence — and they often change their tune.

“They wake up and get sparkly-eyed,” says Hairston.

In fact, Price notes on a shared Zoom chat, the prevalence of televised singing competitions over the past couple of decades has likely brought more gospel-style singing into living rooms than at any other time in the history of mass entertainment.

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“When Simon Cowell says, ‘Oh, that’s amazing,’ we know that’s the same kind of response that gospel has been getting for years,” he says.

Price, a pastor who makes weekly appearances on GBH’s “Boston Public Radio,” is a Los Angeles native who has lived in the Boston area for more than two decades. Prior to his hiring at Berklee last year, he taught at Northeastern, Brandeis, and Boston University.

Berklee will host 40 students in the program’s first class, but Price has big plans for rapid growth. “It should be as big as our guitar intensive,” he says, which enrolls about 500 students each summer.

The moment is right, if not overdue, for Berklee to focus more intently on gospel, he says. “For 10 years, our nation has been in crisis. This has been one of the most divisive seasons of our lifetime. In these moments people look for hope, and that’s the essence of gospel.

“We’re the good news,” he says. “People feel it.”

“This is the time for this genre,” Hairston adds.

“There’s such hope, resilience, and perseverance that comes through this music,” says Price. “We’re not trying to convert anybody, but if you need a little hope, I know exactly where to find it.”

James Sullivan can be reached at jamesgsullivan@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter @sullivanjames.