The Queen

Albertina Walker leaves behind an incomparable legacy of gospel music artistry and unselfishness.
One of my favorite ways to entertain myself involves a combination of music history and network theory (the field of study that introduced the idea of “six degrees of separation” into popular culture). Basically, I like to think about an artist or musician, then figure out how many degrees of connection it takes to connect that person to another of a different generation, genre or style.

For example, here’s one way of connecting praise and worship artist Mary Alessi with the Clark Sisters:

Mary Alessi’s twin sister Martha Munizzi . . .
. . . has co-written songs with Israel Houghton . . .
. . . who was a member of Fred Hammond’s Radical for Christ . . .
. . . which Hammond founded after Commissioned . . .
. . . whose sound was patterned after the Clark Sisters.

So it’s possible to connect these artists within five degrees of separation. (Bonus points if you knew that Karen Clark-Sheard recorded Munizzi’s “Glorious” on her 2003 album The Heavens Are Telling, which gets you there within four degrees.)

I like this parlor game because it’s a great way to push the limits of gospel geekery in the company of fellow gospel music lovers. It’s a reminder of the different relationships and influences that exist between seemingly disparate artists and sounds. But it’s also a great way to identify the figures who had a genre-shaping, cross-generational influence on a musical form. Those names are the ones that come up, time after time.

Albertina Walker will certainly be remembered as one of those key figures.

Walker, who died last Friday at the age of 81, was known as the “Queen of Gospel Music.” No doubt one reason is her lifelong commitment to the music. Walker started singing at her Chicago church, West Point Missionary Baptist, at the age of four. As a 17-year-old, she joined “the Gospel Caravan,” a group of female singers who provided backing vocals for gospel singer Robert Anderson. A few years later, Walker formed the Caravans, one of the most influential groups of gospel’s golden age.

“Robert was retiring, and . . . I didn’t want to record by myself,” Walker said in an interview taped for Malaco’s Gospel Legends DVD Collection. “I always wanted to sing with a group.” So she convinced her record label to allow her to record with a group of young women who she called “The Caravans.” James Cleveland, later to be known as “the King of Gospel Music,” accompanied the group for many years.

The Caravans’ “Tell Him What You Want,” “Lord, Keep Me Day by Day,” “You Can’t Hurry God,” “The Blood Will Never Lose its Power,” “No Coward Soldiers,” and “You Can’t Beat God Giving” are the kinds of songs that become deeply rooted in church life, whether or not members of a congregation are aware of their origins. (Gospel music historian and radio announcer Bob Marovich recently dedicated a special broadcast to Walker and the Caravans that is an excellent introduction to their discography.)

As a soloist recording after the Caravans disbanded, Walker brought her easy contralto to widely known songs like “Please Be Patient with Me,” (1979) “I Can Go to God in Prayer” (1981), and “I’m Still Here” (1997). A slew of honors, including a Grammy, 11 Grammy nominations, four Stellar Awards and multiple Hall of Fame inductions testify to her impact on the industry. And no one will forget her regal, rhinestone-studded sunglasses — emblematic of a distinctive level of church-lady fashion sense many will attempt, but few will attain.

While all of these honors make a strong case for Walker as gospel royalty, I’m most intrigued by something that leads back to network theory: Almost all of the biographical information I’ve read about her — and many of the obituaries that have been posted since Walker’s passing — note that she is known for developing others through the group. Indeed, in addition to Cleveland, Shirley Caesar, Inez Andrews, Dorothy Norwood and Delores Washington were all part of the Caravans before they disbanded in the late 1960s. One of gospel’s early “supergroups” came about because Walker was willing to step back, and let someone else shine. And those gospel stars made room for others, with the result that all of their musical legacies — built through webs of connection — have grown by degrees.

In his entry on the Caravans in his book Uncloudy Days: The Gospel Music Encyclopedia, Bil Carpenter writes that “Walker, a shrewd leader, recognized that her voice wasn’t always the best fit for every song and she routinely showcased the talents of others.” Historian Horace Clarence Boyer notes the distinctive way the Caravans employed the “swing lead” technique in an early performance of “Stand By Me”: While in most performances soloists might trade lead during each verse, in this one, the women of the group shared the lead role, switching between leads to complete a line.

It isn’t wise to idealize anyone, and Ms. Walker certainly wasn’t perfect. But I think there’s something instructive about her story.

She was a magnificent singer, but she felt no need to hog the spotlight or impose her considerable talent on a song the way some artists might these days. Her Albertina Walker Scholarship Foundation for the Creative and Performing Arts, with its annual benefit concerts, raised lots of money to help young people achieve their dreams. And though she battled asthma and emphysema, she continued performing until the end. “The Lord lets me sing,” she told the Chicago Tribune in 2004. “The only time I’ll stop is when the Lord says.”

Walker will be remembered as one of the greats, the “Queen” indeed. But she was much more than a gospel diva. She was a servant to her art, to her community, and to her God. She didn’t just sing “I’m Willing“; she was. She wasn’t just entertaining audiences when she declared, “You Can’t Beat God Giving“; she gave.

Photo from Wikipedia.

More Tiana Drama

pop circumstance impactYou’ve got to wonder if Disney is starting to have second thoughts about producing a film with an African American princess. A few weeks ago we told you about the drama surrounding the upcoming release of The Princess and the Frog, a new animated film featuring Disney’s first black princess. Well, people still aren’t quite sure what to do with Princess Tiana.

First there was a bit of hubbub over her name and occupation, which were ultimately changed from the supposedly slave-sounding “Maddy” the maid to “Tiana” the chef. Then, as The New York Times reports, there’s the controversy over setting the fairy tale against the backdrop of New Orleans and the fact that the story finds Tiana (spoiler alert) spending ample screen time as an amphibian. Now TheRoot.com has raised the conversation to a whole new level, questioning whether we need another princess in the first place. Writer Monique Fields muses, “Whatever in the world do princesses do? More importantly, how do they get paid? Real life is not a fairy tale, and few folks live happily ever after. So just what are we telling our girls when we dress them up in frilly dresses, dust them with makeup, and put glitter in their hair before they really know who they are?”

While we can grant that some girls do get stuck in the princess narrative, spending their lives searching for Prince Charming, doesn’t it feel a bit like Fields is missing the point? The fantastic nature of these stories quite intentionally inspires a sense of whimsy in young women. Girls are supposed to be left asking what if a pumpkin wasn’t just a pumpkin? And what if people weren’t always what they seem? In that world, a frog might be a prince. Candlesticks might actually dance. Perhaps something good we can’t see or touch or hear is moving all around us all the time. Besides, Disney has never pretended to peddle realism.

Whose House? Run’s House

Just when it felt like the only black family on television lived in the White House, Rev Run and the rest of the Simmons family are back for a sixth season of Run’s House on MTV. Catch the premiere episode on Monday night (10 p.m. ET/PT) when the family takes us on their Hawaiian vacation. We’re curious to see if this will be the episode where Rev Run and his wife Justine deal with their son’s recent arrest or if we’ll have to wait until later in the season to see how JoJo is punished. The oldest son from Rev Run’s first marriage and aspiring rapper, Joseph “Jo Jo” Simmons, was arrested last month for drug possession and resisting arrest but was quickly released on his own recognizance. Guess we’ll have to wait and see. Until Monday, check out the following preview for the new season:

Carrie Prejean: The Final Chapter?

It looks like the Carrie Prejean saga may finally come to an end. On Thursday, Donald Trump and Miss California USA pageant officials officially fired the Miss USA contestant citing failure to uphold her contractual duties. Despite Prejean’s insinuation that the decision was made because of the political controversy surrounding her stance on same-sex marriage, Keith Lewis, the executive director of Miss California USA, tried to remain clear that Prejean’s termination had nothing to do with her beliefs. “This was a decision based solely on contract violations including Ms. Prejean’s unwillingness to make appearances on behalf of the Miss California USA organization,” he stated. Prejean told TMZ.com she was “shocked,” which left us wondering if she’s the only person who didn’t see this coming. The entire state of California is embroiled in a heated debate over gay marriage with the passing of Proposition 8 last November and the recent decision of the California Supreme Court to uphold the ban on same-sex marriage. After publicly taking such an unpopular position on the gay marriage issue, and further aggravating the situation by joining forces with the National Organization for Marriage, was she really surprised that pageant officials leaped at the chance to let her go? It’s a shame she may not have carried out her responsibilities faithfully, at least for the sake of being above reproach. Did all the attention from traditional marriage supporters go to her head? In any event, this now gives us time to get reacquainted with that other statuesque blond. You know, the one who actually won the Miss USA pageant. If only we could remember her name.

Obama’s Gospel Tribute

When President Barack Obama starts jonesing for a little musical entertainment, all he has to do is say the word and the line of A-list singers ready to serenade him stretches from the White House to the Washington Monument. But as of Tuesday, President Obama’s access to instant personal entertainment just got even easier. On Tuesday, Central South Distributors released a special tribute CD to honor the first African-American POTUS called A Gospel Tribute to President Obama. The album features Israel Houghton, Juanita Bynum, and Donnie McClurkin, among others. In a tribute to First Lady Michelle Obama, Kelly Price and Shirley Murdock also appear, singing “The Curtain’s Raised.” Check out the CD at Amazon or ilovegospelmusic.com.

Facebook’s Taking Names

For all the Facebook addicts out there, get your fingers ready. On Saturday at 12:01 a.m. the popular social networking site will allow users to claim their own personal Facebook usernames and URLs. With a potential 200 million people competing simultaneously to stake a claim in cyberspace by snatching up their own name, you’re going to need to type fast if you want to be able to “own” www.facebook.com/YourNameHere. We’re not exactly tech savvy enough to know what all this means, but we’ve heard that The Daily Beast is comparing this massive domain grab to the Oklahoma Territory land run of 1889, minus the horses and dust. If you are on Facebook, be sure to become a fan of UrbanFaith. We promise we won’t poke.

Princess and the Frog still shot: Disney.

Solo Power

israel red

Israel reinvented his sound for his new solo album, The Power of One. But he brings it strong, with the same passion for praise and worship.

From the moment he says hello, I can tell Israel Houghton’s probably wearing his trademark (PRODUCT) RED Converse sneakers. There’s that unmistakable twinkle in his voice. He sounds like a man wearing red shoes — a little too happy, like he’s up to something. But maybe he’s just giddy — after all he does have a lot to be happy about these days. Since his new album, The Power of One, debuted at number one on March 24th, he’s been in demand by everyone from TBN to Ebony. People are saying it’s Israel’s moment.

And they’re probably right. After a string of live albums with his gospel ensemble New Breed, this new solo studio venture from Israel isn’t just a good Christian album; it’s a good album. People have long praised the ability of Israel & New Breed to push contemporary Christian music forward into a multicultural sound. But this latest effort is more aggressive than those albums. Whereas New Breed projects have a distinct sound that appeal to a multi-ethnic audience of worshipers, The Power of One is itself multi-sonic, rolling from rock to reggae to urban and traditional gospel on hit after hit (check out the Blues Brothersinspired video for the single “Just Wanna Say” below to hear what I’m talking about). In that sense, The Power of One is almost a better illustration of diversity. Each song is so uncompromisingly niche that there’s no loss of the unique sonic identities of each track, and yet each song complements the next. I tell Israel I’m proud, like I’m his mother and he just brought home all A’s.

“Well thank you for that,” he laughs. Twinkle, twinkle. “That’s kind of you to say. I’ve really enjoyed the creative process of this record. I have to be honest, I expected a little more ‘we don’t understand why you didn’t do a live record’ response, or, ‘how come a few of these songs don’t feel like the typical thing?’ Instead it’s been met with an overwhelming sense of freshness; the response has been kind of scary positive.”

Israel’s referring to the fact that The Power of One has remained on the Billboard charts for six weeks, peaking at number one on the Top Christian & Gospel Albums chart. Fueled by a genius marketing program, complete with a custom iPhone application, and the residual momentum from his involvement in the CompassionArt charity project, The Power of One isn’t going anywhere soon. Israel seems okay with that. He’s been itching to lengthen his leash on New Breed for a while now.

“I felt like we did three records in a row that were very similar: Another Level, Alive in South Africa, and A Deeper Level. They were good, and I really loved that there were a lot of songs between those three records that have become a part of church culture and helping worship teams,” he explains. “However, I didn’t want to get stuck in that particular wheelhouse and say this is what I always, always, always do. I felt that I needed to challenge myself a bit–still lyrically and conceptually putting in songs that help people sing along, declare their faith and connect with God. But at the same time I wanted a different vehicle. It’s sort of like I’ve been driving a certain car for a while, and I wanted to try something different.”

In other words, it’s time to grow. And though he’s trying out new sounds, Israel is keeping his heart focused on ministry. When you speak with him, you can tell why; loving people is his gift. After ten minutes on the phone, I can’t help but start confessing my own issues, launching into a rant about my passion for racial reconciliation. He listens patiently and offers a few tips on building a diverse church.

“First of all it can’t just be a passion that you want to be cross-cultural. There has to be something in you that says not only do we want to be cross-cultural, but also we want to be cross-cultural because we know that’s the kingdom of God. We understand that when we get to heaven, there’s not a white section or black section,” he laughs. “There is heaven, and there is all the earth with every tribe, nation, tongue, skin tone and background coming together. And so if we’re saying let it be on earth as it is in heaven right now, then we’re essentially saying let’s figure out what the heart of God is all about.”

Israel knows a thing or two about racial reconciliation. He’s not just waxing poetic. For years he’s been the worship leader for America’s largest mega church at Pastor Joel Osteen’s Lakewood Church in Houston. Plus, Israel is biracial, and having been raised in a predominantly Spanish-speaking neighborhood of San Diego, he’s been a cultural bridge-builder since his childhood. Through the years of his ministry, he’s witnessed practical steps to creating a diverse congregation. Naturally, he begins with music.

“I think you have to look at that [worship music] and ask can we mix it up,” he challenges. “New Breed is all about that. We’ve been together 10 years now, and we are very intentional about putting something in it for everyone. Every record we do, we make sure everybody — regardless of their background — can find themselves involved.”

Power Source: As an artist and a worship leader, Israel believes it’s important to “mix it up” as far as musical styles go. “We are very intentional about putting something in it for everyone. We make sure everybody–regardless of their background–can find themselves involved.”

But it’s not just a matter of Steven Curtis Chapman versus Fred Hammond. Diversity has to start at the top. “The other thing I’ve seen work really well is to have a staff pastor who looks different than you, who comes from a different background than you and who is very visible to what’s going on. That’s a very practical but very powerful way to say, ‘Hey, we’re walking this out from the top down.’ I’m sure there are many more, but I’m not an authority on it. I think there really just has to be a love for people regardless of where they’re from.”

It’s these kinds of small structural changes that Israel is discovering lead to powerful results. That’s why he loves the (PRODUCT) RED campaign, which utilizes the consumerism of our culture to enable people to support charities through everyday purchases. He appreciates justice built into the foundation. Similarly, Israel’s involvement with CompassionArt emanated from that same desire to go beyond one-off donations of money to a good cause and build charity into the core of a project from the start.

“We agreed up front that all proceeds — every last dime of whatever songs we wrote in that particular timeframe — would go to this charity trust that would last forever. For the life of the songs, whatever ancillary things come out of the project will all go to this cause,” he explained. Essentially he and the other artists are seeding their income for years to come.

“We’ve come to find out that it’s completely unprecedented in the music business; not just the Christian music business, but the music business period. The idea has never been done and never been accomplished on that grand of a scale.” But moving into uncharted territories is the M.O. for Israel’s life right now. As the bubble of opulence and plenty bursts in America, causing many people to give less and focus inward, Israel feels more compelled than ever to turn outward and love others. Thankfully, the weight of the world’s need hasn’t left him discouraged.

“One of the things that keep me from getting discouraged is realizing that in my scaled down state because of the economy, I am still so excessive. Even if it came down to I had one pair of shoes and one change of clothes, but I had a roof over my head and I had a way to drive to where I needed to go, I’m considered one of the wealthiest people in the world based on that. When you can go to Haiti, Honduras, Botswana, Zimbabwe or Jakarta and see real poverty, it’s like, ‘Oh wait, I don’t know why I’m complaining.’ It’s a bit of a sliding scale when you get it.”

And perhaps that’s the secret to the twinkle of joy in Israel’s voice — he gets it.

Behind the calm demeanor and raspy voice that sounds like silk on wax is a strength that can only come from knowing he’s blessed beyond measure. And with the overflow of provision in his life, Israel is doing what he can to bless others. It’s the power of one who understands that God is the source of his success.