Who’s That Girl?

pop circumstance impaceIn a moment reminiscent of the funerals of Princess Diana and John F. Kennedy Jr., the world paused on Tuesday to mourn the loss of “the King of Pop,” Michael Jackson.

After the parade of stars crossed the stage at the memorial service, one big question lingered for millions of folks who watched — who was that unfamiliar Asian girl singing “Heal the World” like she was somebody we should know? Well, I’ve been grinning from ear to ear, because while the media’s been speculating over her identity, I instantly recognized her as the incredible vocalist Judith Hill, a fellow Biola University alumna.

Before we both graduated from Biola back in 2005, Judith’s powerhouse voice could be heard echoing off the walls of Crowell Hall at the Biola campus, while she studied under Dr. John Browning to get her degree in music composition. At Biola, she sang in an urban gospel group called Unveiled. I also remember Judith picking up gigs at local coffee shops and performing in events for Biola’s Conservatory of Music. She even appeared on a jazz CD for the school called Crossroads, where she sings the Doxology. And though Judith has been a Christian since she was young, her life has been marked by the challenges of finding her way socially given her biracial background — her mother is Japanese and father is Black. Her website reveals, “Depending on the social circle, she was labeled ‘too quiet,’ ‘too loud,’ ‘too black,’ ‘too Asian,’ or too something.” But the need to measure up to the world’s standards didn’t get her down for long. She goes on to say, “I had a pretty good life in my childhood. Me and God were friends since the beginning. That helped a lot.”

After college, Judith went off to France to sing background vocals for pop star Michel Polnareff. The tour opened her up to a host of experiences, enriching her life story and deepening the richness of her sound. After a brief hiatus from music to battle some personal demons of family issues and depression, this June she was back and stronger than ever, ready to join Michael Jackson on tour in London … that is until his fateful death.

Her strong appearance at the Michael Jackson Memorial has been praised by the industry and fans alike. Now Rolling Stone reports that Judith and her fellow members of the Michael Jackson “This Is It! Tour” will be a part of a tribute concert AEG is planning. Her mother Michiko Hill told Biola, “We didn’t expect this, but it seems like God put her there for a purpose — to bring hope,” she said. “We’re praying that the Lord will use her and she will be an ambassador for Christ through her music.”

Donald Gordon, a fellow Biola University alum who sang with Judith in Unveiled, says he isn’t surprised by her success. “Watching her sing at Michael Jackson’s funeral reminded me of singing with her in Biola’s chapel or at churches,” he told me. “Same Judith — no difference. I want people to know she’s just as passionate about her faith as she is about her music; it’s one and the same.”

Well, all I can say is Godspeed to you, Judith. Despite the sad circumstances, you stood as a shining light of talent and grace. In front of an audience of literally every recording-industry executive, musician, producer — not to mention much of America and the watching world via television — you held your own. And now millions are finding out about you and the fact that you serve an awesome God. Just keep the faith and remember your Biola friends when you blow up!

Want more of Judith Hill? Check out the performance below of her performing “One Love Forever” back in 2008.

15 Moments That Made Me Yell “Preach” During the MJ Memorial

The memorial, which dominated nearly every television station and monopolized the web and Twitterverse, was heavily religious in tone. While expressions of spirituality are not unusual for a funeral, given the vast audience of attendees and viewers, the messaging was shockingly Christian-centric.

Here are the top 15 moments from the memorial that made me want to scream, “You better preach!” at the television screen:

1. The entrance of Michael Jackson’s body as the Sandra Crouch-led choir sang the sharp lines of “We Are Going to See the King.” In a moment, the Staples Center was instantly transformed from the Lakers’ playground into a house of worship.

2. Pastor Lucious Smith’s opening speech that reminded us of Michael’s humanity. A close friend of the Jackson family, Smith said, “We remember this man by celebrating his life and all of the love that he brought to our own lives for half a century.”

3. Mariah closing out her oft-celebrated rendition of “I’ll Be There” (featuring Trey Lorenz) with a grateful “Thank you Jesus.” Her vocals aren’t what they used to be back in the day, but her faith might be stronger.

4. Queen Latifah’s recitation of Dr. Maya Angelou’s eulogy “We Had Him.” Angelou’s words always wrench the heart and stroke the soul. Yet again she left goosebumps on the packed crowd.

5. Lionel Richie taking a stadium full of people to church by singing Commodore’s classic “Jesus is Love.” The moving lyrics call on the name of the LORD saying, “And I know the Truth and His words will be our salvation. Lift up our hearts to be thankful and glad that Jesus is love.” (FYI — gospel favorite Smokie Norful and Heather Headley recently remade this song on Norful’s recent Live album).

6. Barry Gordy delivering the best tribute to Michael Jackson to date. The music legend recounted Motown memories to the crowd making us feel like we were all right there with Michael when he signed to the label at 10 years old.

7. Stevie Wonder saying “I do know that God is good” before singing a stirring medley of 1971’s “Never Dreamed You’d Leave in Summer” and 1974’s “They Won’t Go When I Go.” He’s just good, all day everyday.

8. Acting as the unofficial mayor of the Staple Center, Magic Johnson laughing over eating Kentucky Fried Chicken with Michael Jackson. After his KFC promo, he spoke directly to the family saying, “May God continue to bless this incredible family. We want to say that we’re praying for you. Remain strong.”

9. A very pregnant Jennifer Hudson commanding the stage with her powerful voice. Hudson was so good she made us momentarily forget about the controversy over her pregnancy. She brought the gospel into every note of Michael Jackson’s “Will You Be There.”

10. Reverend Al Sharpton honoring Michael’s ability to connect people around the world and push through boundaries with the power of his dream. In a moment that made the church say Amen — complete with a tambourine shaking in the background — Sharpton brought the crowd to its feet, saying, “I want his three children to know, wasn’t nothin’ strange about yo’ daddy. It was strange what yo’ daddy had to deal with.”

11. The children of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. empathizing with the Jackson family’s public loss, as only they could do. Martin Luther King III intoned his father, saying “The heavens must be proud of how Michael entertained the world. Then King’s daughter Bernice echoed the truth of Scripture, preaching, “My prayer is that no one and nothing, public or private, fact or fiction, true or rumored, will separate you from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus. […] It is only God’s love that will anchor you, sustain you, and move you to a higher ground above the noise of life.”

12. Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee of Texas sharing the story of the Good Samaritan before an international audience. She said Michael Jackson called us all into public service with his record-breaking humanitarianism.

13. Smokey Robinson summing up our peace for today and hope for tomorrow. The Motown crooner said, “I believe so much in God. I believe that this is not it. We have life after this is done.”

14. Newcomer Judith Hill leading a stage full of children and celebrities in a performance of Michael Jackson’s “Heal the World.” Aside from our excitement over Hill being a strong Christian (and Biola University alumna!), the moment was fitting in that more than any other, it seemed to be exactly what Michael Jackson would have wanted.

15. Little Paris bursting into tears as she spoke about her father. The famous daughter touched the world’s heart and finally humanized Michael Jackson when she tearfully shared her feelings on her dad’s passing: “I just want to say, ever since I was born, Daddy has been the best father you could ever imagine. And I just want to say, I love him so much.”

It was a beautiful memorial, full of music, laughter, and fond farewells. Who knows what Michael Jackson’s spirituality was like at his death? But this celebration of his life certainly honored God. We are thankful for the blessing he was to the world of entertainment.

The Crass Supper

“The industry doesn’t want you to know the truth about what you are eating, because if you knew you might not want to eat it ” — Food, Inc.

I recently headed out to a sold-out showing of the documentary Food, Inc. at the Alamo Drafthouse Cinema here in Austin, Texas. Generally, getting dinner and drinks along with my movie is my favorite “night out” activity, but in watching a film which critically examines our industrial food system, it was a bit strange. Granted, all around me I heard orders for veggie burgers and the local organic veggie platter, and there wasn’t a high fructose corn syrup soda to be seen, but I was glad to have finished my (veggie) burger by the time the previews ended. Although I have sought to inform myself about the injustices in our modern food system, Food, Inc. presents the most comprehensive and disturbing summary of that system I have seen yet. It is a necessary film for basically anyone who eats food.

A film which took three years to make with a large part of its budget going to pay the legal fees defending itself against lawsuits from the industrial food companies, Food, Inc. takes a hard look at how corporations now control the production of our food, resulting in generally unhealthy, environmentally hazardous, and completely unsustainable food that in truth threatens the very well-being of our country.

From the animals that are confined in inhumane cages, left to stand in their own mire, fed unnatural diets and cocktails of drugs and hormones to the impoverished workers who are treated with the same disrespect, this system has sacrificed the respect and well-being of living creatures and people for the sake of profit. But Food Inc. doesn’t just stop with detailing those atrocities; it delves into the problems with government subsidies and the ways the fearmongering enforcement of genetically modified food copyrights are destroying the small farmer. People are being hurt by this industrial food system that dumps chemicals into our environment with reckless abandon and produces unnatural and unhealthy food for our consumption.

I appreciated though how Food, Inc. didn’t simply present the issues with industrial food as a clear cut, good vs. evil scenario. It acknowledged that poor workers have no choice but to take jobs on the factory farms, and that farmers have no choice but to give into the pressure to work with the huge industries. Those industries have so altered our nation’s laws, and have so many lawyers working for them, that any farmer who resists joining their ranks finds themselves out of work at best, and sued penniless for simply encouraging people to not buy the big company’s products. The farmers and workers are desperate for a better system where real freedom and healthy standards exist, but for now they have to work with what they’ve got.

Food, Inc. also explores why for the average working class family in America, buying healthy food isn’t an option, especially in many urban communites where the absence of full-service grocery retailers has created “food deserts.” And whether you’re urban, rural, or suburban, it is far cheaper to buy the cheeseburger from the drive-thru dollar menu than it is to buy fruit or vegetables. That is because everything in that cheeseburger comes from corn, which our government subsidizes so much that farmers can sell it below the cost of production. So the poor American eats the extremely unhealthy food because it is cheaper. But the rising epidemic of type 2 diabetes shows the hidden cost of that value meal.

The poor in our country — those with no health or job insurance — are getting sick at alarming rates due to the unhealthy, cheap food they eat. This is injustice of the highest extreme — but it’s all part of our industrial food system. It’s a complicated system that gives us unhealthy, unsustainable food that disrespects the earth, animals, and people all in the name of making the greatest profit for a handful of corporations. This is the story of the food we eat every day.

But in truth, I have a lot of friends who don’t want to know anything about their food. They shelter their kids from knowing the whole “circle of life” stuff, but also tell me point blank that they don’t want to know the story behind their food. In their mind, what they don’t know won’t hurt them. Unfortunately, as Food Inc. shows, that isn’t always the case.

I wasn’t expecting this film to be a tear-jerker, but hearing a mom talk about how her toddler son ate a hamburger and was dead in 12 days had me weeping. This mom was the typical middle-American Republican mom on vacation, but the hamburger they bought their son on the way home was tainted with E. coli 0157:H7, a deadly antibiotic resistant bacteria common in factory farmed cows. These cows, fed unnatural diets of corn, develop diseases (like E. coli) and are treated regularly with antibiotics, which leads to drug-resistant strains like this one. This mom has become the unlikely activist for food safety. The meat company who sent out the tainted meat knew it was tainted and didn’t issue a recall until two weeks after her son was dead. As she puts it, all she wants is an apology from the company and a guarantee that they are doing everything possible to prevent it from ever happening again. Instead, she finds the companies fighting for more lax food safety laws and herself under threat of a lawsuit under the “veggie libel” laws for discouraging people to buy meat products. Yeah, look up these laws — express fears about the safety of your food and you could be sued for causing these companies loss of revenue. So much for free speech, much less safe food. It’s hard to know the truth if you are not allowed to talk about it.

But for all the doom and gloom that Food, Inc. rightly covers, I was grateful that it didn’t end the story there. Instead of throwing up its arms and admitting defeat or even insisting that we all go join some intentional community/hippie commune immediately, Food, Inc. details the practical ways we can start changing the system from within. It profiles the organic dairy farmers who although they had boycotted Wal-Mart all their lives, were now selling their product to them. Some may call them sell-outs, and they are under no illusion that Wal-Mart jumped on the organic bandwagon out of the goodness of their hearts, but to get a store with a distribution as huge as Wal-Mart’s means significant amounts of pesticides, fertilizers, and antibiotics are kept from polluting our ecosystem. That’s a really big deal, and one of the main reason to buy organic. Working within the system, even if it is with Wal-Mart, makes progress happen faster and on a much larger scale.

The movie concludes with the reminder that we can each make a difference every time we go to the store. The point isn’t to abandon the food system, or stop buying food, but to simply demand healthier, sustainable food. We can choose to vote with our pocketbooks for the type of food we want to support. Do we want to support the food that oppresses animals, workers, and the environment or the food that does its best to care for all those things? We have that choice; we just have to be willing to make it.

Food, Inc. opens across the U.S. this summer. Check the Food, Inc. website to see if it is playing near you.