Last night at the 65th annual Grammy Awards, as Beyoncé made Black history by becoming the most-awarded artist in Grammy history with 32 accolades, and Tennessee State University Aristocrat of Bands claimed a Grammy for “Best Roots Gospel Album” – a first for HBCUs – we celebrate the history of the Howard University’s role in fostering some of the most notable trailblazers in music.
Here are some University alumni who’ve made strides in the music industry by receiving the honor of a Grammy nomination or a win.
Richard Smallwood BFA ‘71, MDiv ’04
A D.C. native, cum laude University alumnus, and founding member of the University’s Gospel Choir, gospel singer Richard Smallwood is known not only for his exceptional musical talent, but his ability to captivate and move a crowd.
Four years after an admittance-worthy audition, despite not yet knowing how to read music, Smallwood graduated in 1971 with formal training in vocal performance, piano, and ethnomusicology. With a talent recognized early on by mentors like Roberta Flack and Donny Hathaway, the musician used the knowledge he acquired to blend genres and styles of artists that inspired him. The resulting soulful, classical style can move an audience to tears. In 1982, the hit album, The Richard Smallwood Singers was released, signaling Smallwood’s recording debut. Smallwood completed his master's degree in divinity in 2004 at Howard.
With eight total Grammy nominations in the gospel category, Smallwood’s inspirational records like “Live,” “Testimony,” and “Portrait” continue to be celebrated as classics.
Elbernita “Twinkie” Clark
The middle child of the revolutionary gospel group known as the Clark Sisters, Elbernita “Twinkie” Clark’s contributions to writing, producing, and vocal arrangements bridged the gap between classic gospel and contemporary sounds of jazz, R&B, hip-hop, disco, and other Black music genres. A pianist by the age of four, organ player by 12, and touring musician by 13, the artist dedicated all of her teenage years to music until landing at The Mecca.
Clark fine-tuned the musical skills that she gleaned from her own mother, sisters, innate talent, and industry experience. With a vocal range covering anywhere from Karen Clark’s soprano to Jacky Clark’s contralto, Twinkie Clarke was a perfect match for Howard’s award-winning gospel choir. She studied classical music at Howard just a few years before receiving her first of seven Grammy nominations in 1984 for her early album, “Sincerely,” which featured popular titles like “Keep Moving,” “I’m In Good Hands,” and “Never Mind.”
The Clarks sisters would secure two Grammy wins as a group for Best Gospel Performance and Best Traditional Gospel Album. Twinkie departed from the group in 1989 and began her solo career, releasing five more albums before the age of 50. Clark remains a legend in both the gospel and secular industry, evident in her work being sampled by artists from Rev. James Cleveland and Esther Smith to Xscape, Aaliyah, and Mary J. Blige.
Sean “Diddy” Combs
Multi-monikered music mogul Sean “Diddy” Combs is revered in hip-hop, rap, R&B, and beyond for his contributions to the industry. A rapper, producer, actor, and entrepreneur, Combs is a savant, channeling knowledge acquired from his experience and time spent at the University in the 1980s.
In his early 20s, Combs founded Bad Boy Records, channeling the talents of legendary artists like The Notorious B.I.G., Faith Evans, 112, Total, The LOX, and more. He would simultaneously chart and acquire accolades with his own music, debuting Can’t Nobody Hold Me Down in 1997. He was awarded an honorary doctorate in 2014.
The proud honorary alumnus has 13 total Grammy nominations and has been awarded for his work on popular tracks and albums like “I'll be Missing You,” “No Way Out,” and “Shake Ya Tailfeather.”
Jessye Norman (BFA ’67, H ’82)
Born into a segregated Augusta, Georgia in 1954, Jessye Norman’s love for music was fostered by her community. She made her musical debut performing gospel songs for her local church as early as four years old. Growing up, the operatic singer found inspiration in the voices of Duke Ellington, Mahalia Jackson, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, and other artists that she discovered through a radio she received at nine years old.
By high school, the fascination that Norman had developed with singer Marian Anderson would lead to her participation in the Marian Anderson Music Scholarship Competition and, days later, an audition with the music program at Howard University. At 16, the opera singer was enrolled on a full scholarship and would receive a degree for her formal musical training in 1967. She received graduate training at the Peabody Conservatory and the Michigan School of Music, Theatre, and Dance where she developed the ability to sing in Italian, Russian and French.
Norman sprung into stardom upon her arrival to Berlin, Germany in 1969. It was then that she began to win vocal competitions and perform arias, solo performances in opera, for renowned opera houses, eventually expanding her reach across Europe.
By 1980, Jessye Norman received her first Grammy nomination, preceding 14 more nominations and four wins in the following years. She later served on the Howard University Board of Trustees.
Roberta Flack (BA ’58, H ’75)
Roberta Cleopatra Flack is nothing short of legendary. Although her style does not exist within the confines of a single genre, Flack is heralded as an early pioneer of the “quiet storm” subgenre of R&B born at the University's own WHUR radio station in the late 70s.
A piano-turned-voice student at 15 years old, Flack blossomed as an assistant conductor for the University’s choir. Upon her graduation in 1958, the singer took time to teach in schools across the DMV area while performing vocally and instrumentally in nightclubs in the area. It was through these performances that Flack would be discovered and signed to Atlantic Records in the late 1960s. In 1968 her debut album, First Take, was recorded in only 10 hours.
For years following Flack's debut, her collaborative single with Donny Hathaway, “You've Got a Friend,” earned the singer her first Grammy nomination for Best R&B Vocal Performance by a Group.
Today, Roberta Flack has accumulated a total of 14 Grammy nominations and four wins for beloved titles like ‘Killing Me Softly with His Song,’ ‘Where Is The Love,’ and ‘The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face.’
Gimel "Young Guru" Keaton
Gimel “Young Guru” Keaton has been behind the inventive and unmistakable sound of Jay-Z for nearly 25 years. As a tour DJ, engineer, producer, and A&R representative for Roc Nation and Def Jam Recordings, the unsung hero of hip-hop has mixed for household names like Beyoncé, Rihanna, Cam’ron, Method Man, and more.
While attending Howard University, Keaton was first discovered by rapper Nonchalant through one of the gigs he had picked up while freelance DJing in D.C. By 1996, he was touring with both Nonchalant and the Fugees. The connections he would make through touring and engineering work would eventually lead him to begin mixing for Jay-Z in 1999.
Just four years later, Young Guru received his first Grammy nomination for his work on Nelly’s second album, “Nellyville.” This would be one of six nominations, followed by those for his work on “The College,” “Empire State of Mind,” “The Story of O.J.”, “4:44,” and a win for “Everything is Love” by The Carters.