In February, 1995, Essence of Joy presented the first concert titled “Celebration of African American Spirituals.” Since that time, the event has developed into a collaborative venture in the School of Music. High school and guest collegiate choirs/bands, as well as professional performing artists, have also participated since 2003.
In 1997, Anthony Leach coordinated the first Symposium on the African American Spiritual, involving guest artists, lectures, and choral performances. In 2000, Leach initiated conversations with several African American choral colleagues regarding a commissioning project. In 2003, the annual Celebration of African American Spirituals Concert featured commissioned choral compositions by Glenn Burleigh, Roland Carter, Marvin Curtis, Keith Hampton, Moses Hogan, Robert Morris, and Rosephanye Powell. All of the composers, with the exception of Moses Hogan, were present in University Park for the premiere of their works.
Essence of Joy presented these compositions again at the 2003 national American Choral Directors Association convention in New York City and at the annual conference of the Pennsylvania Music Educators Association in Hershey. Moses Hogan died February 14, 2003 during Essence Of Joy’s concert at ACDA.
The year 2009 brought a second commissioning project, and the festival hosted premieres of original works written for Essence of Joy by M. Roger Holland, II, Damon Dandridge, and Raymond Wise. Penn State students have also contributed original works and arrangements that have been premiered by EOJ since 2001. To date, 23 compositions have been written or arranged for performance at the African American Music Festival.
In 2009, the name of the festival was changed from "Celebration of African American Spirituals" to the "African American Music Festival" in order to be more inclusive of the variety of music offered by the performers.