Black celebrity marriages are making headlines this week: musical duo Ashford and Simpson’s for its endurance and Will and Jada Smith’s for its possible breakdown. How important are these relationships to the African American community?
Beautiful Songs Emerge from a Beautiful Relationship
When news broke that Nick Ashford, half of the renowned Motown songwriting duo Ashford & Simpson, died of throat cancer Monday at age 70, not only were the songs he wrote with his wife Valerie Simpson legendary, but so was their 38-year marriage.
The duo wrote some of Motown’s biggest hits for artists like Diana Ross, Marvin Gaye, and Chaka Khan, including “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” for Ross, “You’re All I Need To Get By” for Gaye and Tammi Terrell, and “I’m Every Woman” for Khan. They also wrote hits for themselves, the best known of which was “Solid As A Rock and, according to the Associated Press (AP), they are credited as co-writers on Amy Winehouse’s “Tears Dry On Their Own.”
Ashford and Simpson met in 1964 at Harlem’s White Rock Baptist Church, USA Today reported.
“They were always comfortable with each other and they made all of us comfortable, because they were comfortable,” Verdine White of Earth, Wind and Fire told AP. “The thing is they were married and working together, that was what was special about them. Everybody admired that.”
“Their love gave voice to Tammi Terrel and Marvin Gaye,” wrote Oretha Winston at Elev8. “When I was growing up that’s how I learned about the expression of love and true friendship. It was from listening to those songs.”
The Importantance of the Pinkett-Smiths
Will and Jada Pinkett-Smith’s marriage was in the news too, but only because of conflicting reports that it is in trouble.
Writer Morris W. O’Kelly waxed eloquent in The Atlanta Post on why Will and Jada’s marriage matters:
For whatever many and unfortunate reasons, marriage within the African-American community is the exception, not the rule. You bet, I’m rooting for Will and Jada. The husband is best known for a music and acting career in no way connected to misogyny, drugs and buffoonery. His millions aren’t tainted with the stain of calling women B****s and men N****s, year after year after year. It is what separates him from the likes of a Jay-Z, who at 41 is still as lyrically irresponsible as he was at 21, disrespecting the whole of Black people for a buck. Mind you, this is after his previous career as a drug dealer. It’s not about the money amassed, it’s about the responsibility accepted (or refused) along the way. Integrity matters. Her name is best known for co-starring in TV shows about African-Americans in college (of all things) and running a nursing staff and a host of movies in between the two. These facts speak to the importance of Will and Jada and their substantive contributions.
CHANGING PERSONAS: Tonéx in his earlier, more conservative look; Tonéx more recently as "B. Slade."
Part 1 of this series examined the coming out of Tonéx, viewed against a broad history of Christian music in general. Part 2 of the series examined the cultural definition of gospel music, and saw Tonéx as its first reality star.
Here in Part 3, we must dig deeper, ask harder questions, and more importantly, find solid answers. Extensive as it has been, this series was designed not as an exhaustive resource of definitive answers, but a series of solid ideas from which some of these questions can be answered.
If we’re honest and observant, we see the truth found in Scripture illuminated by what we see around us.
Not About Salvation, but Definition
Here is an important caveat.
Liberal theologians, gospel music fans, and critical readers might be tempted to attack this series as being overly judgmental. Some might feel that asking these kinds of questions is tantamount to questioning Tonéx‘s salvation. This accusation seems especially galling considering his church heritage.
But the issue is not eternal salvation. Hebrews 9:27 assures us that eternal judgment happens after a person dies, and it’s not our job to be the arbiter of such salvation. That is a matter between a person and the Almighty. And according to Romans 10:9, if a person confesses and believes, then they are saved. Based on that basic rubric, it seems Tonéx is a Christian.
But that doesn’t help us answer the question of whether his past, present or future musical offerings can or should be classified as Christian music.
See, in the most literal sense, there is no such thing as Christian music, and there never has been.
It impossible for an inanimate, intangible article of intellectual property to come to a saving relationship with Christ Jesus. A song can be no more Christian than a radio, a Frisbee, or a lawnmower.
So when we talk about Christian music, it’s important to have a clear definition of what we mean. Many of the common cultural clashes regarding music written and recorded by and for Christian people stem mostly from misunderstood terms and mismatched expectations.
In 1998, the Gospel Music Association issued a fourfold definition to address the issue of lyrics in songs to be nominated for their annual awards show. In order to be eligible, songs had to be:
• Substantially based upon historically orthodox Christian truth contained in or derived from the Holy Bible • An expression of worship of God or praise for His works; and /or • Testimony of relationship with God through Christ; and/or • Obviously prompted and informed by a Christian world view
Based on this criteria, a lot of the music that has been marketed as Christian would be excluded, which is why the GMA eventually rescinded this definition in favor of something less restrictive.
Nevertheless, when most people refer to “Christian music,” they are talking about music with lyrics that, regardless of style, meet one or several of these benchmarks.
Yet, these criteria are still subject to interpretation. Denominations and faith movements have been established, split, and evolved across generations over the particulars of what orthodox Christian truth is, or which ideas can safely be said to be prompted and informed by a Christian worldview.
And even if we agreed on all the particulars, how can we verify all of this in the context of a four-minute song?
In order to satisfy the requirements of nervous parents, youth pastors, and other evangelical gatekeepers, record labels always included biographical information in the press packets and liner notes of the artists they promoted. The idea was, if the lyrics of the songs didn’t convince you that the music was truly Christian, than details of their story could help nudge you off the fence.
But the problem with that approach is found in Romans 11:29, often cited as part of the doctrine of immutability, that God doesn’t change. In particular, this verse asserts that when God gives a gift, he gives it without possibility of being revoked. If He says it, He gives it, then it will come to fruition. Like the popular Tonéx lyric, it means that when it comes to His promises, “God Has Not 4Got.”
So if God has given someone an anointing to play an instrument skillfully, that anointing doesn’t necessarily leave just because the person is being disobedient in the particulars of how and when that instrument should be played. The King James Version renders that verse as saying that the gifts and callings are given “without repentance.”
We see this clearly as we survey the life of Old Testament patriarch David. The Bible refers to him as a man after God’s own heart, despite many documented examples of David’s disobedience. And the fact that the lineage of Jesus runs through the house of David shows that God kept his promises to David, despite the fact that David wasn’t always faithful to Him.
As it was then, so it is today.
The implications of this idea help explain why some evangelical figures start off ministering in prominence, but end up veering off the path of theological credibility. You can be anointed or gifted in a particular area, say, singing or preaching, and people might continue to respond well to that singing or preaching, regardless of what your actual message is. Though there are always consequences for sin, it’s possible for anointing or gifting to stay in effect despite errant belief or habitual patterns of sin.
This is a sobering thought, and though it shouldn’t result in a witch hunt, so to speak, it should give us pause to examine the messages in the so-called Christian music that many of us ingest, day after day.
With that in mind, consider some of the lyrics to a popular Tonéx slow-jam called “That’s When” from his O2 album (also available in Auto-Tuned, remixed, R&B form here):
All alone, sittin’ thinkin’ here by myself / contemplatin’ bout my life, chewin’ on my nails / Can’t afford to break down, gotta be a man / ain’t the richest guy around, but I do what I can / how it’s gonna go down, homie don’t ask me / I just pray to the Lord up above, in search of reciprocity / that’s when, that’s when you bless me / that’s when, that’s when you rescue / me from, the pain and the heartache / that’s when, that’s when
For a long time, this was one of my favorite Tonéx songs. The words, and the manner in which they’re sung, indicate a mature believer struggling under the weight of financial responsibility, holding out hope that God will provide.
Yet, if you look closely, there are signs of faith that are sincere, yet not quite Biblical. Consider the last line of the verse, “I just pray to the Lord up above, in search of reciprocity.”
Reciprocity is a relationship of mutual dependence or action or influence, or a mutual exchange of commercial or other privileges. You scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours. The use of this word right before the chorus implies that Tonéx expects, or at least desires, a reciprocal relationship from God. When he prays, the song suggests, God will answer with a blessing.
Yet, that’s not the typical relationship with God that we see on display throughout the breadth of the Scriptures.
So compared to most of the music that you hear on urban radio stations today, “That’s When” is wonderful. There is no crass innuendo, and it even mentions prayer. Yet, examined against the light of the Scripture, the song still fails to communicate the truth as completely as possible.
Fact is, it’s hard to derive a full and comprehensive Christian worldview from just one song, and one song shouldn’t have to represent the entirety of what an artist stands for. But this one song has many of the same characteristics as a lot of contemporary gospel music – vapid, churchy, positive-thinking clichés, formatted with catchy hooks and solid production value.
Which leaves the song, and a lot of songs like it, in a place of doctrinal limbo. It’s still probably better than listening to most contemporary R&B, but it falls short of communicating the truth of the gospel in an accurate and meaningful way.
Still More Questions
Measured against the fourfold (temporary) GMA definition of gospel music, some Tonéx songs are unabashedly gospel. Others, not so much. Much of his catalog, dare I say, most… is somewhere in the middle. And how we respond to his music depends a lot on our expectations and what we’re looking for.
So the questions remain:
What should those expectations be? How can we tell which songs are worth listening to for the purpose of edification, and which ones aren’t?
More importantly, how should listeners evaluate which songs and artists are worth listening to or investing in?
Stay tuned for the final installment of the Gospel Identity Crisis series.
CHANGING PERSONAS: Tonéx in his earlier, more conservative look; Tonéx more recently as "B. Slade."
In Part 1, we examined the meteoric rise and fall of gospel-singer-turned-pop-diva Tonéx. But is the Tonéx saga an aberration, or a sign of the troubling contradictions inherent in the Christian music industry?
California’s Proposition 8 bans marriage between same-sex couples. Now, in what he views as a logical followup to Prop 8, one California man is seeking to ban divorce in his state as well.
Defending his half-serious/half-satirical campaign, John Marcotte says, “Since California has decided to protect traditional marriage, I think it would be hypocritical of us not to sacrifice some of our own rights to protect traditional marriage even more.”
A Special UMI Promotional Feature
There’s a shortage of enduring love stories in the black community. And if the dismal statistics released by the U.S. Census Bureau, the Barna Group, and others hold steady, the decline of African American marriages will only continue. Currently, African Americans have t
he lowest marriage rate of any group in the United States (41 percent), and research has found that among those few that do marry, as many as 36 percent end their relationships in divorce. The numbers are bleak, but Christian marriage experts Drs. Clarence and Ja’Ola Walker believe there are steps Christian couples can take to ensure they build strong healthy marriages.
“We started a marriage enrichment group while we were engaged,” Ja’Ola Walker explains. “We got together with a group of friends who were all getting married around the same time and we started meeting once a month in each other’s homes, just looking at Scripture and what the Word had to say about marriage.”
Those meetings ultimately became the foundation for the Walkers’ new For Christian Lovers Only curriculum. The program, a DVD-based series, empowers African American couples of all ages to beat the odds against them through a highly interactive and contemporary approach to marriage counseling, incorporating quality Bible-teaching and culturally relevant topics and dramatic vignettes. In one of several skits included on the DVD, a husband and wife clash over financial issues in a context and tone that will be familiar to many urban couples. Other video segments feature the Walkers walking a group of couples — and viewers — through exercises and affirmations to strengthen their daily relationships. (Full Disclosure: The For Christian Lovers Only program is produced by UrbanFaith’s parent company, Urban Ministries, Inc.)
UrbanFaith spoke with the Walkers to find out how they’ve sustained their own marriage for 33 years, why they think Christian marriages are no more successful than secular marriages, and what they feel are the unique challenges facing African American relationships.
How did you meet?
DR. JA’OLA WALKER: We met in college. He was a junior when I was a freshman. There were 600 students and about 30 blacks, so it was kind of hard to miss the other black students. He was starting a gang ministry, and I decided to be a part of that ministry. From that we developed a friendship, and we started dating.
DR. CLARENCE WALKER: What I say about her now was true of her then: she combines the anointing of God with beauty and class. I picked that up, and I was smitten by her as a person. I proposed to her over the counter — she had a part-time job in the dining room. Everybody knew we should totally be together and get married, but I was dragging my feet because I had just come out of a relationship and needed time to get my head together. But her friend urged me to do it and I did it. I proposed to her right over dinner. Everybody was saying, “Please say yes so we can eat.”
What are some practical things you did early on to establish a solid foundation for your marriage and avoid temptation?
Ja’Ola: I traveled with him most of the time. He was an evangelist and would go from church to church. So I made it my business to be with him, and I made it my business to look good. He always introduced me and made a big deal about me, so it kind of put women on notice. And we also vowed that if there was any time he felt tempted, he was supposed to talk about it. I was always very aware of the women that were around him in a work situation and just watchful, prayerful. I did not live in the fantasy of “Oh, he’s a Christian; he would never do that.” He’s human. We were very realistic and up front with our feelings. And we made sure we had a flourishing, happy sex life. All those things helped to thwart temptations.
Clarence: The other thing that was helpful for me was to personally resolve that I would have a good marriage. I came from a broken family. I experienced the pain from that as a child and saw what happens when people violate the principles of marriage.
What has sustained your relationship from dating through marriage?
Ja’Ola: As a young woman I was very concerned about having God’s perfect will for my life. I wasn’t willing to just date anybody or sleep with anybody. We were both virgins when we got married, so we were serious at a young age. I think that made a difference. We both believed we got the person we were called and assigned to. There was no looking around.
Clarence: Also, the most important relationship a husband and wife can have with each other is best friends. You see that with the Obamas, for example. They love being around one another. We’re like that. The physical intimacy and all that stuff is the cherry on top, but the foundation is really becoming best friends.
Where do you see yourselves now as a couple?
Clarence: At this stage, we find ourselves now trying to teach others what we’ve learned and to model that for other couples. We’re very aware of how many people are watching us. It’s a lot of pressure in some ways, but they say we are their role models. So we’re in a mentoring stage of our life. We’re also dealing with some of the challenges that come with life-cycle changes. I’m realizing that I’m approaching another decade in my life, and I don’t have the energy I used to have. Marriage success is all about being able to be flexible with change and adjust to what life brings over the period of the marriage. Studies show that the more inflexible a marriage is, the more unlikely it is to last. So we’ve had all the financial situations, issues with kids, health issues, and we’ve had to make adjustments and God has enabled us to do that and continue on.
Why do you think Christian marriages are no more successful than secular marriages?
Ja’Ola: The main reason is because Christians have not used the word of God as their manual for marriage. We’re basically following the same models on television as everyone else. We’re watching the same soap operas and movies and movie stars and following the world. We’ve completely forgotten that marriage and sex were God’s idea. We’re following the world so we’re getting the world’s results.
Clarence: We’ve had a value shift, so we’ve become a product of the culture we’re in. We’ve been afraid to be counter-cultural and present a different model. That’s one of the reasons we called the curriculum For Christian Lovers Only. We are unapologetic about the title because we’re making it very clear that it is a Christian stand.
What are some unique challenges to marriage facing the African American community?
Ja’Ola: There are some cultural differences. For the first 20 years, we put our curriculum on tape because many in the African American community are more auditory in their learning style. Now we’ve converted it to CDs and DVDs. Also, we use a lot of humor and are keep things very practical and down to earth, to reach people where they are. We’ve added music and drama. We also deal with some of the issues we see specifically in the black community.
One of the things I teach on is how to talk to a black man, because there is a whole stereotype of black women and their communication — for example, the hand on the hip and the swiveling of the neck. We want to break through the stereotypes. We teach how to deal with strongholds in the African American community, because there are some things that have been passed from one generation to the next.
Have you noticed any gender-specific obstacles to marriage within black culture?
Clarence: The historical role of the African American woman for example, is very different from non-minority woman in this country given the history of African Americans in this country. What was done to destroy the family allowed the African American woman to emerge as the primary breadwinner, as the stronger force because of the process of breaking down the masculinity of African American men. That has lasted for generations, and there’s an extent to which it still exists today. One of the things we found out about the feminist movement, for example, was that it never attracted a lot of black women. You would think that would be the case by virtue of how strong black women have been perceived to be. But the issues for black women were never entirely the issues of their white counterparts. They wanted their men to step up to the plate. They were tired of being everything.
One of the challenges for African American males is overcoming the fallout of institutional prejudice and how it affects their relationships. Because they were denied access in the boardrooms, they tried to prove their manhood in the bedroom. So a lot of men tried to prove their manhood by having many kids — often when they couldn’t take care of those kids.
Generally, black families are more multi-generational. The African American grandmother plays a far more important role in the rearing of children than you might see in some of their racial counterparts. Being aware of those, we have tried to incorporate that into how we relate to our audiences.
What do you have to say to those who are single or divorced?
Ja’Ola: There is a place in all of our hearts that the Lord made for Him. We as women have a tendency to make men our gods. You see women who are brilliant, educated, beautiful, have money, and they’ll go find some guy out of jail who is beating on them and cheating on them. We’ll make these foolish decisions because we’re trying to fill that empty place in us with a man and he can’t fill it. Once you get married you realize even more so [a husband’s] not filling it. Whatever situation we’re in, we have to first start from a place of wholeness and understanding that ultimately it’s me and God; I have to allow Him to fill that emptiness.
Clarence: It is so important for single people to seek a relationship with God and seek His purpose. We have to know what the will of God is before God will send anybody; otherwise we’ll make that person an idol. That’s how I got to meet my wife. I was working with gangs. We developed a relationship based upon a mutual purpose God gave us — our mutual desire to please Him. And there is nothing more unifying in marriage than two people who are both seeking to do the will of God that He has assigned to them.
Dr. Ja’Ola Walker is certified in couples’ communication and parenting, and Dr. Clarence Walker is a certified marriage, family, and sex therapist. He also holds a doctorate in Biblical Counseling. The For Christian Lovers Only curriculum is designed to provide guidance in facilitating ministry for married couples. The program includes guidance on retreat sessions led by Drs. Clarence and Ja’Ola Walker via DVD and participant workbooks for ongoing home study. For more information, please visit UrbanMinistries.com.