Singing Hallelujah

Around Town


For nearly 30 years, Dr. Marlena Smalls and The Hallelujah Singers have preserved the Gullah culture through uniquely crafted entertainment and storytelling.

Originally from Ohio, Smalls is a successful artist who has made it her life’s mission to spread Gullah education and awareness throughout the world. As a vocalist and entertainer, she has traveled around the globe to perform — including for the queen of England. She also has earned an entry into the Time Capsule of America at the Library of Congress and a spot in the South Carolina Black Hall of Fame — and the role of Bubba’s mother in the movie “Forrest Gump,” much of which was filmed at spots around the Lowcountry. 

In her 40 years as a resident of Beaufort, she has seen a great deal of change, which she said makes preserving and sharing Gullah culture even more important.

“We have so many new people moving here from all over the country, for the climate and also the water,” she said. “The Lowcountry of South Carolina is just a beautiful place to live. When development happens, it will more often than not replace the native islander.”

As part of that effort, she formed The Hallelujah Singers, a group of vocalists who aim to entertain and inspire audiences through spiritual performances and storytelling.

In 1990, Smalls started a small music school in her home called the Lowcountry Art Center for Children, and began raising money to help broaden her students’ exposure to art and music.

“My first train ride was from Yamasee to Charleston, so that my students could witness Spoleto,” she said. “Nancy Wilson was signing that year.”

It was shortly after that trip that Smalls formed The Hallelujah Singers, as well as the annual Beaufort Gullah Festival, in an effort to create a more inclusive art program in the Lowcountry. 

Over the years, The Hallelujah Singers have grown to include more than 50 performers, depending on the event. At most performances, the group performs with a cast of seven or eight core vocalists, who include Smalls and members of her immediate family. The Hallelujah Singers perform both locally and nationally to celebrate and preserve the West African heritage that has shaped the Gullah culture of the Sea Islands.

“We live in a world as individuals with our eyes wide shut,” Smalls said. “With our performances, it’s a matter of being different. People enjoy the music and the entertainment part of it. What really comes with that is education and awareness.”

The group has performed for the U.S. Congress and the South Carolina legislature, as well as at various festivals like Spoleto and Chicago’s Ravinia. Its singers even have presented the story of the Gullah people at the Kennedy Center and to the G-8 Summit, all in an effort to share their history and culture and bring people together.

“Once we open up our eyes, we realize that we are more alike than we are different,” Smalls said. “That’s our message.”