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Almost every major network has created its own spin on a reality singing competition. ABC has American Idol. NBC has The Voice. And on Fox, The Masked Singer.
All of these shows focus on finding the best solo singer. But, while it’s fun to hear an incredible vocalist, none of these programs has ever attempted to bring the best soloists together into a choir.
That’s what Bishop Ezekiel Williams and his panel of judges do in Netflix’s Voices of Fire. Williams sets out to create a great gospel choir filled with faces of every color and age.
Supporting the effort is Williams’ nephew, Grammy Award–winning singer Pharrell Williams, who produced the show. (While Pharrell’s name appears in promo material, he makes just two appearances in all six episodes.)
Singers don’t audition in a Hollywood studio with an audience. This competition spends almost all of its time in a church. Vocalists sing on a sanctuary stage to judges sitting in pews. The setting brings an authenticity and, for churchgoers, a hominess to the competition.
And those who audition largely don’t sing rock ’n’ roll, R&B, or pop hits. Instead, most sing soulful, gospel hymns. It’s moving to hear “Blessed assurance, Jesus is mine …” and “I need Thee, oh I need Thee …” or to watch one singer belt out “Jesus Loves Me” with tears streaming down her face.
Another departure from the norm: For the contestants, there’s no hope of personal fame or prize money—just the joy of exercising their gifts and helping people experience the healing power of music. The series explores many of the contestants’ stories and how music has helped them overcome.
Voices of Fire will remind audiences how some of the greatest singers of all time got their start in church choirs.—legends such as Aretha Franklin, Tina Turner, and Gladys Knight.
Show judge and choir director Patrick Riddick says people don’t realize that, in many ways, it’s more difficult to sing in a choir than as a soloist. Riddick says many of today’s top vocalists have never been in a choir, and it shows. He and the other judges hope the competition will inspire more churches to pull out their choir robes and hymnals.
For a show about creating a choir, though, we don’t actually hear the choir sing very much. Most of the competition involves listening to choir members singing individually. Too bad. It would have been fun to see and hear more of the process of making all of those individuals sing as one.
Still, for those who haven’t stepped foot in a church building, Voices of Fire presents the Church for what it is: A place where people of any kind, no matter their mistakes, have a home together in Christ.