Slide College Heights Herald Archive Photo Tones Through The Times
story by JACK QUINN

Half a century ago, a group of Black WKU students got together for fellowship, and while it wasn’t planned, they started singing. This congregation, which occurred in 1971, resulted in one of the first non-Greek Black student organizations. The group was founded only 15 years after the official desegregation of WKU and only a year after the founding of the Black Student Union.

Through their common love of faith and gospel, the students started the Amazing Tones of Joy, a musical organization that has stood the test of time and created a welcoming space for Black students on campus to this day.

Joe Leavell, a 1988 WKU junior, directs the Amazing Tones of Joy during one of their recitals. The recital was in preparation for the choral competition hosted at the annual Baptist Student Union convention. (photo courtesy of the College Heights Herald archives)

Alexis Watkins, a senior from Louisville and the current co-president of the Amazing Tones of Joy, believes the group has created a welcoming and empowering space for all students since its founding. 

“If you wanted to come worship somebody or something, that was your one time a week to just come in, whether you wanted to worship with us or just listen, and that was a very powerful dynamic on campus for the Black community,” Watkins said.

In a 1970 article published in the Louisville Courier-Journal, students at WKU described difficulties finding housing and places for Black students to meet, talk and dance. At a time when there were less than 500 Black students on campus, groups like the Amazing Tones of Joy provided a sense of community and safety.

Megan Bailey, a music and communication studies graduate from Nashville, has been an on-and-off WKU student and member of the group since 2008. 

“I just felt like I could be myself in that space,” Bailey said. “And I’m sure that’s what that was for them even in 1971.”

“We’re just trying to make sure that we’re that true bond for each other, which goes beyond just coming to meet that one day out of the week,”

- Alexis Watkins

A usual meeting for the group starts with a prayer, after which they handle any business or financial discussions that may be necessary. After warming up their voices, they begin to sing. The group sings a mix of traditional hymns as well as contemporary gospel music. They end the meeting with another prayer and usually hang around and socialize for a while, Watkins said.

The Amazing Tones of Joy has been on campus since its founding in 1971. This photo depicts some of the group’s earliest members. (photo courtesy of the College Heights Herald archives)

Since its founding, Amazing Tones of Joy has participated in multiple regional and national competitions like the National College Choir Explosion in 2016. The organization also does regional performances, fundraisers and charity work for local churches. 

As a freshman, Watkins felt the need to join groups where she felt welcomed. She joined the Intercultural Student Engagement Center Academy, which is where she met Jackie Pillow, the former adviser of the Amazing Tones of Joy. Pillow encouraged her to join the student choir. 

“That was a person who gravitated towards me,” Watkins said. “(She) knew I needed to be somewhere that I felt like was a safe space.” 

WKU is considered a predominately white institution, or PWI. According to the WKU fact book, 79% of undergraduate students in 2019 were white. Watkins said sometimes it can be hard for minority students to feel at home and like they belong on campus. 

“Oftentimes, coming from a minority background, we don’t get to see much of our culture,” Watkins said. “Whereas if we went to an HBCU (historically Black college or university) we would’ve seen our culture put out in front of us from Greek life to gospel choirs.” 

While the Amazing Tones of Joy strives to make campus a more inclusive and welcoming environment for Black students, it also aims to educate all students about Black culture, Watkins said.

“I feel like it is very important for me to one, share my faith with campus and also share my ancestral histories,” said Tayler Sanders, who was director of the group from 2016 until 2020.

For a lot of the students involved with Amazing Tones of Joy, being part of a gospel choir reminds them of home, and it helps with the stresses of coming to a new place with new people, said Ashley Roberts, a sophomore healthcare administration major from Clarksville, Tennessee, and current co-president of the group. 

“I was trying to find things that would make me feel closer to back home, so a gospel choir was number one or number two on that list,” Roberts said. 

As much as the Amazing Tones of Joy is about singing the gospel, it is just as focused on taking care of its community, looking after one another and being like a support group for its members, Watkins said. 

Former members of the Amazing Tones of Joy, including Erica Davis, Sharnika McMurry, Deshawna Maxey, Jasmine Hollins and Semone Alleyne, sing gospel songs at the base of Guthrie Bell Tower on Sept. 11, 2002. The group members came to sing at the tower for a candlelight vigil being held in honor of the lives lost during the 9/11 attack, which occurred one year prior. (photo courtesy of the College Heights Herald archives)

With COVID-19 restrictions making group gatherings hard to carry out safely, the co-presidents have made huge changes in order to maintain weekly meetings. The group now meets exclusively over Zoom every week in order to fellowship and have Bible study. 

The focus has changed from competitions and performances to an emphasis on mental health and interactions between the members, Watkins said.

“We’re just trying to make sure that we’re that true bond for each other, which goes beyond just coming to meet that one day out of the week,” Watkins said. “You might have to pick up the phone a couple more times out of the week and say ‘Hey, how are you doing, sister? How are you doing, brother?’ and just make sure that they’re doing OK.” 

The organization adopted positive affirmations to increase their focus on mental health. 

“I think one thing that is really big right now is physical and mental health,” Watkins said. “Especially mental health because we’re going through a pandemic.” 

While the pandemic has left Amazing Tones of Joy operating differently, they don’t see it as a setback or something to complain about, Roberts said. The group has found this to be a blessing in disguise in many ways. Watkins said it has actually had a positive effect on their organization. 

“It’s actually become the best thing because it’s allowed us to prep and now execute,” Watkins said. “When we come out of COVID, it’s going to be something that’s so beautiful. It’s allowing Amazing Tones of Joy to reflourish and just reincarnate into something that’s beautiful.” 

Ultimately, the Amazing Tones of Joy represents equality, welcoming all religions and all people to join them in worship through music, Watkins said. 

Amazing Tones of Joy member Ashley Roberts helps lead the choir during a Black History Month Celebration held at Downing Student Union on Jan. 30, 2020. This year, the group celebrates its 50th anniversary. (photo courtesy of WKU's Instagram, @wku)

“Amazing Tones of Joy is not just open to Black and brown students,” Sanders said. “We want anybody and everybody to come out and enjoy the message of Jesus Christ and to also just learn about our history.”

Since its founding, the Amazing Tones of Joy has maintained a sense of tradition and community for half a century.

“Nothing but the members have truly changed in Amazing Tones of Joy,” Sanders said.

The common goal of all members remains using music as a tool for worship and healing.

“2020 was like that ugly little Band-Aid that revealed all the scars, and we’ve seen this throughout history, so that is why we use music,” Watkins said. ”It is a universal language that speaks to everybody.”