Gospel Singer is the Hardest Working Performer in the Subway System
Four days a week, gospel singer Arlethia West packs her amp, microphone and MP3 player on a small dolly, hops on the J train and zips through the bowels of the city until she reaches her make-shift arena.
Rarely do her gigs take her above ground. Once off the train, West sets up her gear against a tiled wall in a subway station mezzanine and begins belting out tunes for the next three hours.
Her angelic voice makes harried straphangers stop in their tracks. Some whip out smartphones and record her performances. Others sway and sing along. All leave with smiles — and, usually, lighter wallets after tossing a few crinkled bills into a basket by her feet.
“I was made to be a blessing to others through the gift that God has given me. Sending that love out through my voice, that’s the greatest blessing for me,” West said.
“It’s true, when you give, you shall receive even more than before.”
According to the MTA, West has been giving a whole lot lately.
During the past two years, she has played more gigs in the subway system than any other singer or band in the agency’s Music Under New York program.
Each year the MTA selects musicians to join the program, which allows them to busk legally at various stations around the city. The program’s 350 individual performers and bands play 7,500 gigs at 40 transit locations around the city each year.
An MTA tally shows that West does the most — an average of four gigs a week — slightly edging out an opera singer, a hammered dulcimer player and a violinist for the top spot.
“Music Under New York has been the answer to my prayers,” she said. “I believe the longer you have been with them, the more dates you can get. … MUNY opens doors for more engagements for me to sing outside of the subway.”
West said she has been a member of the program for about 10 years. She remembers earning a spot after performing the gospel standard “He’ll Do It Again” during an audition.
A North Carolina native, she moved with her mother to the Bronx as a young girl. She grew up around music and sang in a church choir. Her mother was also in a singing group.
West, who would not disclose her age, now lives in Bushwick. She said she was inspired to start singing in the subways when she saw an underground performance by Alice Tan Ridley, a gospel singer and the mother of “Precious” star Gabourney Sidibe.
“Once I saw Alice, I said, ‘Oh, I can do that,’” she said.
At the time, she ran her own jewelry business. With a battery-powered amp, a microphone and a MetroCard, she decided to take swipe at singing in New York’s chaotic underworld. After one early performance, West was approached by an MTA worker who suggested she try out for the program.
Singing is now a full-time job. West declined to say how much money she makes busking, but said it’s enough to pay her monthly bills. She also performs at nightclubs and other events, and occasionally tours outside New York.
On Tuesday, accompanied by instrumentals on her MP3 player, she sang gospel classics and her own numbers on a well-trafficked mezzanine above the N, R and Q lines at Union Square station. In between takes, she gave spiritual pep talks to straphangers.
She and the program’s other members line up their gigs by calling into the MTA every two weeks. They receive a calendar of open three-hour slots and locations and then book their showtimes.
West prefers MTA gigs between noon and 3 p.m. in case she has a show at night — above ground.
Her preferred performance locations are Penn Station (great for its sound), the Staten Island Ferry terminals (it draws large crowds) and any of the 125th subway stations.
The 125th station for the A, B, C and D lines holds a special spot in her heart — it’s where she met her future husband during one of her performances. Her voice drew his attention.
“We just started talking and one thing led to another,” she said.