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.

At Stellars, Trend Meets Tradition

A REASON TO SMILE: (from left) Co-host Dorinda Clark-Cole, Kirk Franklin, and co-host Marvin Sapp rejoice and dance at the 2012 Stellar Awards. (Photo: Rick Diamond/Central City Productions & The FrontPage Firm)

Despite how battles often rage between the traditional music of hymns and choir-based anthems versus the upbeat, secular-sounding groove of contemporary worship songs, artists from all facets of gospel music declared it a truce last week as they gathered for the 27th Annual Stellar Awards.

Newcomer VaShawn Mitchell took home the most awards, including Artist, Male Vocalist, and Contemporary Male of the Year. His 2011 album, Triumphant, won for Praise and Worship CD of the Year.

“It’s a great feeling when you know it’s God who stamped his approval on your turn,” he said soon after the show’s taping. Mitchell, who has worked with several heavy hitters in the gospel industry prior to his more recent popularity, said he had come to previous Stellar Award shows as a seat filler, a person designated to sit in prominent seats that are temporarily empty. “It’s amazing to see the process from being the seat filler to winning six awards.” That’s not something a person can do by himself, Mitchell said. “Only God can do it.”

And only He gets the glory for what you accomplish, said another newcomer, Jessica Reedy. A season 2 finalist on BET’s Sunday Best, Reedy said the whole purpose of singing gospel music was God himself. “If you want self-gain and you think your talent is all that, you might not want to do this because God will humble you,” she said during the show. “And when He humbles you, it doesn’t feel good.”

In most cases, it was clear that most — though not all — of the artists exhibited humility despite their successes. Kirk Franklin, who has received 25 Stellars along with numerous other honors for his work, picked up four awards for CD of the Year, Contemporary CD of the Year, Producer of the Year, and Song of the Year. The latter award, though, he shared onstage with Darius Paulk, songwriter for the song that Mitchell made popular, “Nobody Greater.”

“Just at that moment, it just felt right because [“Nobody Greater”] had ministered to me so much,” Franklin said. “It was important to acknowledge just the great body of work that it is.”

Franklin said he was thankful to still be a part of the gospel music community and that his music, which won Song of the Year in 1993 for “Why We Sing,” has an impact today. “I’m just glad (the music is) still speaking to somebody dealing with something that somebody may be facing.”

GREAT HONOR: "Nobody Greater" singer VaShawn Mitchell receives the Artist of the Year trophy from CeCe Winans at the Stellar Awards. (Photo: Rick Diamond / Central City Productions & The FrontPage Firm)

Other winners included well-known pioneers of gospel music the Rance Allen Group, who received two Stellars for Traditional Group and Quartet of the Year. Traditional performances by Richard Smallwood and Issac Caree from Men of Standard, paying tribute to choirmaster John P. Kee, underscored the enduring popularity of choral gospel music. Smallwood, who later said he thought his gift for songwriting had dried up after his mother’s death in 2005, performed a song from his latest album, Promises.

Kee, who cried during renditions of his hit songs, including “Standing in the Need of Prayer” and “He’ll Welcome Me,” received the James Cleveland Lifetime Achievement Award for his three decades of contributions to the gospel music industry. “When we really realize what this music is about, tonight meant a whole lot,” Kee said. “It not only showed what we’ve accomplished, but that there’s more to accomplish.”

A variety of artists said they were working on new projects and music-related ventures due out this year. Among them were Mitchell, Karen Clark-Sheard, Kurt Carr, and Artist of the Year nominee Earnest Pugh. Marvin Sapp, who co-hosted the show with Dorinda Clark Cole, is working on a book entitled, I Win.

As host, Sapp said the show turned out well and he encouraged people to tune in in their respective markets. “I was very pleased with the looks of the show. Tell everybody and their mama they should watch it.”

Beginning January 21, the award show will air in more than 130 markets through February 26. The GMC network will broadcast the awards nationally on February 11. Check for airdates in your area.


2012 Stellar Award Winners

Artist of the Year
VaShawn Mitchell

Song of the Year
“I Smile” | Kirk Franklin

Male Vocalist of the Year
VaShawn Mitchell

Albertina Walker Female Vocalist of the Year
Kim Burrell

Group/Duo of the Year
Mary Mary

New Artist of the Year
Y’Anna Crawley

CD of the Year
Kirk Franklin | Hello Fear

Choir of the Year
Mississippi Mass Choir

Producer of the Year
Kirk Franklin for Hello Fear

Contemporary Group/Duo of the Year
Mary Mary

Traditional Group/Duo of the Year
The Rance Allen Group

Contemporary Male of the Year
VaShawn Mitchell

Traditional Male of the Year
Smokie Norful

Contemporary Female of the Year
Kim Burrell

Traditional Female of the Year
Beverly Crawford

Contemporary CD of the Year
Kirk Franklin | Hello Fear

Traditional CD of the Year
Smokie Norful | How I Got Over: Songs that Carried Us

Urban Inspirational Single or Performance of the Year
VaShawn Mitchell | “Nobody Greater”

Music Video of the Year – Short Format
VaShawn Mitchell | “Nobody Greater” (VaShawn Mitchell)

Music Video of the Year – Long Format
Deitrick Haddon | Church on the Moon

Traditional Choir of the Year
Mississippi Mass Choir

Contemporary Choir of the Year
Shekinah Glory Ministry

Instrumental Gospel CD of the Year

Moses Tyson, Jr. | Music Remastered & Sacred Organ

Special Event CD of the Year

Bishop Paul Morton | Bishop Morton Celebrates 25 Years of Music

Rap, Hip Hop Gospel CD of the Year
Lecrae | Rehab: The Overdose

Children’s Project of the Year

Teen Pure N Heart | Pure N Heart Live

Quartet of the Year

The Rance Allen Group

Recorded Music Packaging of the Year
Martha Munizzi for Make It Loud (Martha Munizzi)

Praise and Worship CD of the Year
VaShawn Mitchell | Triumphant

Spoken Word CD of the Year
Selah | Look At You Loving Me


Major Market
KJLH 102.3 FM – Los Angeles

Medium Market
WLOU 1350 AM – Louisville, Ken.

Large Market
WHAL 95.7 FM/1460 AM – Memphis

Small Market
KOKA 980 AM – Shreveport, La.

Internet Gospel Radio Station of the Year, Chicago, IL

Gospel Announcer of the Year
John Hannah – WGRB, Inspiration 1390, Chicago, IL

America’s Choir

SOULFUL CELEBRATION: North Carolina's Salvation and Deliverance Church Choir during their finale-winning performance at the Verizon 2011 "How Sweet the Sound" choir competition.

At any mention of Verizon’s popular How Sweet the Sound choir competition to director Kristian Herring, you might as well tune up the Hammond organ for him to cut a step in praise for his choir’s recent win in the 2011 competition.

Judged on presence, technical merit and originality and interpretation, Herring’s Salvation and Deliverance Choir from Tarboro, North Carolina, was crowned grand finale winner and “America’s Church Choir” Oct. 28 in Los Angeles. The group won after three rounds of competition against groups nationwide by performing a rearranged rendition of “Hallelujah” from “Handel’s Messiah: A Soulful Celebration,” complete with a few surprises.

See the video here:

We talked to Herring just days after the competition and a whole year after the Salvation and Deliverance choir participated in the 2010 How Sweet the Sound but lost in the finale.

UF: To get as close as you did last year and not win, some people would’ve been discouraged. What motivated you to try again?

Let me tell you what that was. I was one of the ones last year that said, “I won’t do this again.” I thought we should’ve won because of what we presented, but maybe every director feels this way. But at the end of the last year, the Lord gave me what to prepare for this year. I was like, “What the Lord has given me, we must do this.”

It’s as if the Lord himself took over my mind and said, “Here’s some music …” It was surely amazing, and it’s definitely not me — definitely His inspiration.

UF: Who did the choreography? The arrangement?

Some of that came from the initial vision. My plight has been to never bore the audience. I just tend to use a lot of choreography. I think it makes for a great interpretation. The choreography is another form of expression.

One thing I tried to stay away from: gospel singers tend to sing classically or as if they’re in a choral choir. They’ll clasp our hands at the abdomen level, and that just gets me. Where did that come from? I tried to stay away from things that were common.

When we sang, “The kingdom of this world,” the music was a go-go style, so we did a go-go style of movement.

UF: Also, showmanship aside, there seemed to be clear evidence of a spiritual sacrifice of worship and praise. How did you maintain your focus on who you sang about in the midst of performing and preparing to perform?

I think that’s what makes us unique: We are a church choir. A lot of time, a lot of community choirs don’t have that same spirit. We know how to tap into that otherworldly realm, that’s what I call it, otherworldly realm that a lot of people don’t understand. We pray together, we fast a lot together. Can I tell you, that day of the competition, we had a worship experience in our dressing room.

One person started a song, “We give you all the glory (we worship you our Lord. You are worthy to be praised)…” And another person, it was that person’s sister, picked it up, but she didn’t hear when it started. It blew our minds when we talked about it afterward. She took over her sister’s song and didn’t realize it. It was just beautiful.

We’re always focused spiritually, but that deep worship that fell was atypical. So it was like God’s stamp of approval even more.

UF: What did it do for you when host Donald Lawrence restarted the praise after your performance? (‘Cause, basically, it was clear y’all just went in.)

SWEET REWARDS: Salvation and Deliverance choir director Kristian Herring (right) accepts the championship prize check from How Sweet the Sound host Donald Lawrence.

From there, it was on like popcorn. That’s what we needed. I kept trying to say to the choir: “None of this stuff is new to us, we do this all the time.” We sing classical music, we sing a capella, we sing in different languages, we can “take a song to church” if we need to.

I was saying, “Forget the choreography, y’all. Go to church!” So when Donald came out … I had to come out of my jacket.

From my college days, I cannot wear a choir robe. I just feel stiff. I cannot conduct in a choir robe, but even with a jacket — I just snatched it off. From there, we went to work (praising God and dancing) like we do on Sunday morning.

UF: What are the perks of winning, beyond the $25,000 and opportunities to sing?

To be VIPs at the Stellar Awards and the Super Bowl: (Pause). That’s my response: silence. Those were some musical rests. That’s when I really knew this was colossal. It’s just too good to be true. I was always saying, “I’m gonna go to the Stellar Awards. I’m gonna go” and never made it. Now, we’re going and we’ll be VIPs.

UF: Everybody always tries to play it cool, but were you a little star struck singing in front of judges Marvin Sapp, Shirley Caesar — who is, like, gospel royalty — and Israel Houghton?

Mervyn Warren, who actually arranged “A Soulful Celebration,” you know, the hallelujah chorus. I was extra nervous when I saw him in the hallway; I didn’t know he was gonna be there. When I saw him, Mervyn Warren, I got so nervous.

When I saw (the judges) stand up during our performance, that was the straw that broke the camel’s back.

BACKSTAGE HALLELUJAH: The Salvation and Deliverance choir members rejoice upon learning of their victory.

UF: What advice — technical or spiritual — do you have for choirs who may never minister on a national stage? What encouragement do you have for them?

To find your niche. When you concentrate on giving God your best, He’ll breathe on whatever you’ve got to give. That’s it.

Before we went to How Sweet the Sound, we went and sang at a small church. Our choir could’ve filled the whole church. As a matter of fact, it did. But we sang the way we sing everywhere. The pastor of that church, she got up and said, “You all sang here like you sing at the national competition.”

I don’t care if it’s two people in the audience, if you concentrate on touching a life and changing a future, God has no choice but to extend your borders. He will do it because He can trust you.

We will always give it 100 percent.