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Tributes to Kenneth W. Louis, a Black Catholic musical giant gone too soon

One of several Black Catholic giants lost last year, Kenneth Wayne Louis was a liturgist par excellence. He is remembered here by a few who knew him well.

Last November, a week before Thanksgiving, America lost a living legend. Kenneth W. Louis (1956-2020), a vaunted figure within the Black Catholic community and the wider world of liturgy and music, succumbed to a circulatory condition and departed this life.

His legacy lives on, however, and another Black musical genius, Nolan Williams Jr., collected a number of tributes to commemorate his friend's impact and work.

Richard Smallwood

Legendary gospel composer and recording artist

“Kenneth was a musical icon in the DMV. In fact, his compositions are still sung in churches across the country. Kenneth was a first-class musician, director, and teacher. His presence will be sorely missed. I’m grateful for his legacy, which will live on, and for the many that he touched with his gift!!”

Dr. Rollo Dilworth

Vice Dean and Professor of Choral Music Education, Center for the Performing and Cinematic Arts, Temple University

“Kenneth Louis was a gifted composer and music director who made significant contributions to the liturgical landscape of the modern Catholic church. Joining the work of Fr. Clarence Rivers and Sister Thea Bowman, who helped to usher African American musical styles into Catholic liturgy, it was composers such as Grayson Warren Brown, Leon Roberts, Rawn Harbor and Kenneth Louis who carried the mantle forward. These dedicated musicians, among many others, successfully synthesized a contemporary cultural worship art form by combining the plainchant traditions of the past, the musical languages of the African diaspora, and the faith of a people who desired to see and hear their lived experiences reflected in their worship. Kenneth Louis helped to give voice to African American spirituality through his music; his legacy will continue to live through the voices of choristers and congregants for generations to come.”

Ariel Davis

Program Manager for the Social Impact department at The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts

"Kenneth was an extraordinary musician, and leaves a remarkable legacy, to say the least. I had the honor of being under his baton for several years during holiday services at Holy Comforter-Saint Cyprian Catholic Church of Washington, D.C. Every year, I looked forward to working with him as he displayed a deep base of knowledge while maintaining a fun and musically driven atmosphere for the musicians and church members that came together year after year.

When I began working as a part of the administrative staff at The Kennedy Center, it was far from a surprise for me to learn about all of the work he [had done] on stage with ensembles in our Concert Hall—he was someone who exemplified humor, grace, and musicianship in every space he took presence in. His work on local and national stages will be missed, but his legacy will never be forgotten. I am so grateful to have crossed paths."

Nolan Williams

Award-winning composer and arranger

"With a head full of precious memories and a heart full of profound gratitude, I write this post to honor Kenneth Wayne Louis. Kenneth served as Minister of Worship & Music at Holy Comforter-Saint Cyprian Catholic Church of Washington, D.C. for over thirty years before relocating to Atlanta, GA, where he served at Our Lady of Lourdes.

During his tenure here in the nation’s capital, Kenneth was rightfully regarded as one of the leading musicians in this region, regularly presenting concerts and engaging in a range of artistic projects. A native of Louisville, Kentucky, his imprint extended beyond the DMV as Kenneth was a highly sought-after performer, lecturer, composer, arranger, music director, and workshop clinician. Even a cursory look at his body of work reveals that Kenneth’s contribution to the history of African American sacred music traditions—especially liturgical praxis within African American Catholicism—is rich and lasting.

He traveled extensively nationally and internationally sharing his expertise about these traditions, including a coveted invitation from the Harvard University W.E.B Du Bois Center on African-American Studies to present at the “April in Paris” symposium in Paris, France. He was one of the early pioneers of university-level curriculum that elevated the genre of gospel music as a viable course of study—for several years, he led the only such national program at the University of the District of Columbia.

He performed on some of the leading concert hall stages throughout our nation, including The Kennedy Center Concert Hall. And, his music—especially songs like “Taste and See” and “Just for Me”—is regularly sung in churches across this country and is published in multiple hymnals, including “Lead Me, Guide Me,” “Total Praise,” and the bestselling “African American Heritage Hymnal.”

Moreover, Kenneth was a mentor to countless scores of musicians and singers whose lives are forever shaped by his affirming imprint. Simply stated, he had a unique gift for nurturing potential! Kenneth stood for excellence and this was the uncompromising standard he brought to every single project he ever undertook. In my earlier years, I was privileged to be a musician he called upon and to whom he extended opportunities. As I came into my own, I was humbled that he esteemed me as a colleague and friend.

William Hazlitt said, “No man is truly great who is great only in his lifetime. The test of greatness is the page of history.” This truth compels me to write this post—not to solicit sympathy expressions, but rather to invite those who read this tribute to join me in celebrating the life of a great musician and, more importantly, a great man."