“If you can carry a tune, come on!” said Raymond Wise, Director of the African American Choral Ensemble.
The African American Choral Ensemble (ACE) is one of three ensembles within the African American Arts Institute and specializes in music that is composed by, for or about African Americans. ACE was founded in 1975 and is also recognized as a course through the African American and African Diaspora Studies Department (AAADS).
The ensemble has organized many performances and received numerous accolades over their lifespan. In 2020, they partnered with local radio station WTIU to create a music documentary called, “Amen! Music of the Black Church.” According to the Herald Times, this documentary won first place in the documentary/special category from the Society of Professional Journalists, a regional Emmy award for best historical or cultural content and a silver Telly Award in the religious and spiritual category.
Wise is from Baltimore, Maryland and came to IU to teach in the fall of 2012. When he first began his tenure, there were only eight members in ACE. By the first concert, ACE had 14 singers and membership was declining. Wise dedicated himself to rebuilding the ensemble to its former glory by encouraging members of the community to check out the ensemble.
McKenzie Jones, fifth-year senior at IU, emphasized how good it feels to be around such a familial atmosphere. She says Wise has a way of bringing the ensemble together despite members being so different. He structures the ensemble as a family and tells members they should be as close as kin.
“These are your brothers and sisters. So, for the next 16 weeks, this is your family,” Wise said
In her freshman year, McKenzie Jones attended the 2019 Potpourri where Wise was inviting students to join the ensemble. Wise encouraged her to audition, and despite nerves, she decided to give it a try.
“The audition wasn’t as scary or as daunting as I thought it was going to be,” Jones said. “It wasn’t like that. It was a very welcoming environment.”
Rebuilding ACE has been a process for Wise, but the director says a good start would be increasing their name recognition on campus. Enrollment has been a consistent problem with ACE. Wise calls ACE the “best-kept secret on campus.”
Today, ACE has more than 50 singers and enrollment continues to increase each year, but the ensemble is always accepting new members. There are auditions each semester, and students of all races and skill levels are welcome to try it out.
“While it's the African American Choral Ensemble, it's not just for African Americans,” Wise said. “This is one of the greatest opportunities that we have to build community and bring greater awareness in terms of the African American experience.”
Because he wasn’t African American, Robison was hesitant to join ACE at first. During his freshman year, one of his teaching assistants encouraged him to audition for the ensemble. Despite his skepticism, Robinson decided to try out, and four years later, he has not regretted his decision.
“It is a choir that is for, by, and about African Americans, but it’s not only for African Americans,” Jones said.
Robison said his experience as a white student in ACE has been eye-opening. Coming from Warsaw, Indiana, he didn’t have a lot of experience with traditional African American gospel. But he would advise non-students-of-color to give the ensemble and its experiences a try.
“I’ve felt so cared for and fulfilled by being in ACE that I never wanted to leave,” Robison said.
Robinson’s favorite performance is 2019 Potpourri of the Arts where the ensemble performed with Bootsy Collins at the IU Auditorium. It was his first potpourri, so he was nervous. However, being in front of such a responsive audience gave him the reassurance he needed. Now, he couldn’t imagine performing without it.
“It was electric, and I’ll never forget it,” Robinson said.
Wise wants people to know ACE is open for everyone. He encourages non-music majors who may be hesitant about joining to try. Most of his students aren’t music majors and do not plan to go into the industry in the future, but Wise says the goal isn’t to create professional musicians.
“The goal is for them to have a meaningful experience that helps to encourage, uplift and inspire them while they’re in school so they can get through the other challenges that they may face,” Wise said.
According to his students, Wise has been an influential figure in their academic careers as well. Wise stresses the importance of giving his students a safe space where they feels they belong. He wants to encourage them to use their talents for careers beyond the ensemble.
“He definitely prioritizes each individual and our own health and happiness while we’re inside of the classroom and outside of it,” Jones said. “That also inspires me to be that for other people.”
Jones said the choral operates like a family. The group has continued to support and uplift her even when she doesn’t feel confident in herself. Her favorite performance was in 2021, during the Potpourri performance where she got to experiment with a rap solo. Jones said she never would have performed if it hadn’t been for Wise and the ensemble encouraging her.
“It was something new that ACE had done and Dr. Wise gives the opportunity to everyone,” Jones said. “I was like, ‘Why not?”
Soon, Wise hopes to further expand the program to include more specialty interests. In the future, he hopes to add various small groups centered around specifically men or women or even specialty music styles such as jazz, opera and more.
“Many of these students are very gifted,” Wise said. “And, with some encouragement and mentoring and a place to grow, they can grow and leave the ensemble and do greater things.”