Nolan Williams, Jr., 41, grew up the son, grandson and great-grandson of Baptist ministers, immersed in the sacred sounds and rhythms of African-American song. The music became his vocation, and today he is a composer, director, and the CEO of NEWorks Productions, collaborating with artists from Aretha Franklin to the National Symphony Orchestra. On Saturday, he will conduct the choral group Voices of Inspiration and the NSO in "Sanctuary: A Sacred Sounds Concert" at The Arc Theater in Southeast Washington, D.C. ($10 tickets available at thearcdc.org). He spoke with The Washington Examiner about the faith and the history that inspire his work. Do you consider yourself to be of a specific faith?
I am a Christian first, and I am drawn to it by the story of Jesus Christ and the love of God for the world that he would come to us as one of us to save and redeem us. I'm a practicing Baptist -- the tradition has been a part of my family for generations.
Especially as you move post-slavery, my forebears were seeking to find meaning and purpose in life in the midst of a very difficult transition. The Baptists -- as well as the Methodists and the Pentecostals -- were able to express their faith and have a tremendous impact on African Americans. Then in the 1920s, Vernon Johns struggled for civil rights, and later Martin Luther King, Jr. -- the bravery that Johns, King and other Baptist ministers displayed has always been at the forefront of my mind as providing a compelling reason to live with this tradition.
What led to your musical calling within the tradition?
The best values of the Baptist church are reflected in the music. The sacred music tradition -- it's more than hand-clapping and foot stomping -- it's the story of a broad history of human spirit, arising out of hard times and a belief in God. When you look at the anthems, hymns, spirituals and gospel songs, there's a story of faith and perseverance -- of pain, but of hope and optimism throughout the pain and the harsh realities of life. You see reflected in the music the experiences of the people. It's always about testimony -- the words are connected with what we're experiencing, and what we believe. And that's the way in which faith is most profoundly practiced.
You write about "penning melodies from the heart of God." How do you find that inspiration?
It's interesting - I think the inspiration found me. That phrase refers to my first CD project, which I called "InSpiration." I didn't set out to do the project, but I was working at my church over a period of time, and there were weeks sitting in worship, listening to sermons, when I'd be inspired to write songs to capture particular worship moments. There were times when the preacher would minister, and by the end, the sermon would come to me in song form. I became a conduit of something that is greater than me, and something that is kind of an offspring of what the spirit of God was doing in that particular worship moment. That's one of the real beauties of Baptist worship -- that kind of freedom of the spirit and the ability to respond and to move.
What is it about music that can inspire churchgoers -- sometimes even more than great preaching?
I think that music itself is a universal language, and so it has the ability to reach where mere words cannot. And when you combine the intrinsic power of music with messages that are life-affirming, you have a great dynamism that's created out of that. It has the power to inspire, uplift, to save and to heal.
African-American sacred music, specifically, was born, in part, out of the crucible of slavery -- of great sorrow and great hope. So the music itself is rooted in something that is very deep, and with the intrinsic purpose to give hope in the midst of despair.
At your core, what is one of your defining beliefs?
I believe that we are all here for a purpose, and to positively impact the lives of others. And it really becomes our charge to figure out what our purpose is, and to accomplish it. I believe that life is best lived when you find that place of purpose that produces passion. Whether times are good or bad, you are no less passionate, because you've tapped into the essence of your personal mission.
- Leah Fabel