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Harlem Gospel Travelers' album has a '70s vibe but subject material is of this moment

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Ifedayo Gatling remembers when he met the teacher who would change his life, musician Eli "Paperboy" Reed.

IFEDAYO GATLING: I was so nervous because there was this star quality about him. Like, back-in-the-day Eli - I'm telling you - used still walk in the room and turn heads. Everybody'd be like, who is this man here? And he would just come in and put his leg up on the chair and play his guitar and be like, all right; well, we're going to learn today. And that's just how everything kind of started.

MARTIN: It didn't take Reed long to realize Ifedayo and a couple other students were so good they had to put out an album. So with his help as mentor and producer, they did it. Now Ifedayo Gatling, George Marage and Dennis Bailey make up the group called the Harlem Gospel Travelers. Their second album called "Look Up!" is out today. Here's the title track.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LOOK UP!")

HARLEM GOSPEL TRAVELERS: (Singing) You got to raise your gaze above the haze and find yourself to better days. And if you search your heart, you'll find your start and be on your way. Look up.

MARTIN: The sound of the album has this 1970s vibe to it, but the subject material is very much of this moment. I got a chance to talk with Ifedayo Gatling and Eli Reed.

Here's Eli.

ELI REED: The idea of "Look Up!" and the songs on the album are inspirational, and it doesn't have to be about religiosity or theology or anything like that. It just - you know, messages of hope and positivity are in short supply.

MARTIN: Let's listen to a little bit of "Fight On!," if we could.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FIGHT ON!")

HARLEM GOSPEL TRAVELERS: (Singing) Fight on just a little while longer, and everything's gonna be all right.

MARTIN: So this, to me - this feels like a prayer, how it starts, right? But then the song builds, and it builds. And then you get to this line.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FIGHT ON!")

HARLEM GOSPEL TRAVELERS: (Singing) Get your off my neck. Get your bullet out my chest. I'm screaming out that I can't breathe, and you choose to ignore me.

MARTIN: How did this song emerge, Ifedayo?

GATLING: Eli had called me and was like, we should, you know, make a song and have something to say, with all of the racial injustice and killing of African American people for no reason at all.

REED: This was right after George Floyd.

GATLING: Yeah.

MARTIN: This was summer 2020. Yeah.

GATLING: But in that moment, I was like, I don't want to sing a song that's going to make people sad. I want them to be empowered and want to continue to fight. So I was like, give me 5 minutes, and I'll come back to you with a song. And he was like, it's going to take you more than 5 minutes. I was like, just get off the phone so I can just go write this song. And so I hung up the phone with him and was like, OK, what am I going to do? And the beginning of "Fight On!" is actually a Negro spiritual, which is "Fight On Just A Little While Longer" (ph). And I remember hearing that in church. It just spoke to me in that moment.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FIGHT ON!")

HARLEM GOSPEL TRAVELERS: (Singing) Fight on just a little while longer, and everything's gonna be all right.

MARTIN: What did the rest of the members of the group think when you brought the song to them?

GATLING: We were all talking about the song, and they were like, this is going to be so dope. And it's, like, churchy, but also kind of rock and really - you know, I remember the first time performing "Fight On!" live. I told Eli I was scared. We were going to be in the South, and I was like, um, I don't know how I feel about being unapologetically Black in front of this many white people. And we were fine. And the thing about it was - that's so amazing - is that Eli, who is a Jewish man, stood with us as African American. And that's what America's supposed to be. That's what this song is supposed to be about, that any type of fight that you're fighting against, even if it's your own personal sickness or mental health or family issues, to keep on going on and not to give up.

MARTIN: You know, you met this kid when he was 13, and now he makes this music, and he talks about it in this really profound way. It's got to feel amazing.

REED: I feel honored to be able to be a part of this and to be able to help to give life to this thing that is bigger than me now, bigger than all of us.

MARTIN: That was a perfect segue because I wanted to go out on the song "I'm Grateful." Oh, I just think it's a lovely song.

REED: Well, we have a special guest on this one, too.

MARTIN: Tell me about the special guest.

GATLING: This special guest is my mom. And...

MARTIN: Wait, what?

GATLING: Yeah. That's my mom.

MARTIN: Get out.

GATLING: I'm a preacher's kid. My mom is Pastor Cynthia McCants. That's my mom. I feel like this was the last song that I wrote for the record. And I mean when I say, like, I was just really grateful because I didn't expect for any of this to happen.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I'M GRATEFUL")

HARLEM GOSPEL TRAVELERS: (Singing) Good morning, church. I've got a story to tell. The lord's been good, keeps me safe and well. He keeps me from dangers seen and unseen. Oh, the lord has been good to me. He's been my light in my darkness, my hope and my peace. And my regulator - he's been good to me.

GATLING: I just feel eternally grateful. It's bigger than just saying thank you. Also, I kind of wanted to show out, so I put these modulations in there, which I...

MARTIN: I know. Those key changes are crazy.

GATLING: I put those in there 'cause growing up in church, the biggest thing that a choir could ever do was raise the key. And so I was like, well, we need to get that in there. When I was raising this key up, I started thinking about singing with my mom in church. She was my first singing teacher, and she was the first person that I ever sang with. I really had to beg her to be on the record.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I'M GRATEFUL")

HARLEM GOSPEL TRAVELERS: (Singing) Hey, I'm grateful. My soul cries out, thank you, Jesus. My soul cries out, hallelujah. Help me out here, Mama. Yeah, I'm grateful. Yes, I'm grateful. Yes, I'm grateful. Yes, I'm grateful.

GATLING: Having that moment with her in the studio, being able to sing with her and kind of reenact what we do on Sunday mornings is really, really amazing. And my mom is a powerhouse. She's the reason I sing the way I do. She won't say it, but she's a powerhouse.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I'M GRATEFUL")

HARLEM GOSPEL TRAVELERS: (Singing) Yes, I'm grateful.

MARTIN: Oh, I love it. Well, it has been such a pleasure talking with both of you. Eli Reed and Ifedayo Gatling of the Harlem Gospel Travelers. Thank you so much for talking with us.

REED: Thank you.

GATLING: Thank you for having us. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.