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'The prince of kosher gospel' is coming to Kansas City to unite Jewish and Black communities

Joshua Nelson performs at a 2014 event in Russia
Denis Bochkarev & Jenia Rakina
Joshua Nelson performs at a 2014 event in Russia

Singer Joshua Nelson will visit Kansas City as part of the Auschwitz exhibition at Union Station.

Joshua Nelson gets called a lot of things. One is the “prince of kosher gospel,” a moniker the New Jersey-based musician has earned after 20 years of performing traditional Jewish tunes in the style of the “queen of gospel song,” Mahalia Jackson.

But Nelson calls himself a “walking dichotomy.” He says he thinks most people don’t understand the truth of just how connected all of humankind is.

“On the surface, we look like we’re all separated, and that’s the way we think things are. But me, I’m Jewish, and I sing like Mahalia Jackson. So, I’m Jewish and Black. To me, there’s no division,” Nelson explains.

Nelson is in Kansas City this weekend as a guest not only of Union Station — and part of the “Auschwitz: Not long ago. Not far away” — but also of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).

The United Nations’ Creative Cities Network consists of 246 locations worldwide, nine of which are in the United States. The categories are: crafts and folk art, design, film, gastronomy, literature, media arts and music.

Kansas City is the only city in the United States designated as a music city.

With that designation comes benefits such as the ability to bring people like Nelson to town to do the serious work of unification.

June 2018 in Krakow, Poland at the Galicia Jewish Museum meeting with UNESCO Cities of Music, from left: Jacob Wagner, Anita Dixon, and Kansas City mayor pro tem Scott Wagner.
Jacob Wagner
Jacob Wagner, left, worked with Anita Dixon-Brown, and Kansas City mayor pro tem Scott Wagner to earn Kansas City the designation of a UNESCO music city. They visited Poland in 2018 to meet with other music cities.

Anita Dixon-Brown is the executive director of UNESCO Creative City of Music-Kansas City. She applied for and then accepted the designation just before the United States pulled out of UNESCO, effective in late 2018.

Former president Donald Trump cited anti-Israeli bias as a reason for the withdrawal; the United States hadn’t funded UNESCO since its 2011 inclusion of Palestine as a member state due to a 1990s-era mandate concerning U.N. recognition of the same.

President Joe Biden’s proposed 2022 budget shows renewed United Nations funding, but it requires Congressional approval.

In spite of the current U.S. “nonmember observer” status, Dixon-Brown says the designation still gives Kansas City a seat at the international table when it comes to discussion of all things creative.

“With that seat comes great responsibility. We understand that UNESCO is this huge thing with a huge voice,” Dixon-Brown says. She’ll combine that voice with Nelson’s.

She says that Nelson naturally brings together the Black and Jewish communities through his work, and she hopes that these upcoming events will strengthen their ties and draw more people to the Auschwitz exhibition.

“Little Black kids like me,” Dixon-Brown says and pauses. “I knew Mrs. Silverberg.”

Mrs. Silverberg's story

Growing up next door to a Holocaust survivor changed her worldview.

“She was the nicest lady in the world. I noticed that she had tattoos on her arm, and I asked her what they were. And she told me, ‘That was a very bad time. You have to ask your mother,’” she says.

It wasn’t until accepting the UNESCO designation a few years ago that Dixon-Brown visited Krakow and the infamous camp.

Mrs. Silverberg had urged Dixon-Brown to be useful to others.

“I kept that in my mind over 50 years, until I went to Auschwitz and saw what happened to my friend. You know, I was dumbstruck,” she says.

Nelson says it’s important “to see each other’s pain, each other’s glory. … I’m African American,” he says, “and I know a lot of African Americans think that they’re the only ones in the world who have been discriminated against. And no, we aren’t. There are others.”

He says that when he first started singing kosher gospel music, the rabbis he knew asked him to explain himself. They weren’t against the sound, they only wanted to understand its origins and why Nelson wanted to sing that way.

Nelson explained to them that the sound of gospel predates the African American conversion to Christianity.

Enslaved Africans working American fields were from numerous tribes and didn’t have a common language, so they communicated through what he calls “moaning and groaning.” Once they did have a common language, that transformed into work songs.

“That moaning and groaning and that soul is basically what they put in their spirituals in Christian music once they became Christian. But the soul was pre-Christian,” Nelson says.

The rabbis accepted his explanation, and the sound has become increasingly popular in Jewish worship.

“It’s important that other cultures, especially the African-American community, see how a people were hated and how they rose,” he says. “Maybe we can learn something for our own community.”

Joshua Nelson and Rabbi Kramer Shabbat on Friday, Oct. 1 from 6 p.m. to 7 p.m. at B’Nai Jehudah, 12320 Nall Ave, Overland Park, KS 66209. Free and open to the public with registration.

An Evening with Joshua Nelson on Saturday, Oct. 2 from 4:30 p.m. to 6:30 p.m. at Unity Temple on the Plaza, 707 West 47th Street, Kansas City, MO 64112. Free and open to the public with registration.

“We wear the Mask,” A Tribute to Mahalia Jackson by Joshua Nelson on Sunday, Oct. 3 from 4:30 p.m. to 6:30 p.m. at Jamison Memorial Temple, 3115 Linwood Boulevard, Kansas City, MO 64128. Free and open to the public with registration.

Anne Kniggendorf is a staff writer/editor at the Kansas City Public Library and freelance contributor to KCUR. She is the author of "Secret Kansas City."
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