If you could see Larea Edwards and her sister Chrissy Grant sing today—both dressed in leopard print, clapping their hands, lifting their arms to the sky, their hips and shoulders moving in concert with the gospel booming from their vocal chords—you might think there’s an audience before them at Trinity United Methodist Church in downtown Denver.
But there is no congregation today. It’s a Wednesday afternoon, August 12, and besides a videographer, sound tech, and Pastor Ken Brown, who hired the group to sing once a month at his church before the COVID-19 pandemic paused in-person worship, no one is here while they record music for an upcoming virtual service. Edwards and Grant, joined by their cousin Lafonda and younger brother Raymond Groves IV, are delivering a forceful performance to an otherwise empty building.
While most musical performers are out of work this summer, Larea and Chrissy have been busy. Their gospel group, Spirit of Grace, has not only been recording monthly for Brown’s virtual services, they’ve been key figures at the racial protests that have swept across metro Denver this summer. Along with a third sister, Shamae Williams, the women have gained perhaps more notoriety this summer than at any point since they launched Spirit of Grace in 2012.
Although Spirit of Grace formally started eight years ago, the sisters say they’ve sang together since Chrissy, the youngest, was born. They started in church choirs (their father is the pastor at Rapture Missionary Baptist Church in Denver), and their paternal grandmother, Grace Ella Dove Groves, was a local musician and the minister of music at New Hope Baptist Church before she died in 2008. “She was our inspiration,” Shamae says. “Grace has meaning not only just itself in terms of the grace that God gives us each and every day, but on top of that, it being our grandmother’s name whose music was a huge part of our life.”
Other family members occasionally join Spirit of Grace, but the core remains the three sisters—Larea (39), Shamae (35), and Chrissy (33)—and their Kansas City, Missouri-based cousin Tonicia London. (A founding member of the group, Christopher Tye, died in 2018 after an infected leg injury led to sepsis.) Despite the rotating cast, the bond between the sisters is obvious. Their banter is organic and charming. In one moment, Shamae and Larea might razz each other about performance dates and crowd sizes. In the next, they might break into a spontaneous acapella song about their days at East High School, finding a harmony seemingly out of nowhere.
The group gained quick—albeit largely anonymous—success. They tour the country regularly with Denver hip-hop band the Flobots, and in August 2019 played Red Rocks with One Republic and the Colorado Symphony. They’ve opened shows for Common and sang on show bills featuring David Foster, DeVotchka, and Yo-Yo Ma. Across the country, Spirit of Grace is a fixture at iconic clubs, like the House of Blues in New Orleans, where they annually perform for sold-out crowds. They even sang at two Bernie Sanders rallies this year before he dropped out of the race for president.
Recently, though, they’ve found a new spotlight.
Back in June, at a sunset vigil for George Floyd in Civic Center Park, Spirit of Grace sobered an audience of thousands when its members belted the Black National Anthem and helped those gathered, at least temporarily, rest in the awe of their voices. In July, Spirit of Grace again sang to thousands alongside Nathaniel Rateliff and the Night Sweats, as well as Wesley Schultz of the Lumineers, in Greenwood Village to protest the suburb’s new law shielding police officers from liability. Rateliff was so impressed that a few days later he invited Spirit of Grace to his home to record on a song he was producing for the soundtrack of an upcoming movie.
Beyond the protests and recordings, Larea has also hosted nearly a dozen loosely organized concerts this summer in the front yard of her North City Park home—something she thinks has helped connect the community during the pandemic and grow racial harmony in her neighborhood. That harmony has not been easily won, and the sisters recognize that while their music may have an impact right now, the country is reeling. “For me, [our music] is a tool to bring about change,” says Chrissy, who writes much of the group’s original music. “It’s also a universal language. It’s brings people together.”
But in the same breath, the sisters agree that true equality for Black Americans is not imminent. “I sing we shall overcome, but I honestly don’t believe in my lifetime I’m going to wake up and I’m going to be [just] a woman,” Larea says. “When people see me, they see someone angry and dangerous. They don’t see an itt-bitty Black woman…Am I pissed off? Yeah. But I’m Black, so I’ve been mad about it the whole time. Y’all are just catching up.”
Still, she and her younger sisters have hope. They are buoyed by the fact that local artists like those who sang in Greenwood Village last month are supporting Spirit of Grace and Black lives. “It’s really heartwarming to see that kind of outpouring from Colorado artists,” Larea says. “It’s made a huge difference.”
And going forward, Pastor Ken Brown sees Spirit of Grace as one of a keys to making Denver a more inclusive community. “They have been incredibly impactful presenting a way for us to worship as a community,” he says. “As talented as they are, Spirit of Grace has a genuine love for people.”
The love Spirit of Grace exudes is obvious. When they take the stage, their voices harmonizing and their arms lifting toward the heavens, it’s clear—whether or not they see it in their lifetimes—they believe in a brighter future. “Do I think before I die, racism will be over? No,” Larea says. “But I am excited by how many people believe us now. That’s what gives me the hope.”
Asked what the future holds, she says, simply: “We’re going to keep singing.”