Super Bowl Gospel Celebration: How one black woman built a 20-year tradition

The concert features performances by mainstream singers and former NFL players.
Members of the NFL Players Choir Terrence Stephens, Olrick Johnson, Bryan Scott and Cameron Newton perform during a press conference in Atlanta
Members of the NFL Players Choir Terrence Stephens, Olrick Johnson, Bryan Scott and Cameron Newton perform during a press conference in Atlanta on Jan. 9, 2019.Marcus Ingram / MIE

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By Christopher A. Daniel

ATLANTA — For two decades, the Super Bowl Gospel Celebration has featured worship, live performances and personal testimonies from gospel artists, mainstream acts and even NFL players — the first and only NFL-sanctioned gospel music extravaganza.

Its founder and proprietor, Melanie Few-Harrison, likes to think of producing the concert every year as “a faith walk.”

“We going to do it big this time, y’all. This is the 20th anniversary,” the Atlanta native said in an interview with NBCBLK. “I’m truly hoping that night will be a testimony to what unshakeable faith is. Bring your tambourines that night. I just want to go old school praise. We're taking it back to how it used to be — take it back to the church and just celebrate.”

Super Bowl Gospel Celebration founder Melanie Few-Harrison at the Annual Super Bowl Gospel Celebration in Tempe, Arizona, on Jan. 30, 2015.Imeh Akpanudosen / Getty Images for Super Bowl Gospel

This year, the comedian and radio personality Rickey Smiley is hosting the affair at Atlanta Symphony Hall on Thursday. The list of performers include Kirk Franklin, LeCrae, Koryn Hawthorne, Tasha Cobbs Leonard and The Winans. The celebration has aired on BET for the last six years, drawing significant audiences in Dallas, Detroit, Houston, Phoenix, and Tampa and Jacksonville, Florida. A portion of the evening’s proceeds go to a local charity. The concert is set to air on BET Saturday.

Past performers include Faith Evans, Sheila E., Snoop Dogg, the Clark Sisters, Gladys Knight, Yolanda Adams, Mary Mary and Donnie McClurkin.

The concept started in 1992 when Few-Harrison traveled with some friends to Super Bowl XXVI in Minneapolis. Few-Harrison, a Clark Atlanta University alumna, noticed there wasn’t any nonsecular programming as part of the festivities. The budding entrepreneur started writing letters to the NFL asking them to consider sponsoring a gospel music event as part of Super Bowl weekend. She wrote letters for seven years, and was rejected for seven years, but as the daughter of a minister, she was determined to make her dream a reality.

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“I knew the rejection wasn’t anything mean-spirited,” Few-Harrison said. “I knew that they get hundreds of thousands of letters every day, and I knew that I would keep trying. I didn’t know where it was going to go, but I wasn’t going to give up.”

In 1999, the NFL greenlight Few-Harrison’s idea to put on the gospel concert as part of Super Bowl XXXIII events in Miami. “I got the letter saying, ‘You can try it; come do it,’” she said.

The year after the celebration debuted, Few-Harrison’s hometown, Atlanta, hosted the game. A major snowstorm hit, but the show went on. Referring to that brisk evening as “a huge testament to faith,” Few-Harrison said she ended up turning away 2,000 people.

That was the moment Few-Harrison says she realized her idea had believers. “People wanted to come to see players tell their stories of faith and listen to some amazing music,” she said. “It’s been so worth it.”

One reason the celebration is highly anticipated is because of memorable performances by the NFL Players Choir. The ensemble was formed in 1999 and more than 40 current and former players who are either vocalists or musicians participate.

“It’s an opportunity for our players to see them celebrate their faith,” Arthur McAfee, the NFL’s senior vice president for player engagement and an avid supporter of the celebration, said in an interview with NBCBLK. “In small ways on the field, this is our small way of allowing the players to connect with the faith community. We always talk about faith in football, and that’s what the gospel concert represents for us.”

At this year’s news conference on the celebration, choir members Olrick Johnson, Bryan Scott, Cameron L. Newton and Terrence Stephens delivered a harmonious medley featuring “A Change Is Gonna Come,” “King of Glory” and “Lean on Me.”

Newton, no relation to the Carolina Panthers quarterback of the same name, says it’s common for players with good voices to break out in song. “Believe it or not, in the locker room, we sing sometimes,” said Newton, who has been in the choir for eight years. “It’s a lot of talented guys. It’s easy for us to get up there and just praise God. We are real people who give praise and give thanks.”

McAfee agrees with Newton: “The majority of our players are of faith, and they celebrate that faith many ways during the course of the game and throughout the season, having Bible study and fellowship classes. You may see them take a knee and pray, either prior to or after the game. This is one of the natural connections we have to help players elevate their platform.”

Now that the Super Bowl is back in Atlanta, city representatives agree with Few-Harrison’s original mission of bringing niche-specific events like the Gospel Celebration to various communities leading up to the game. Brett Daniels, the Atlanta Super Bowl Host Committee's chief operating officer, said the city’s goal is to reach over a million people inside and outside of Mercedes-Benz Stadium, where the Super Bowl will be played Sunday. To ensure there is ample manpower, 10,000 volunteers out of 30,000 applicants have been recruited.

The stadium has a capacity of up to 75,000 people on game day, so events like the Gospel Celebration will attract nonsports fans, tourists or people who just want to enjoy the euphoric atmosphere, Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms said.

“The vast majority of people in this city and in this nation won’t ever get to go into the stadium,” Bottoms said. “But what we are doing on behalf of the city and our partners is making sure there will be events throughout this city that regular working folk will have access to and will be able to enjoy all of the festivities that the world is looking forward to."

"It’s going to be a fun time, Atlanta," the mayor said.

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