Musicmaker

Story Jason Browne | Photograph Luisa Porter

Tyson Cunningham has been the recipient of some very public blessings.

Anyone who grows up playing ball in Columbus and makes the roster at Mississippi State is going to have a lot of eyes on him every time he laces up. Just as a young drummer from one of Columbus’ deepest musical families will have a lot of ears on him the second he picks up the sticks or the microphone at church.

But it wasn’t natural talent that saw Cunningham walk-on to the MSU basketball squad and eventually crack the starting rotation. And it wasn’t family connections that earned him the lead vocalist spot in his current gospel project, Sounds of Judah.

It was focus, the private blessing.

An example: Plenty of basketball stars burn out before they even get to college. High school gym glory makes them a hot commodity at house parties, the natural habitat of booze, weed and sex. Booze makes you fat. Weed makes you lazy. Sex makes babies. Cunningham sidestepped all these pitfalls early.

“When I was in the ninth grade I went to my last party. I remember it like it was yesterday. I looked around and asked myself, ‘What am I doing here? This is not my scene. I don’t feel comfortable,’” he says. “When I went to college I didn’t have a desire to be at parties. I wasn’t faced with the temptation of drugs, but girls were an issue.”

Aha! Girls! Cunningham had the focus to swerve past the drugs, bust his butt until he made the team at State and earn his degree in music, but college campuses are the natural habitat of beautiful girls.

Even without sex, girls can distract a Big Man On Campus. Except Cunningham chose to marry his girlfriend Crystal, whom he had been dating since the ninth grade.

“While I was on the team I made the decision that I wanted to marry her and do things God’s way. I didn’t have a job; I was still a college athlete, and my family was asking me how I’ll take care of a family. My response was ‘I don’t know, but God will provide,’” he says. “She agreed and trusted my faith, and we haven’t lacked for anything. We have a house, and our son, Christian, just turned 1. God did what I believed he would do, and Crystal helped keep me grounded.”

For the past two years, Cunningham’s laser focus has expanded to include the Sounds of Judah, a big collection of Columbus musicians and singers that are either family or have known each other for years. After bumping into each other at multiple events, Cunningham says the members decided to form a group together. They’ve performed at churches, festivals, weddings, funerals and elder-care homes, customizing their selections for the audience at every event. And out front is Cunningham, still in the public eye, still sharing his blessings.

“Tyson just has instant credibility around here,” says Doug Browning, music director at First United Methodist Church in Columbus. “I did a Black History Month program last year at Columbus High School and had Tyson come out to sing the third verse of ‘I Believe I Can Fly’ and the place just went up. When I said ‘Tyson Cunningham,’ it was just, ‘AHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH!’”

“He has that special bond between performer and audience. He works to the words of a song and decorates with his voice. He can take a text and become a part of it. And when people see him, they see everything he represents. They see the music; they see the athlete; and they see God through him.”

Sounds of Judah has been in the studio during the summer, working on an EP and planning a tour. Cunningham says the music is coming soon to iTunes and Spotify and everywhere else. He hopes the new songs will be a blessing to the public that has watched and supported him throughout his life and spread around the world.

“When we first formed, we really believed that the songs God would give us would be for the nations. A wide variety that wouldn’t fit into one frame. We believe He will give us songs for everyone,” says Cunningham.

To learn more about the Sounds of Judah visit sojudahministries.com