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Singers tune up and check sound Saturday before the first Central Savannah River Area Gospel Music Heritage Awards in the Convocation Center at USC Aiken.

The first Gospel Music Heritage Awards – or GMHAs – on Saturday celebrated the power of gospel to bring people together.

The inaugural event, held in USC Aiken's Convocation Center, honored people from or living in the Aiken-Augusta area who have contributed toward the advancement or sustainability of gospel music.

“Gospel music has been that genre that transcends racial lines and transcends gender,” said Donna Moore Wesby, the general manager of WAAW Shout 94.7 FM radio and the executive producer and organizer of the event. “Anything that separates us – gospel music has a way of bringing us together because it touches the soul, it inspires and, of course, it lifts up the Lord.”

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Donna Moore Wesby and Pastor Billy Smith get ready Saturday backstage at USC Aiken's Convocation Center for the first Central Savannah River Area Gospel Music Heritage Awards.

The awards honored individuals who “have assisted in sustaining gospel music or even helping to develop it,” Wesby said before the dinner and the awards and entertainment part of the program began.

"We're talking about, of course, artists but also promoters, radio announcers, even businesses that have sponsored different gospel events,” she said.

Wesby compared the GMHAs to the Grammy Awards or BET Awards.

“It's all top-notch, top quality, and we wanted that because of the significance of what we're doing today,” she said.

The celebration included award presentations in 12 categories and eight performers. One national award, the Trailblazer Award, went to international award-winning gospel singer and songwriter Pastor John P. Kee. Kee performed along with gospel singer and songwriter Bryan Popin and other local favorites.

“When you think of a trailblazer, the legendary Paster John P. Kee – he is it. It was nothing but God that he said yes and was available,” Wesby said.

Wesby said Pastor Billy Smith had the idea for the awards.

“When he came to me to share his idea, I could just see it. I saw the vision that God placed and just went to work, and we do plan to have the awards annually,” Wesby said.

Smith is the pastor of the Building the Kingdom ministries in Ridge Spring.

“I'm just excited. I don't want to cry, but I'm excited,” Smith said. “This is a dream come true.”

Smith did not hesitate when asked who his favorite gospel artist is.

“Pastor John P. Kee,” he said. “He's a legend. They call him the 'crown prince of gospel.' He's had many hits. He's just a tremendous spirit in the body of Christ. We're just honored to have him in South Carolina tonight.”

Larry Wood covers education for the Aiken Standard.