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Walker brings song of inspiration to Lanier’s Singing Poets

Walker brings song of inspiration to Lanier’s Singing Poets
Posted on 11/18/2015
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Music saved his life.

Now Rayshun Walker, the newest director of choirs at Sidney Lanier High School, is breathing life back into the arts and inspiring students at Lanier to share in his love of song.

He’s apparently doing a very good job. Lanier’s Singing Poets grew from 15 members last year to nearly 80 in August. Being a hip-hop and gospel recording artist doesn’t hurt Walker’s chances either.

For Walker and Lanier’s principal, Antonio Williams, everything fell into place to “Reclaim the Castle,” this school’s vision to expand Lanier’s arts and athletics departments.

“When I think about kids, I think about energy,” Walker said. “ ‘Reclaiming the Castle’ is a way to grab the kids back. Every child has energy, and it is our responsibility as teachers to help them direct their energy.”

That is where Walker comes in.

“Students have time after school and you don’t know where they’re going to put their energy. It can be put toward a negative direction,” Walker explained. “I have come to Lanier to give at least 77 students a way to channel their energy and make a career.”

Che`Dana Jackson, 17, is looking to make music her career. She began singing in the Lanier choir in 7th grade and at her church choir when she was 11 years old. This is her senior year and she’s encouraged by the renewed enthusiasm Walker has brought to the choral program.

“He [Walker] has brought a lot of energy to the table. He’s competitive and he just wants to see us to be our best,” Jackson said.

“It’s a great feeling, especially for school spirit,” she added.

Jackson and her fellow choir members have also sang at Goodwyn Middle School’s Constitution Day, performed the national anthem at the Montgomery County Commission meeting, were invited to sing at the One Family Justice Center’s fifth anniversary celebration, and recently performed in the Alabama National Fair choral competition.

They even look like a real choir now, Jackson said, after the County Commission appropriated $10,000 for choir robes.

‘Reclaiming the Castle’

For the last decade, it seemed as if Sidney Lanier High School, or the Castle, was floundering. Each year, a different principal came into the school, and each year they left. The school was lacking stability. Williams, now in his second year as principal at Lanier, is turning the school around.

“Part of our school improvement plan at Lanier, or ‘Reclaiming the Castle,’ is an emphasis on the arts and the athletic program to get us back to having a rich tradition of excellence,” Williams said. “When you talk about improving those areas, you have to make sure you have the right leaders in place.”

Walker is such a leader, Williams said, and the search for him could only be described as providential.

Williams began looking for a choir director that could bolster the program and rejuvenate the students, but after making three consecutive hires, each director suddenly declined the position. He needed a “big-time” hire.

After the third decline, Williams received an email from Walker.

“I didn’t even know Walker existed,” Williams said. “He sent me an email so I searched on YouTube and found some of the work he had done. I knew this was the person I wanted.”

Although not a singer himself, Williams could instantly identify Walker as someone great.

“I loved his energy,” Williams said. “When I saw him doing some of the spirituals, using multiple genres of music, it was just awesome. He had such positive energy, such stage presence.”

‘The turnaround’

Rayshun Walker could have been a choir director at any school, and actually had offerings in Birmingham, where he is from, but sought out Lanier for one reason.

“I think my passion and my heart for ‘reclaiming’ and ‘rebuilding’ and ‘turning things around’ is where my heart is, because I think I’m gifted in that area,” Walker said. “That is my place.”

Walker came in, saw a bare choir room, 15 students and huge potential.

“I came in this year and I had to take a whole nother approach, knowing where they were currently and what the principal and superintendent had a vision for,” Walker said.

Walker began to hunt the building for recruits, standing outside classrooms and the cafeteria and gathered a group interested in music. In just a few weeks’ time they were able to perform in front of the entire student body and their parents during an open house.

From there, word spread and choir members began recruiting their friends to join them after school for practice. Now, they’ve been performing and competing all over the city.

“The reason I love the turnaround is because there’s absolutely no glamour for myself,” Walker said. “I enjoy when they’re excited. When I see that we’ve worked and worked and worked, and finally one day it just clicks, that’s where my excitement comes from.”

On tour

Walker sees himself in his students. Music was and continues to be his life, his passion, and is the one thing that kept him out of trouble growing up.

Growing up a “Southern boy to a Southern mama” near Birmingham, Walker would get in scrapes, but music was his escape.

“Punishment made me the better person, but one thing is certain, my mama would always allow me to march in the band. She would say I can’t watch TV, but allowed me to watch Kirk Franklin videos. She knew music was my outlet. That was my heart.”

Walker discovered his love for music while growing up in the church. He had prayer meetings on Monday, choir rehearsal on Tuesday, Bible study on Wednesday, discipleship on Thursday, teen night on Friday and church on Sunday.

He started playing the drums and soon thereafter, Walker and his father built a makeshift basement studio in their home so he could work on recordings. He sang backup in his high school choir and learned to play the piano for his senior production.

Walker hit the road in 1997 for his first tour performing as a hip-hop artist. He did that for seven years until coming to Montgomery to study music, business and piano at Alabama State University, graduating in 2008.

While on tour, Walker followed performances by Ricky B. & 4Given, a gospel/hip-hop group. Throughout his career, Walker has produced 17 albums, including his most recent single, “Bright Side,” in 2014. It was on a tour to high schools and colleges that Walker happened upon Lanier’s job opening.

“The kids when I arrived were very interested in having an artist teaching them,” Walker said.

Looking ahead

Walker is giving Lanier’s Singing Poets a taste of all the genres from Gospel to classical and spirituals. So far, they have been taught pieces such as “The Blood Still Works,” “Battle of Jericho” and Handel’s “Messiah — Glory to God.”

After performing at the Alabama National Fair and the Peanut Festival in Dothan, the group is preparing for a Montgomery Public School-sponsored concert on Dec. 1 with Carver High School, as well as several Christmas productions.

The goal is to make it to Orlando Fest, Orlando’s premier music festival and performing arts festival for middle school and high school students. The festival, held in April, is the Grammy Awards for high school choral productions, Walker said.

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