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James Hills assembled a gospel choir for Embrace Boston. Now he hopes to keep it going.

Mayor Michelle Wu joined local clergy for a vigil at The Embrace Memorial on Boston Common in response to the killing of Tyre Nichols in Memphis. James Hills of Boston concluded the vigil with a song.Barry Chin/Globe Staff

When organizers from Embrace Boston approached James Hills about forming a community gospel choir for the memorial’s unveiling ceremony, he jumped at the chance.

“It was an automatic yes,” he said.

Hills — a 51-year-old activist and professional podcaster who hosts a daily talk show, “Java with Jimmy” — said he was honored to get the call. He reveres Coretta Scott King and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., and he understands the role music played in their lives, in the civil rights movement, and in the work of activists today.

Along with his co-director, Issa Bibbins, a Berklee College of Music graduate and professional musician, Hills put together an intergenerational choir made of top local talent, from high school standouts to experienced recording artists.


They call themselves “The Voices of Embrace Inspirational Choir,” and they’re good. Really good. So good, in fact, that Hills believes the Embrace Boston ceremony in January was just the beginning.


Jesse Remedios: For at least a few hours, it felt like all eyes were on Boston.


Jesse Remedios: A brand-new $10 million monument in the country’s oldest public park dedicated to Coretta Scott and Martin Luther King Jr. The smiles, hugs, and laughter on Boston Common reflected the mood that January day.


Jesse Remedios: But as James “Jimmy” Hills waited to go on stage, he was a mess. The man felt a weight.

James Hills: Heavy weight, brother. Heavy weight. Like a ton of bricks on my shoulders.

Jesse Remedios: Hills had the privilege and pressure of leading a gospel choir in a rendition of the Black National Anthem to open the ceremony.

[MUSIC: “Lift Every Voice”]

Jesse Remedios: Hills, a director with no formal training — he didn’t want to mess that up.

James Hills: If you look at the footage, there’s one part toward the end of the national Black anthem, and I literally almost keeled over. People think it was a part of the directing. No, it hit me that this thing was almost over and the keel-over was literally like a physical expression of “Yes!”



Jesse Remedios: Hills walked off that stage relieved. His five-week-old Voices of Embrace Inspirational Choir sounded great, and in doing so, they sent some important messages

James Hills: The messages were love. Embracing our past, naming what it was and what it is. But moving on. Of course the message of the Black National Anthem: Lift every voice and sing. It didn’t say Black voice, white voice, yellow voice, red voice. Every voice. And, the message that the arts still have influence and power.

Jesse Remedios: That last message is one that Hills hopes the Voices of Embrace can keep telling — and singing — many more times to come.

James Hills: I’m trying to figure out how we keep doing this, keep the choir together, but also expand it. I did not know how much people needed that fellowship. It was the beginning of a family.

Jesse Remedios: Hills remembers that same feeling from his childhood days singing in gospel and community choirs around Boston. It’s a tradition he worries is fading in the region.

James Hills: I don’t know when it happened, but it happened. The pandemic didn’t help. I also think it’s regional. Further south you go, there are choirs that still march in on Sunday morning and wear choir robes.


Jesse Remedios: Hills thinks his group might be able to help.

James Hills: The Voices of Embrace Inspirational Choir, I believe, at least here in Boston, is going to bring that genre of gospel music and inspirational music back to the forefront.

Jesse Remedios: That might sound aspirational. But if their performance at the Embrace unveiling ceremony is any indicator, they have the chops to back it up.

[MUSIC: “Be Optimistic”]

James Hills: I saw Ayanna Pressley, the Kings, Governor Maura Healey, Mayor Wu, they were all out there clapping and moving with us. I was like, OK, we’re pretty good.

Jesse Remedios: When the unveiling ceremony wrapped up, Hills wasn’t sure when the Voices of Embrace would perform again. He says they’ve since received some invitations and expects they’ll be at the annual Mayor’s Gospel Festival this summer.

James Hills: I believe that music has the power to create change and further activism. Martin Luther King talks about being a drum major. Music, a lot of times in the space of activism, is the beat in which we stay encouraged. It’s the beat that keeps us focused. It’s the beat that names the reality of our situation, and it’s also the beat of hope.

Jesse Remedios: At times, hope. At other times, comfort. On Jan. 27, Hills got a call from Mayor Wu’s office inviting him to attend a vigil at the Embrace memorial to mourn the death of Tyre Nichols, the 29-year-old man killed by Memphis police following a traffic stop. Hills had become an activist nearly 20 years ago, after a young man he served as a youth worker was killed in Boston. And as a professional podcaster, he tries to use his voice to create spaces for members of his community to discuss and reflect on tragedies like Nichols’s death. But on this night, he was in pain, and didn’t expect to participate. Until one of the mayor’s staffers spotted him.


James Hills: And she was like, you do sing! And I think she had remembered the choir, and it was decided that we were going to do “Let There Be Peace on Earth.” Something hit me in that song. And it goes back to activism in the words — that pulls all of the accountability around this piece of equitable quality of life back to us as the individuals.

Jesse Remedios: One refrain, in particular, really drove that home for Hills.

James Hills: So one of my favorite parts was [SINGS]: “To take each moment and live each moment in peace eternally. Let there be peace on earth and let it begin with me.”

Jesse Remedios can be reached at jesse.remedios@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @JCRemedios.