Ken Alston, right, in Three Mo’ Tenors.
Ken Alston began working in the BFS Afterschool program in September, 2016. The story of his joining the community begins a few years earlier.
“I’ve been trying [to work at BFS] for years. My aunt has been trying for years,” Ken Alston Jr. said recently, in reference to Valarie Alston, Registrar, entrepreneur, and a longtime member of the school community.
“I first came to Brooklyn Friends School another time in the early 2000s as a guest speaker while I was still an undergraduate at Morgan State to talk about being a student at a historically black university…My aunt realizes I’m an openly gay member of my family so she kept urging me to work in diversity.”
Valarie introduced Ken to the Afterschool Director in hopes that Ken could volunteer there. Instead, he offered him a paid, part-time position, based on Ken’s background in music. “He wanted me to work with young people in music.”
Ken attended Morgan State University in Baltimore, earning a Bachelor’s degree in music with a voice concentration. His career took off quickly from there.
“There are only three Black male tenors on the globe,” gushed Valarie about her nephew, “not in the US but on the globe. All seven continents!!! And one of them works at BFS.”
“I became a rarity singing in a male voice but also a counter-tenor voice,” explained Ken. “A counter tenor is a male voice that sings in the range of an alto or soprano. I won numerous awards in that realm for my performance of arias that are usually sung by women, and some oratorio stuff from St. Matthew’s Passion…Both voices have taken care of me for 10 or 15 years.”
Most notably Ken starred in Three Mo’ Tenors off-Broadway. “It’s about three men telling the story of African-American tenors in the opera world. Because of stereotypes the hero might be tanned and white for the aesthetic. This show tells how African-American tenors can sing the gamut because they have to make a living in and out of the opera world. As a counter-tenor there are roles that a man has to ask to play that are traditionally sung by women. I try to find my way to make it in that world.”
And he’s done just that, having performed at the Philadelphia Opera, the Lyric Opera in Chicago, and the New Jersey Opera to name a few. His prefers giving his own concerts to performing in operas. “I find concert singing is easier because I don’t have to play to anyone’s stereotype. I can sing what I want.”
That Ken started out pursuing a career in music is no surprise to those who know him. “My family is very artistic,” he said. “Dad plays bass and sings.” Dad, by the way, is Security Staff member Kenneth Alston (see our profile, Better Call Kenny), an acclaimed singer and musician in his own right. “Mom played the drums. My brother played drums and piano.” He grew up loving music and the arts.
“I became attracted to classical music stations and refined singing. By the time I was 11 and joined a boys choir here in New York and learned more about classical music.” He attended Harbor School for Performing Arts in East Harlem, then went on to LaGuardia High School of Music & Art and Performing Arts and then Morgan State.”
Although he had been raised in the church, at first his singing career was based solely on a passion for the music. God was in the rear view mirror. “Somewhere in the midst of touring with 3 Mo’ Tenors for six years I was having trouble reconciling my faith with my sexuality,” he said. “There was a year when I decided, okay, I’m not going to church at all.”
But a spiritual yearning was simmering underneath all the travel, attention and excitement. “I felt the need to get reconnected with God.” Once while performing King Herod in a musical at St. Mark Holy Church, in Brooklyn, the simmering came to a boil. “I realized I was using my art to minister to people. It literally changed my life.”
That realization became a necessity for him, a litmus test for accepting future public performances. “I realized God wanted my music to be a ministry to people. It’s not about romance, it’s about the message of God.”
He became a licensed Pentecostal minister and began pursuing a Master’s of Divinity degree at Union Theological Seminary. Meanwhile, he has become Pastor of a new and fledgling church in Brooklyn.
This past summer at BFS Ken taught in two Summer Camp sessions. In the first session he “taught students to express themselves through writing and performing original songs.” The students ranged in age from 4 to 8, so he presented musical concepts as building blocks similar to Legos.
During the second session he guided students in exploring songs from around the world, “teaching young people songs in a different language or that represent different countries.”
And what about that provocative word in his title, Visionary? “The Bible talks about, without vision people perish. I’ve always had an idea with what God wants me to do. I get the vision and I run with it in the way that God tells me. If I follow what God has given me to do, I do well.”
Ken recounted that recently a woman in his congregation said, “‘You do too much. You’re too many things to too many people.’ Then her sister said, ‘But I’ve never seen him this happy.’ Nothing can make me happier than working with young people who challenge me every day, and also ministering outside of school. Teaching is a way of saying I’m more than a singer. I have something to offer.”