From the outside looking in the Stellar Awards seems like any other awards show. Beautiful men and women dressed to the hilt, flashbulbs popping as talent stands statuesque and smiling, and anxious reporters fielding questions of both the mundane and profound nature. This is all par for the course during award show season. But where the Stellar Awards sets itself apart is when you are in the midst of it all and you feel the spirit hovering over the place where some of today’s most influential gospel singers come to celebrate God and be celebrated by their peers in the gospel music industry. Thanking Jesus is not just something these artists do when they step to the mic to accept their award; it is a way of life that they express through their artistry. This artistry, known as gospel music, has been celebrated by the Stellar Awards for 30 years.
Produced by Chicago-based Central City Productions, the first Stellar Awards show was taped at the Arie Crown Theatre in Chicago. Through the years, Central City Productions CEO Don Jackson and his team have taken the Stellars throughout the country from Los Angeles and Houston to Nashville and Atlanta, and this year marked their first time in Las Vegas. Las Vegas location aside, this year’s Stellars is special because it marks the 30th anniversary of the show that is a premiere platform for gospel artists.
“I think we open the door for black gospel artists,” says Erma Davis, President and COO of Central City Productions. “In the past, gospel artists were not really known that well because, in the secular world, you just see all of the stars and glamour. I think one of the things we did was to highlight [gospel artists] and really give them a platform so that they could show their ministry.”
Davis hits on something poignant regarding the way gospel music and artistry is acknowledged in the mainstream. Gospel artists are nominated and win at shows such as the Grammys, but they receive their awards off-camera and rarely are they given performance space at the same rate as their peers in mainstream popular music. Instead, how to mainstream acknowledges the Gospel and gospel influences is by giving viewers excerpts of the preceding culture through the broadcast of popular artists thanking God on stage and the sometimes testifyin’, sometimes signifiyin’ appearance of gospel choirs in popular artists’s Grammy Award performances. Other than that, gospel artists and their work are relegated to the peripheries of the mainstream. This is problematic because gospel music has more to do with their success than it doesn’t. Many artists, particularly popular African-American artists, started singing in the church or were influenced by gospel artists. Some artists receive vocal training from gospel music veterans. Some artists employ church musicians to play in their bands. Suffice to say, gospel music’s roots run deep but the mainstream won’t always tell that story. Furthermore, it stands to be said that R&B and Rap music are often exalted as the representative genres of black music in the mainstream, but we know that is only part of the story. The roots of many genres of black music can be traced back to gospel music. Gospel music matters.
“Gospel Music Matters As Black Lives Do.” Bobby Jones
We are in the era of “Black Lives Matter” the social justice movement started by Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors, and Opal Tometi on the heels of George Zimmerman’s acquittal for the shooting death of Trayvon Martin in 2013. At every turn we have an opportunity to think about why black lives matter and what it means. A reflection on “Black Lives Matter” also constitutes a reflection on the components of black lives and how those parts re-affirm black identity and the value of black lives. We dare to reflect on the connection between “Black Lives Matter” and gospel music and how the latter reaffirms black identity in general and black Christian identity in particular to reiterate link between gospel music and social justice.
“Down through the years, when we didn’t have the right to vote, it was the gospel. It was the Dixie Hummingbirds, it was Clara Ward and other gospel singers who came on the strip first, taking the art form to another level,” said the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson, Sr. Gospel artist and their music were historically known for mobilizing some of our most influential leaders such as the way in which Mahalia Jackson’s music inspired Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Even the Golden Globe and Oscar-winning song “Glory” has a gospel undertone that is unmistakable and is serving as the clarion call for many young social justice activists.
Gospel singer Tasha Cobbs also understands the connection between gospel music and social justice. Her 2013 hit, “Break Every Chain” is often used in churches in connection to different social justice causes. I’ve seen youth ministries utilize the song to speak out against bullying and last year, following the non-indictment of Darren Wilson, it was sung in a local Atlanta church as a rallying cry for justice for slain black men. When asked how she feels about her song’s usage for social justice causes Cobbs said that she was honored and that the song is about reminding people who there is power in the name of Jesus. “I don’t believe that you can break anything that is causing destruction and chaos without using the name of Jesus.” But she also called out the church as a necessary partner in reminding people of that power. “I believe it is bringing that pressure back on the church to step up and access the power that we have in the name of Jesus, and that ministry is going to help us overcome what we are going through now.” Gospel music matters and has power in and outside of the church
For the last 30 years the Stellar Awards have been a vehicle for transporting the genre of gospel music to even higher ground, bringing it more fully into the spotlight, and being an empowering force in the African-American community. The shows creators and all of the celebrated artists recognize and affirm the value of gospel music in bolstering black identity, especially as we continue to proclaim that “Black Lives Matter.” Black artistry plays a role in “Black Lives Matter,” particularly the artistry that has helped black people make meaning for their lives and that reaffirms the value of their lives through the Gospel. Outspoken “Preachers of L.A.” castmember and gospel artist Deitrick Haddon said it best when he said, “For gospel music in particular, we don’t have a lot of platforms that really display us in a classy, respectful way. So that’s why the Stellar Awards is the epitome of who we are and what we’re doing. We’ve gotta support the Stellar Awards.”
We hope that you’ll support the Stellar Awards when it airs April 5 on TVOne at 8PM EST. Please click here for more dates and airtimes.