Kings Return bring breathtaking a cappella to Dartmouth

Maeve Fairbanks '22

Grammy-nominated a cappella group Kings Return, made up of vocalists Vaughn Faison, Gabe Kunda, JE McKissic and Jamall Williams, is performing at Rollins Chapel at Dartmouth on Wednesday, February 1 at 8 pm. The performance will consist of a mix of genres, including gospel, jazz and pop, and feature songs from their new album, Rove. The group is well-known for videos posted online of their rehearsals in the stairwell of a Dallas Church.

"[The group] just happened to go in [the stairwell to rehearse]," Faison said. "It sounds nice. It wasn't anything that was preplanned. We tried going up and down [the stairs], but it doesn't sound the same. It's a three-floor stairwell, we've gone to the bottom floor and it doesn't ring the same, especially when we're singing ballad-y or classical. [The stairwell] allows everything to ring out really nicely."

Coincidentally, some student a cappella groups have also discovered the acoustical advantages of  rehearsing in a stairwell, particularly that of Wilson Hall, making Kings Return's visit to Dartmouth fitting under the circumstances. And given that Kings Return found their start as undergraduate students themselves, one of the group's main goals is to inspire students.

"We've been inspired by so many that came before us," Williams said. "It's cool to use all of the training that we gathered over the years and come together to be an inspiration. The future is in [students'] hands, so we want to make sure we're doing our part to put forward positive energy."

The group believes education is essential to art, and hope that by making themselves visible, kids might be inspired to never stop learning.

"They won't give up learning music if they see someone who looks like them or grew up like them reading off of sheet music," McKissic said. "We love giving back to students; music education was a big part of how this group formed."

Kunda created Kings Return with McKissic back in 2016 nearly by accident; in the beginning, he didn't realize he was creating an ensemble that would stick around, he was just trying to do something special for his senior recital at Dallas Baptist University. He brought some of his friends together to perform. Afterwards, people continued asking them to perform at different venues and functions. Now, the group travels around the country to perform for students of all ages.
"Everything we set out to do, we do it with honor, dignity and pride," McKissic said. "We don't do things for ourselves. We've had the opportunity to sing for younger kids and to college kids, [providing] representation for black men doing the type of music that we do. With the younger kids, it's fun to see them respond positively, asking questions and being inspired. For older kids we've helped them work on their craft."

Though it's not impossible to have a career in music without music education, members of Kings Return strongly recommend studying music theory.

"I'm so glad I showed up to theory classes [in college], they grounded me," Kunda said. "I learned how to read music and match keys and conduct a rehearsal. If you're in a music space I would definitely not take the music learning for granted. It will make your life easier and it will allow you to have a bigger vocabulary for communicating with other musicians."

To students interested in being professional musicians, members of the group recommend staying open, brave and diligent.

"Put content out there," McKissic said. "One of the reasons I was able to recruit Jamall and Vaughn [to Kings Return] was because Jamall had posted a cover and Vaughn had an original song he wrote on YouTube. They were creative and talented, and they had the drive to put stuff out there and not be afraid. Sometimes artists keep their things close because they don't want to be judged, but if you wanna succeed in anything you gotta put yourself out there."

The group's dedication to their roots in education, even after their rise to fame, is reflected in their name, "Kings Return."

"Kings go out and conquer," Kunda said. "Then they get back to the community. They return."