Local singer’s group makes gospel debut
(pictured above: Grace members (from left) Gene Hoskins, Janae Brown of Charlotte, Ajay Simmons of Raleigh, Alisha Henderson of Roxboro and Winston-Salem’s own Melvin Aikens Jr.)
Melvin Aikens Jr. has been a singer/songwriter all his life, yet it’s only been recently that the 23-year-old has found the courage to step out on faith and truly share his gift with the world.
“I’m just now started to realize that it is a gift, and it is what God has called me to do,” he said of his musical ability. “It is something I have to do; the last thing I want to do is lose it.”
Aikens and four of his closest friends came together last year to create Grace, a Raleigh-based gospel group. Aiken penned the quintet’s first single, “Drifting,” which was released last month. In March, the group made its stage debut, delivering what Pastor Ronald Godbee describes as a rousing performance at The River, a Durham church Godbee leads.
Grace took the crowd of about 500 by storm, Godbee said.
“To see the eclectic array of people that were gathered in that place was truly beautiful,” declared Godbee, who serves as the group’s spiritual advisor. “The worship was pure, the anointing was evident and the people were tremendously blessed.”
Winston-Salem native Aikens is a member of Union Baptist Church. He has always been fiercely protective of his work, seeing his lyrics as a private form of worship and too intimate to share. Witnessing the audience’s reaction to his words was a deeply moving experience, the UNC Chapel Hill alumnus said.
“I could hear people responding and reacting to the words of our songs. I was moved to the point where it was like an out of body experience, like, ‘I can’t believe this is happening to me,’” he related. “Literally, I broke down. It was just so overwhelming to hear people really being blessed by the words God had given to me.”
The group is offering free downloads of “Drifting” online at bandcamp.com through Saturday, May 3. Godbee, who featured the group on his Internet radio show “The Edge,” said Grace has generated quite a stir within the gospel music community, even attracting some offers for national distribution of their forthcoming EP, which is slated for release later this year.
“I’ve personally put up some of their music on my social media and the hits were incredible,” he said. “A lot of people reached out, asking and inquiring who they were, so there’s definitely a buzz about them.”
Aikens said the song’s success has taken the group completely by surprise.
“We didn’t expect this song to be as big as it is. That’s why we gave it away for free, because we just wanted people to listen to it,” he said. “It never crossed our minds that this was going to be successful.”
Aikens, a teacher’s assistance at Lowrance Middle School, sang his first solo at Mount Olive Baptist Church at the tender age of three. At eight, he captured the attention of the nation when he became a finalist in a national Oscar Meyer contest by belting out the company’s signature “ My Bologna Has a First Name …” jingle. That achievement was followed by a memorable performance on the “Showtime at the Apollo” television program.
Growing up, Aikens said he was always surrounded by music. He hails from a long line of choir standouts and gospel enthusiasts on his mother’s (Genell Aikens’) side, and his father, Melvin Sr., instilled in him a reverence for soul, and a respect for lyricists like Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye and Michael Jackson.
“From my mom’s side, I got the musical ability, but my passion and love for music comes from my dad,” he said. “Our sound as a group is so unique and different, and I think it’s because of my whole hodgepodge of inspirations coming together as something weird and unique.”
Aikens began writing songs as a boy, at the behest of his father, who convinced him that real artists write their own material. He has hundreds of songs in his repertoire, yet Aikens said he was always too shy to share his work, fearing that others would not see their merit. Those self-doubts led him to abandon music for much of his tenure at Winston-Salem Preparatory Academy, where he was valedictorian of the Class of 2009. At UNC, he rekindled his love affair with music, directing a campus choir, singing with an on-campus a cappella group and performing backup gigs for extra cash.
“Every time I try to run from it or give up on it or focus on something else, God always brings me back,” he said.
Grace’s formation was somewhat adventitious. After a handful of his friends – all fellow backup singers – serenaded him at his graduation party last spring, the impromptu singers were overwhelmed with inquiries and requests. From there, Aikens and his friends have embarked on a whirlwind that continues to build. These days, when he prays about his career, Aikens says he simply asks God to help him stay out of the way of the momentum that has been created by his words, his life, and, most importantly, his faith.
“It has just been a blessing to see this kind of stuff unfold,” he declared. “This is what God has called us to do, and God is really blowing our minds.”
For a complimentary download of “Drifting,” visit http://gracethemovement.bandcamp.com.