The Ridgeville native recently returned to thank the high school cafeteria worker who helped launch his career
It’s been a decade since a video of 14-year-old Kelontae Gavin singing in the Summerville High School cafeteria went viral, launching his gospel music career.
Kelontae Gavin was 14 when a cafeteria employee at Summerville High School asked him to sing for her. The video of an impassioned Gavin, eyes closed, flowing across octaves, garnered more than two million views. “I was already known among the ladies there for my singing, so when she asked, I leaned over the counter and started singing, ‘I Won’t Complain,’ a gospel classic by the Rev. Paul Jones,” he recalls. “She posted it to Facebook, and it changed my life.”
Within a year, Gavin had a record deal and a full performance schedule. In 2018, his debut album, The Higher Experience, with MBE/Tyscot Records replicated the viral video’s success, with lead single “No Ordinary Worship” topping two million streams on Spotify. He’s had several gospel hits and earned two Dove Award nominations. Now 24, he released his third album, Testify, this summer.
A Ridgeville native, Gavin grew up as one of eight siblings on his father’s side and one of four on his mother’s side—yet he’s the only musician in his family. He plays keys, organ, guitar, bass, and drums—and wrote several of the songs on Testify. Although he’s on the road most of the year (including performances in the Bahamas and the UK this summer), he still lives in Ridgeville and attends his home church, Favor Ministries.
The singer’s beginnings—a split family and a history of molestation by a cousin, starting at age seven—belie his joyful outlook. But even while he wrestled with abuse and complicated feelings as a child, his classmates continually chose him for superlatives like “Best All-Around” and “Most Likely to Be Famous.”
“I always broke the mold,” Gavin says. “We all wear masks. The dichotomy is to preach the word of a perfect God while being imperfect. I know that my purpose is to give glory to God and to see lives be changed.”
Last month, Gavin released his third album, Testify, on RCA Inspiration.
Testify could change Gavin’s life again. “Good Love,” a duet with gospel star Kim Burrell (known for collaborations with Jay-Z and Pharrell Williams), may be his most radio-friendly song yet. “I’m used to contemporary praise and worship, so it was super fun to go a different route with that song,” says Gavin. “I say that song is like jazz and pop had a baby.”
“Live Again,” the album’s first single, was released in March, accompanied by a music video filmed at Morris Brown AME Church in downtown Charleston. Along with the modern country-tinged title track, the song follows the album’s theme of acknowledging God’s role and how faith can help people overcome challenges like health issues and losing loved ones.
In addition to recording and performing, Gavin is also a founder of Worship School, a MasterClass-style program designed to help young gospel musicians progress in their careers.
“We’re supposed to be a light in dark places,” says Gavin, who recently returned to his high school to thank and bless the employee who took the viral video with $10,000. “My goal is to be a well-respected, integral leader who has done enough that if I were to shut my eyes and leave this earth, I’ve left a great legacy, from ministry to business.”
WATCH Gavin's "Live Again" music video, filmed at Morris Brown AME church:
WATCH the viral video of a 14-year-old Kelontae Gavin singing in his high school cafeteria: