The Kennedy Center

Marlena Smalls


Marlena Smalls was born in Ohio to South Carolina parents. In a family full of singers, Ms. Smalls didn’t consider herself especially talented. Then she took the stage in a talent showcase, and her voice – deeply rich and mature for her age – distinguished itself for its power and grace. She began singing in Ohio and went to Central State University before embarking on her singing career. Ms. Smalls’ talents have taken her around the globe and she has toured heavily in Europe, performed for the Queen of England, and held a concert in the Frankfurt Opera House in Germany.

But not even an Ohio upbringing and a well-worn passport could sever Ms. Smalls’ link to South Carolina. In 1985, she founded the Gullah Festival in Beaufort, which would celebrate the culture and preserve its many traditions, and by 1990, she had formed the Hallelujah Singers.

Ms. Smalls, with the Hallelujah Singers, has taken the Gullah culture of the Sea Islands in South Carolina and exported it to the world. With three CDs and a never-ending touring schedule, Ms. Smalls and her troupe of singers are preserving Gullah dialect and customs.

Ms. Smalls has become an authority on Gullah culture and its link to West Africa and the Hallelujah Singers performances are both entertaining and educational. The Gullahs who remain on Sea Island are descendants of West African slaves who worked the rice and cotton fields before they were freed and offered a chance to purchase their land. As whites deserted the coast in favor of milder climates inland, the Gullahs lived in isolation for generations, allowing them to maintain their African culture longer than any slave descendants in the U.S.
Marlena Smalls