When the acapella quartet Kings Return started in 2016, it was to help one of its members fulfill a requirement to graduate from Dallas Baptist University. Today, the group is nationally known and just completed a Christmas tour.
As Gabe Kunda was preparing for his senior recital as a music education major at DBU, he invited three friends to sing with him just for that one recital. But the group enjoyed singing together and continued to rehearse even after the recital.
“It was a hobby at first, and we would get together to do musical training for some summer camps,” said JE McKissic, one of the founding members of the male quartet. In addition to playing some local gigs, the group arranged, performed and posted online a video of their rendition of “God Bless America,” which went viral.
The venue for that recording was a stairwell at Cornerstone Baptist Church in Arlington, Texas, where McKissic’s father, Dwight McKissic is the founding pastor.
“We often joke on the road that the stairwell is the fifth member of the group because it’s been so instrumental in drawing people in when they hear that sound of us singing in there,” JE McKissic said. “That’s why we always keep it around. We’ll never abandon the stairwell completely. The stairwell has been a part of the group since day one. It was just four guys getting together, singing, practicing for an event.”
Kings Return continued to record videos in the stairwell and post them online, finding an even greater following with an acapella performance of the classical piece “Ubi Caritas,” which amassed more than 10 million views. During the COVID-19 pandemic, even more people discovered the group online.
Along the way, two members of the group dropped out and two new members joined, finalizing the current lineup of tenor Vaughn Faison, bass Gabe Kunda, tenor JE McKissic and baritone Jamall Williams.
Kings return released its debut EP in December 2021 — a jazz-leaning holiday album titled “Merry Little Christmas,” followed by the June 2022 release of a Bee Gees cover of “How Deep is Your Love,” which earned a Grammy nomination for best arrangement instrumental or acappella. That song was on the group’s album “Rove.”
Last fall, Kings Return released a Christmas album titled “We Four Kings” and launched a national tour to sing the Christmas music and a variety of classical, gospel and pop tunes from their repertoire.
Each member in the group is classically trained in music, which allows them to tackle a wide range of genres.
“Because we are acapella, we’re not confined to a particular genre,” McKissic said. “In and of itself, it is the genre. We’re singing music that is the soundtrack of our lives. We just sing songs that relate to what and how we live.”
Their playlist ranges from “The Lord’s Prayer” to “How Deep Is Your Love” to “Bridge Over Troubled Water” to “You’re A Mean One, Mr. Grinch.”
But the group’s roots are in the church, specifically the Black church tradition.
“I watched my dad start Cornerstone in a garage,” McKissic said. “My dad loves connecting with people. He has a gift for connecting with people.” That’s a trait the younger McKissic demonstrates on stage.
JE McKissic was on staff full-time at Cornerstone Church until the last two years, then moved to part-time status due to the growth of the group.
The four singers have a natural chemistry on stage and off.
“No one has to carry anyone else’s weight,” McKissic said. “It allows us to relate to each other just about the business we have before us, you know, drama-free. There’s not a lot of conflict. Believe it or not, we’ve never fought in all the years we’ve been traveling together. Everyone has a mature level of responsibility they bring to the group regardless of age. And so that keeps us relating to one another well and in a good working environment. But we also keep our sense of humor; we’re never too far from a laugh. We spend a lot of time laughing and joking with each other.”
McKissic sees a bigger purpose in what he has been called to do as part of the group. He’s the oldest member of the group and a father of six. “I’ve learned a lot traveling and singing with the group. I can feel great in the moment, like most things. What matters is you can’t enjoy it if you’re not connected to God and your family.
“I go to all these places and want to share them with my family,” he said. “We were singing in Arizona for our Christmas tour, and I flew my two oldest sons out just to experience it so they could see the mountains and the desert. I’m learning that God is elevating me and lifting me so that I can share things with my kids that they wouldn’t have seen if it weren’t for me. I don’t know what or how God is going to use my life and my ministry. I’m learning that God doesn’t waste experiences.”