During the 1998 Labor Day weekend, the Georgia Mass Choir introduced an offshoot of its music ministry: the 300-voice Youth for Christ Choir. Comprised of members between the ages of 12 and 18, the choir recorded its first album, Higher, on September 6, 1998, in front of a live audience at the Clayton County Schools Performing Arts Center in Jonesboro, Georgia. Valerie Tankard accompanied on piano, Rick Watford on guitar and Andre Forbes on keyboards. Joel Smith handled the music arrangements.
Released by Savoy Records on November 2, 1999, Higher contains 11 tracks, including the two-part What a Fellowship (a.k.a. Leaning on the Everlasting Arms) and a gospelized version of R. Kelly’s R&B hit I Believe I Can Fly. The album was nominated for a 2001 Grammy Award for Best Gospel Choir or Chorus Album.
Youth for Christ was the brainchild of gospel artist Troy Sneed, then the assistant director of the Georgia Mass Choir. Not surprisingly, when Troy and his wife Emily set up their own label, Emtro Gospel, in 2005, Youth for Christ was among their earliest signings. The choir’s first album for Emtro, 2006’s The Struggle Is Over, was recorded live in Baltimore and featured gospel vocalist Jonathan Nelson on the title track. The song reached No. 1 on the Billboard Top Gospel Singles chart and was nominated for a Soul Train Music Award. The album won a Stellar Award in 2007 for Children’s Performance of the Year.
In July 2009, Youth for Christ, comprised of members from Florida, Mississippi, Georgia, the Carolinas, Virginia, Washington, DC, and Philadelphia, recorded Thanks in Advance (Emtro). Brandon Knight, whose tenor voice has been compared to John Legend’s, soars above the choir on the single He Can (Work It Out). The album earned Stellar Award nominations in 2011 for Contemporary Choir of the Year and Children’s Project of the Year.