York U gospel music scholar available on the African American vocal genre


Professor Karen Burke is considered an authority on gospel music, including its origins dating back to slavery

TORONTO, Feb. 09, 2022 – “Gospel music since its inception, and even further back to the development of spirituals by enslaved Africans, has always been about encouraging people and uplifting the soul,” says York University Professor Karen Burke, a singer, music director, choral conductor, and composer of African American vocal music.

“The sound of gospel music has gone on to influence many other genres of Black music,” she adds. “Today, the [spiritual] words are the clue that you are listening to gospel music.”

However, gospel music is more than just the lyrics, Burke points out. It is the intention of the heart and the understanding of where this music comes from that provides the necessary context for an authentic gospel performance. “Gospel music is always about freedom — freedom to dance, freedom to express, freedom to move, freedom to be. It is the hope of freedom that drove its humble beginnings and, I would argue, the love of freedom that keeps it alive today.”

Born out of African American churches in the late 1800s, gospel music has continued to spread, finding audiences well beyond its roots. In this country, there is a distinctively Canadian gospel music identity emerging, according to Burke. “Our history gives gospel music its own sound. Canadian gospel musicians are much more influenced by their Caribbean grooves and jazz music than are our American counterparts.”

A prolific composer and arranger of gospel repertoire, Burke has written many original songs for the Toronto Mass Choir. Her work on the concert stage and in the recording studio includes collaborations with international musicians such as Carvin Winans, Ben Heppner, and Jackie Richardson.

At York, Burke is an associate professor in music in the School of Arts, Media, Performance & Design. She is also the founding director of the York University Gospel Choir. The multi-generational Black Canadian and a music scholar, is available for interviews on topics including:

  • The history, evolution, and performance practices of gospel music
  • African American vocal music and songwriting
  • The influence of gospel music in other genres of music
  • Music education, including teaching and learning during the pandemic

York University is a modern, multi-campus, urban university located in Toronto, Ontario. Backed by a diverse group of students, faculty, staff, alumni and partners, we bring a uniquely global perspective to help solve societal challenges, drive positive change and prepare our students for success. York's fully bilingual Glendon Campus is home to Southern Ontario's Centre of Excellence for French Language and Bilingual Postsecondary Education. York’s campuses in Costa Rica and India offer students exceptional transnational learning opportunities and innovative programs. Together, we can make things right for our communities, our planet, and our future.

Media Contact:
Gloria Suhasini, York University Media Relations, 647-463-4354, suhasini@yorku.ca