Lifting Up the Queen of Soul

Lifting Up the Queen of Soul


People are praying for Aretha Franklin in the Detroit church where her father was once a pastor.

The special vigil at New Bethel Baptist Church began before dawn Wednesday.

The prayers come one day after Stevie Wonder visited the ailing Queen of Soul at her home. Franklin’s ex-husband, actor Glynn Turman, also visited Franklin, who is seriously ill.

A person close to Franklin, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the person was not allowed to publicly talk about the topic, told The Associated Press on Monday that the singer is ill. No more details were provided.

The 76-year-old canceled planned concerts earlier this year after she was ordered by her doctor to stay off the road and rest.


Across social media, people are remembering the “Queen of Soul” and her impact and legacy.

The Missing X Factor

The Missing X Factor

“That’s alright now, take your time …”

Those time-honored words have emanated from the pews of black churches in America for decades. They are often uttered by the congregation in response to what is being presented from the pulpit or the altar. Depending on the deliverer, the inflection of his voice, and the temperament and maturity of the one for whom the words are meant, the phrase can take on a couple of different definitions.

The first part — “That’s alright now” — can either be considered a show of affirmation (a sort of verbal cosign), or it can come as an encouraging, nonjudgmental admonishment.

The second part — “take your time” — can either be a plea for one to slow down so that the congregation can savor what is being offered or it could be a gentle nudge coaxing one to slow down and take corrective measures as they may indeed be heading in the wrong direction.

One part of the church service where these words are often heard is the music ministry. From the first note belted by their beloved black church soloist, parishioners can be heard heralding choruses of “that’s alright, nows” and “take your times,” reveling in the sweet spirit that the note is invoking. The phrase can also be heard when the children come forth to make a joyful noise that is sometimes as equally proportioned with noise as it is with joy. When a young soloist or instrumentalist comes to present their weekly or quarterly musical offering, their presentations are usually far from flawless. To these young pieces of artistic clay, the choruses of “that’s alright nows” and “take your times” are welcome words of encouragement.

The youngster is usually keenly aware that their offering isn’t the most polished or pristine, but after hearing those words they are encouraged to not only continue but to persevere and strive to get better. These youngsters and their accompanying church families aren’t the only ones who have benefited from these words as it relates to the ministry of music.

The Crisis in American Music

Historically, the music charts have reaped the rewards of musicians who have cut their artistic teeth in the black church. Ray Charles, Sam Cooke, Aretha Franklin, and countless others got their start singing and playing before a black congregation. As a matter of fact, a significant number of black musicians have received part if not most of their early music training in the church. The black church has traditionally been both a training and proving ground for musicians. I would go so far as to say that all American music can trace its roots to the Negro Spiritual, and as such all American music and musicians in essence owe an artistic debt to the black church.

Let’s be honest, the majority of artists that occupy the top of the R&B and hip-hop charts today are not musicians at all. Most can’t play an instrument, and in the unusual case that they can, it’s often mediocre at best. A computer program, not a human being, is producing most of the music that we hear today. Why is this?

One of the main reasons is a lack of training. I believe that the lack of music training and the resulting lack of trained musicians in the black community today can be traced back to the failures of two institutions: public schools and the black church. We are painfully aware of what has transpired in American public schools. Dwindling resources, lack of funding, and shifting priorities have all but removed music and instrumental training from many public schools, especially those located in under-resourced urban communities.

And what does the black church have to do with the lack of trained musicians in the black community today?

Aside from the obvious benefits of exposing young people to a variety of different musical styles in worship, the church also can provide young musicians with the opportunity to hone their craft on a weekly basis in a nonjudgmental environment that offers unconditional encouragement. But sadly, today’s churches are offering fewer opportunities for young people to develop their musical skills.

Look around your average black church today and count how many “musicians” are actually playing on Sunday morning? Of those musicians, how many are under the age of 18? How many are playing traditional acoustic instruments where the musician himself is instrumental in making the sound? In fact, how many of today’s churches even have an acoustic piano?

Are you getting the picture? Now contrast that to a picture of the black church of yesteryear that spawned Ray Charles and Aretha Franklin.

Technology, the changing landscape of popular music, and the scarcity of qualified musicians coupled with supply and demand are responsible as well.  With the advent of digital music technology record companies and churches alike have found it economically advantageous to pare down the size and scope of “the band.” In the digital realm, one person can now do what used to take a team of people. Churches are now able to get the same sound from fewer musicians or no musicians at all through the use of digital instrumentation or digital tracks. This pervasive digital sound that permeates the R&B, hip-hop, and now the gospel music scenes can place a tremendous amount of pressure on churches to acquiesce to this standard in an attempt to stay relevant and meet budget.

Adherence to this new standard is not necessarily conducive to the development of a high level of musicianship and has resulted in fewer qualified musicians with the chops necessary to be effective in a dynamic church-music environment, which is why many of these coveted few musicians are being constantly shuffled from church to church, usually to the highest bidder.

The Church’s Responsibility

Now, let’s make it personal. Does your church provide opportunities for young soloists to share their gifts during the service at events other than the annual Christmas program?

When the black church gets back to its roots and recommits itself to sowing the seeds of training young musicians vocally and on traditional instruments, then I assure you that the church, the black community, and even the music industry will reap the benefits. No other institution can do a better job of providing children and teenagers with an opportunity to develop artistically, in an environment that gives them the foundation of encouragement needed to foster greatness.

We would all be closer to achieving greatness in whatever our particular pursuit in life may be if we had a regular opportunity to practice it and if we heard the words of folk who love us encouraging us when we mess up.

“That’s alright now, take your time!”

For the sake of today’s youth and the generations to follow, we should relish the privilege of sharing that advice every chance we get.

Revisiting the ‘Church of Oprah’

Revisiting the ‘Church of Oprah’

By now, everyone knows this is the final week of Oprah Winfrey’s iconic talk show. And anyone who saw Aretha Franklin sing during yesterday’s broadcast of Oprah’s farewell celebration from Chicago’s United Center knows that spirituality is inextricably tied to the Oprah experience. In recognition of her last week on the air, Christianity Today has re-posted journalist LaTonya Taylor’s classic, 2002 “The Church of O” feature story about this Oprah’s undeniable spiritual impact on our culture. A few compelling pieces from the article:

Since 1994, when she abandoned traditional talk-show fare for more edifying content, and 1998, when she began “Change Your Life TV,” Oprah’s most significant role has become that of spiritual leader. To her audience of more than 22 million mostly female viewers, she has become a postmodern priestess—an icon of church-free spirituality.

“Oprah Winfrey arguably has more influence on the culture than any university president, politician, or religious leader, except perhaps the Pope,” noted a 1994 Vanity Fair article. Indeed, much like a healthy church, Oprah creates community, provides information, and encourages people to evaluate and improve their lives.

Oprah’s brand of spirituality cannot simply be dismissed as superficial civil religion or so much New Age psychobabble, either. It goes much deeper. The story of her personal journey to worldwide prominence could be viewed as a window into American spirituality at the beginning of the 21st century—and into the challenges it poses for the church.

Check out the full article now at ChristianityToday.com.

Image from Wikipedia.

‘The Soloist’ Revisited

pop circumstance impactIt’s rare that I mention a movie twice, but I would be a total fraud if I didn’t encourage you to at least think about seeing The Soloist. Last week, after getting caught up in Jamie Foxx’s drama with Miley Cyrus, I almost skipped one of the best films released this year. Based on a true story, The Soloist is about Los Angeles Times columnist Steve Lopez (Robert Downey Jr.), who develops an unlikely friendship with a homeless man on Skid Row named Nathaniel Ayers (Foxx). While walking through the park, Lopez discovers Ayers and eventually learns that the musician is a former student of Juilliard who dropped out due to mental illness. I wouldn’t say the film is Oscar-worthy. Having spent time hanging with the homeless in Los Angeles, I was a bit put off by the film’s one-sided depiction of the people on Skid Row as drugged-out, crazy, and violent characters. However, the movie does spark an interesting question of what it means to unconditionally love a friend and the lengths we must go to help someone in need. Check it out, if only to watch a moving recitation of “The Lord’s Prayer” and sweeping shots of life on the streets.

‘Godfather of Gospel’ Passes

The Reverend Timothy Wright passed away on Thursday, April 24th at the age of 61, due to injuries sustained during a devastating car crash last July. That crash killed his 58-year-old wife Betty, as well as his 14-year-old grandson. Known to many as the “Godfather of Gospel,” Wright founded Grace Tabernacle Christian Center in the Crown Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn, NY. The Grammy-nominated singer most recently recorded the live album Jesus, Jesus, Jesus, featuring a song (the title track) written by his late wife. His son David Wright told the New York Daily News he is “glad his suffering is over. He was a great man of God and a great father.” Reverend Al Sharpton, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, and Governor David Paterson all expressed kind sentiments, calling Reverend Wright a monument and pillar to the community.

Queen of Soul, Ph.D.

She’s been called a living legend, an original diva, and the Queen of Soul. But now Aretha Franklin can add “Doctor” to her long list of titles. On May 24th, Brown University will present her with an honorary doctorate of music for the phenomenal contributions she has made to the music industry. For nearly 50 years and over 40 albums she has been the sound of soul music, and whether she’s singing “Respect,” “Amazing Grace,” or humming “Happy Birthday” while doing the dishes, her voice is the definition of gospel. Of course this isn’t the first time Franklin’s been recognized. In 2005, Franklin was given the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor. And who could forget her hat … I mean, her rendition of “My Country ‘Tis of Thee” at President Barack Obama’s inauguration?

And We Still Can’t Remember the Real Winner’s Name

The Carrie Prejean Watch continues. The tall blond who didn’t win the Miss USA Pageant, but who impressed lots of folks — and infuriated others — when she gave a respectful but politically incorrect answer to a question about gay marriage, is featured in a new television campaign launched this week by the National Organization for Marriage. Pageant officials for the Miss USA competition were quick to express their disappointment over her decision to lend her voice to such a “divisive and polarizing issue” while abandoning her platform of the Special Olympics. If their public disapproval wasn’t bad enough, now pageant directors are selling Prejean out by exposing the cosmetic surgery she had six weeks before the Miss USA competition. It’s getting ugly. Actually, out of all the press about Prejean, I found this post at Christianity Today‘s Her.meneutics blog last week to be particularly thought-provoking. The gist of writer Katelyn Beaty’s argument: With the evangelical media’s rush to celebrate Prejean’s defense of traditional marriage, have they conveniently forgotten that the Miss USA competition (unlike Miss America) is primarily driven by how sexy the contestants’ bodies look in their two-piece bathing suits?

The Clark Sisters Keep Bringing It

After serenading comedian Sherri Shepherd on The View last week for her birthday, the Clark Sisters are coming back to the small screen. The Grammy-winning gospel quartet is set to perform “Higher Ground” on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno, airing May 5th. The song appears on the new Oh Happy Day: An All-Star Music Celebration album, an interesting project from EMI Gospel records honoring the impact gospel rhythms have made on all forms of music, from hip-hop to country. The project pairs contemporary artists with popular gospel singers to remake gospel standards like “This Little Light of Mine” and popular radio hits like “A Change is Gonna Come.” Also contributing to the album are Mavis Staples, with singer-songwriter Patty Griffin, and Jon Bon Jovi, who collaborates with the Washington Youth Choir.

The Really Beautiful People

People magazine has released its “Most Beautiful People” list for 2009, and it’s no surprise that Halle Berry is back on the list at #2. Can someone just remove her from the running entirely or give her a lifetime beauty award? She should bow out of every future competition, like when Oprah decided to withdraw her talk show from Emmy consideration after winning every year. Other notable beauties on People‘s list this year are singer Ciara (#4), Slumdog Millionaire star Frieda Pinto (#7), 90210 actor Tristan Wilds (#14), and First Lady Michelle Obama (#12). I’ve always viewed People‘s “Most Beautiful” list as a chance to gauge the world’s current standard of “who’s hot.” But what if the list recognized a higher standard of beauty? Just think, we might get a special issue full of food pantry volunteers or women like sweet Mrs. Winslow from across the street who faithfully prayed for you every day when she saw you jumping rope in your front yard. Ah, but that would be horrible for magazine sales. Anyway, if you were compiling the “Most Beautiful” list, whom would you include?