In Memory of Arthur Freeman
Two years ago this week, this co-founder of the New York Community Choir died. Soul music historian David Nathan & I discuss his life and music.
Some messages you don’t expect to get.
Two years ago this week, I woke up in the middle of the night and picked up my phone to see what time it was. I had a later-than-usual text from Bennie Diggs, co-founder of the New York Community Choir, telling me that Brother Arthur Freeman had taken his flight. I was grief-stricken. I remember sitting up, crying and saying “Arthur’s gone” out loud. I grabbed my computer and headed downstairs to begin writing his professional obituary, a response that felt like the only thing I could do. The thing I had to do.
I’d first heard Arthur in 2012 when, at the encouragement of my friend, the late Daryl Coley, I began exploring the music of the New York Community Choir. I heard “Let’s Go Higher,” from the choir’s 1972 Creed Records release A Little Higher, and was mesmerized. Something about their sound was different. They sounded free in a way than other choirs did not. They sang with an exuberance and fierceness that indicated there was a story underneath it. I began finding their catalog in record shops and Ebay.
When I returned to college in 2014 to complete my undergraduate degree with the goal of going to graduate school, I knew I’d be writing a thesis. I wanted the choir to be the subject of that work. I reached out to Bennie Diggs, the choir’s director, and conducted our first interview and shortly thereafter he connected me to Arthur Freeman, the voice who had drawn me in in the first place.
My first conversation with Arthur was like talking to someone I’d known all of my life. We shared a similar language and intuition, but Arthur was kinder, sweeter and far more patient than I’ll ever be. We were both aficionados of The Caravans and he regaled me with tales of going to the Apollo in his teens to watch them sing at the gospel programs there. He quickly became a daily and/or weekly presence in my life. I was living in New York at the time and I took the train in from Albany to see him on occasion. The more we talked about the “old days,” the more he remembered. The stories of the songs he wrote—some of the choir’s most enduring hits like “Express Yourself” and “A Song Can Reach Your Heart”—remained real for him, as did their messages.
In our six years of friendship, we lived a lot of life together. We were present with each other in the loss of loved ones, my graduation from college and subsequent aborted graduate school experience, the labor pains of the completion of his first and only solo project, Remember, and the isolation of the first months of the pandemic. “We must continue to be disciplined until it passes. Even when it does pass, life will never be the same,” he told me in a text. “[I’ve] been writing about a new/or next generation. We must be steadfast and unmovable. The world is waiting on a change.”
The day I learned of Arthur’s passing, I ended up officially meeting soul music historian and journalist, David Nathan, who I did not know had been deeply impacted by Arthur, the New York Community Choir and Revelation. In fact, David was one of the few journalists who devoted focused attention on Revelation, the R&B off-shoot of the choir. Over the last two years, David has shared those stories with me as we’ve become friends and comrades. I asked him if he’d join me on a Zoom call to share his memories of Arthur with you.
My aim is to finish the book, a continuation of my thesis on the choir’s significance, this year—but in the meantime, please revisit my essay, “Dance, Children, Dance” and enjoy the music that Brother Arthur left us.