Gregory Porter set to soar in song Thursday as part of NASA’s Mars 2020 Perseverance Rover Mission

Grammy-winning San Diego State University alum Gregory Porter.
Grammy-winning San Diego State University alum Gregory Porter is the first recording artist ever invited by NASA to sing before one of its Mars mission launches.
(Courtesy photo by Ami Sioux)

Grammy Award-winning singer, songwriter and San Diego State University alum has long been a fan of space exploration


The stars are clearly aligned for Grammy Award-winning singer and songwriter Gregory Porter and NASA, which has selected the San Diego State University alum to sing “America the Beautiful” during Thursday’s pre-launch ceremonies for
its historic Mars 2020 Perseverance Rover Mission.

Because of the coronavirus pandemic, Porter will be at home with his family in his native Bakersfield, rather than on site at Cape Canaveral in Florida. But he is delighted to have a supporting role, even a cross-country one, in the Mars-bound exploratory trek. The televised and livestreamed launch is scheduled for no earlier than 4:50 a.m. Thursday, San Diego time, with Porter’s performance preceding the blast off.

“It’s an honor, and I’m just a humble participant,” the bearded vocal star told the Union-Tribune in a Tuesday afternoon phone interview.

“I’m thrilled to show my patriotism and to be a part of this extraordinary event. It’s all quite mind-blowing to me!”

NASA, likewise, is happy to have Porter on board.

“The launch of the Mars Perseverance rover from America’s shore to the Jezero crater on Mars is a milestone in humanity’s history,” Paul Wizikowski, the executive producer of NASA’s Thursday launch broadcast, said in a statement.

“The fact that this flight must be completed in a moment of America’s story that calls for the very best in us to persevere, we felt it fitting to signal this send-off with a focus on what makes America beautiful. ... Gregory Porter was asked to sing ‘America The Beautiful’ to remind us that, from the fruited plains to the shining seas, we are in this grand story together.”

Porter, 48, is an ideal choice in more ways than one.

The two-time Grammy Award winner became fascinated by space exploration while in grade school. He still vividly recalls going to Edwards Air Force Base as an 11-year-old for the landing of one of NASA’s shuttle flights. His interest had been sparked four years earlier, when he learned that one of his cousins worked for NASA.

Porter’s new album, the aptly titled “All Rise,” is due out Aug. 25 on Blue Note Records. It includes the song “Concorde,” inspired by Porter’s many flights around the world and by how eager he is after each concert tour to return home to Demyan, his 7-year-old son.

Demyan co-stars with his father in the video for “Concorde.” It features Porter donning an astronaut-styled space suit and — at the conclusion of the video — taking off while standing in the middle of a street in New York’s City’s Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood, where Porter used to live.

“I have flown on the Concorde,” said Porter, who prior to the coronavirus pandemic averaged more than 250 concerts a year. “And what I’m saying in the lyric to this song is that the most important thing, in everything I do, is getting back down on the ground to my son.”

In turn, the “Concorde” song and video prompted a July 23 message on NASA’s Twitter page saluting Porter. The tweet reads: “Your music brings to mind the dream of space flight and the power of human connection.”

Gregory Porter won the 2014 Grammy Award for best jazz vocal album
Gregory Porter, shown with his first Grammy Award in 2014, won again in 2017 in the same category, Best Jazz Vocal Album.
(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

Blessed with a rich baritone voice, Porter writes and performs songs that deftly blur the lines between jazz, soul, gospel and pop. His lyrics about love and the human condition dive deep and soar high, literally and figuratively.

“Before I made this new record, ‘All Rise,’ almost everything about the stars was coming to me as I was considering the atmosphere, so I got into my studies of it,” Porter recalled.

“The only thing most of us know is the stratosphere, but there is also the troposphere, the triosphere, the ionosphere and more. It didn’t make it onto the record, but I made a song, ‘To the Limit,’ about all the levels of the atmosphere. It’s basically about love, but this idea of ascension and rising up kept coming up on the record.”

Porter enrolled at SDSU in 1990 on a full, four-year football scholarship, but a pre-season shoulder injury ended his gridiron days forever. The urban-planning major turned back to his first love — music — and cites such current and former San Diego jazz-and-beyond luminaries as George Lewis, Kamau Kenyatta, Gilbert Castellanos and the late Daniel Jackson as key mentors.

The singer and his longtime pianist, Chip Crawford, filmed their performance of “America the Beautiful” last week, long distance. While the singer could have asked NASA to let him film and record his vocal in a theater in downtown Bakersfield, he opted for something far more simple and down to earth.

“I like the fact I’m singing in my living room,” Porter said, “although I had to make sure I cleaned it up first!”

Porter’s concert repertoire has not previously included “America the Beautiful.” But he knows the song very well — Ray Charles’ classic version is a favorite — and is eager to put his distinctive musical stamp on it.

“I’m very patriotic, in the sense that I feel my people and my family were fully integrated into the fabric of this country,” Porter said. “I think of the flag that way and the prices that they have paid, and the work they’ve done, to say they’re Americans. There are a bunch of ways you can look at patriotism and I look at it in my own personal way, which is quite profound for me.

“I look at the flag and am proud of it. I see it as an (ongoing) symbol. And I see democracy as a work-in-progress — not something set in stone — that requires us to think about it and consistently consider. Who is the flag for? It’s for all of us. Nobody can wrap themselves in the cloak of the flag and say it is their ideology or political party. Because the flag is stained with a lot of people’s blood.”