Yes, We Rock!

Yes, We Rock!

A week ago, I was reminded of something that I didn’t realize I needed to be reminded of. I’m a Christian, so I know that I am loved, that I was created with and for a purpose, that I have power available to me that doesn’t come from this world. But as a Christian black woman, I was reminded that I also rock.

I haven’t had cable television for years, so this was my first time watching the BET broadcast of the Black Girls Rock! awards event. And when I saw previews for the show, old questions like those that have been asked since the initiation of Black History week-later expanded to Black History month-crossed my mind. Questions like, Is this type of show really necessary? If white women televised an event called “White Girls Rock,” blacks would go crazy and call it racist. Isn’t this kind of show racist, too? And finally, any recognition of girls and women automatically includes black girls, so why should the whole society have to especially recognize black girls?

On a more personal level, I wanted to form a faith-based opinion of both the movement and the show that would be airing. So I asked myself, Is it okay for me, as a Christian woman, to accept a recognition and celebration of something created specifically to honor just women of color, particularly black women? Is this an exclusionary event, and what’s the right way to think about it?

Furthermore, I must admit to a little stereotypical thinking. Was everyone going to look like an audition prospect for a Lil Wayne video? If so, I was definitely not interested. So I felt some hesitation. But I am so glad I did watch.

The power of the show comes from the purpose of the movement. Black Girls Rock! was started by former model and DJ Beverly Bond as a way to “build the self-esteem and self-worth of young women of color by changing their outlook on life, broadening their horizons, and helping them to empower themselves.” Her organization does this by exposing girls age 12-17 to diverse arts-based experiences including writing, Broadway performances, and a workshop that teaches DJ’ing skills and techniques. Back in 2006 when she started BGR, Ms. Bond was concerned about young black girls’ likely inability to process and resist the onslaught of negative media images of themselves, and the consequences they were vulnerable to because of that inability. Five years later, Black Girls Rock! has evolved into a meaningful brand which includes the awards telecast.

Check out the video below for background on the movement’s history:

Everything about the show reflected not only BGR’s purposes to uplift and inspire, but also Ms. Bond’s personal commitment to integrity, a visual ethic, and dignity. The overarching themes of strength and resilience were strikingly displayed in Mara Brock Akil’s characterization of black women as those who never give up, and her entreaty to us to make our voices heard in all kinds of conversations at every level in society. This was echoed in Angela Davis’ Icon award acceptance speech in which she challenged black girls to imagine themselves part of a community of resistance. Jill Scott’s bold performance of “Womanifesto,” Estelle’s haunting “Thank You” to a former lover, and Mary Mary’s vibrant  remake of “Keep Your Head to the Sky” were part of a memorable soundtrack of the evening.

What pulled the whole experience together for me was the segment highlighting the role of faith in helping black girls experience the strength and resilience they are being encouraged to develop. Seeing Shirley Caesar accept the Living Legend Award resonated with me as a Christian and helped answer my questions about possible conflicts between the movement and the Christian faith.

My hesitations are eased because I see that while this effort to specifically empower black girls and women could possibly be portrayed as a misguided and exclusionary attempt to engender feelings of superiority, it is actually just the opposite. It challenges the exclusionary rhetoric of superiority by strengthening the self concept of those being excluded as inferior, and elevating equality as the basis of inclusion. In fact, this movement could be especially game-changing for Christian women of color by helping us re-frame our identity so that we include ourselves among those creations of God which He called “good,” rather than how others image us. It actually puts ethnicity in perspective. Ethnicity and color are means to an end, not ends unto themselves. They are ways to show the glory, beauty, and wisdom of God; to demonstrate the truth of His claim that He uses the things considered weak in the world’s eyes to shame those who consider themselves mighty (1 Cor. 1:27); and to prove to us that because He has overcome the racism, prejudice, misperception, and oppression of the world, we can too (John 16:33).

So to all the black girls and women out there who love and serve the Lord Jesus Christ, yes, we rock too!

If you’d like to encourage a girl or woman of color you know who rocks, give her a shoutout by listing her name in the comments section below.  

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.

King of the Big Screen?

pop circumstance impactThe children of America’s greatest peacemaker, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., are once again squabbling over the rights to their parents’ estate. Following DreamWork’s announcement that Steven Spielberg would produce a biopic of King’s life, it came to light that only one of the three surviving siblings, Dexter King, actually gave permission to the studio. The others now say the sale of these rights is invalid. What a shame. As of now, DreamWorks says it will not move ahead with the project until all the King siblings are on the same page.

If the film does actually make it into production, we’re curious about who Spielberg will get to play the starring role. Sean Smith at Entertainment Weekly is throwing Jeffrey Wright’s name in the ring. You’ll remember him from Casino Royale (Felix Leiter), Cadillac Records (Muddy Waters), and W (Colin Powell). He delivers strong performances in all of his flicks and even played King in the 2001 HBO movie Boycott. He could be a great choice, but to be honest, the pickings are slim. All of the standby black male leads like Denzel Washington, Will Smith, or Forrest Whitaker aren’t right for the role, either due to age or body type. Perhaps this will be the career-making breakout role for an emerging black actor with little notoriety. We want someone who can allow us to sink into King’s life, evoking the aura of the great preacher, without the ghosts of his previous roles haunting the screen.

Idol Thoughts

By now, you’ve probably heard about 23-years-old church worship leader Kris Allen’s win on American Idol. Though he clearly lacked the crowd appeal of competitor Adam Lambert, past crowd-pleasing winners have taught us an important lesson: American Idol viewers don’t always translate into CD buyers. Last year’s winner David Cook has experienced only minor success despite his popularity and talent. The question now is what kind of album will Kris Allen make? Will the support of Christians that likely pushed him to the top on Idol ultimately help or handicap Allen artistically as he goes to work on debut album? Time will tell.

‘Game’ Over

In case you’d forgotten how old you’re getting, this past week marked the 25th anniversary of The Cosby Show. Most of the cast celebrated with a reunion on the Today Show on Tuesday. However, celebration over the inroads African Americans have made on television was short-lived for some fans as news surfaced Thursday of the CW network’s cancellation of The Game and Everybody Hates Chris. While the content of both shows lacked the strong moral character of The Cosby Show, sometimes reinforcing negative stereotypes of the black community — The Game‘s Wendy Raquel Robinson’s colorful “ghetto hustler” persona and the ongoing baby mama drama storyline between Tia Mowery (Melanie Barnett) and Pooch Hall (Derwin Davis) are examples — many African Americans were just happy to see black actors on television in lead roles that offered realistic portrayals of African American life. UrbanFaith’s own Nicole Symmonds broke down the lack of multi-dimensional black characters on television for us at her Loudmouth Protestant blog, saying she doesn’t think the CW is prejudiced, just shortsighted. The network “does well at depicting the many faces of white America while giving black America short shrift. We exist!” Is there any positive urban programming left on television? What are you watching these days?

Ciara’s ‘Mama’ Drama

The drama surrounding pop and R&B singer Ciara’s controversial change in management has extended to the release of her film debut in the gospel movie Mama, I Want to Sing! Back in 2007, websites like BlackVoices were buzzing about Ciara’s starring role opposite Patti LaBelle and Lynn Whitfield. But since the studios originally had hoped to piggyback off of Ciara’s album promotion, when the record label delayed Fantasy Ride‘s release the studios were forced to push back the film as well. Now FoxFaith and CodeBlack have scrapped plans for a movie theater release, sending the film straight to DVD this August or September. We sure hope the movie’s worth all the trouble. Mama, I Want to Sing! is the longest-running off-Broadway black theater musical in history, about a preacher’s daughter who leaves the church choir to become an international pop star. The original stage play was written by Vy Higginsen and loosely based on her sister Doris Troy’s rise to fame.

From Beyoncé to Smokie

BET has released the nominees for the 2009 BET Awards, set to air live on June 28th at 8 p.m. ET/PT. We’re sure all the usual suspects will appear, like Beyoncé and Kanye West who are both scheduled to perform. But we’re more interested in the gospel music category, as its always telling to find out who’s garnering the most attention in the secular music arena. Nominees for Best Gospel Artist include Regina Belle, Smokie Norful, Shirley Caesar, Trin-I-Tee 5:7, and Mary Mary. It’s nice to see Smokie Norful and Trin-I-Tee 5:7 getting some love, as both were passed over for Dove Award nominations. Who do you think should win the category?

DMX the Televangelist?

While finishing up a 90-day jail sentence for drugs, fraud, and animal cruelty, rapper DMX told reporters about plans to start his own Christian TV show called Pain and Perseverance. He said, “It’s about how I can reach people that the average person can’t reach because I’m grounded. I’m going to give my first sermon, in the church. That’s going to be incredible for me and hopefully the congregation of that church.” This isn’t the first time DMX has talked about going into ministry. Back in March 2003, he toyed with the idea of retiring from rap, but eventually decided to continue his career after seeking advice from born-again rapper Mase. “I talked to Mase. I said, ‘Dog! I’m fed up with this rap sh–. I know the Lord. I know my true calling is to preach the Word, where do I go from here?’ He was like, ‘As long as the Lord gives you the talent to do what you do, do it. He’ll call you when he’s ready.'” Fast forward a few years and X was back to battling the demons of drug use and other criminal activity from his past. But maybe now DMX is ready. God’s clearly had a hold on his life for some time, as X often talks about his strong desire for a deeper relationship with Christ and a hunger for his Bible. We want to give him grace and trust that he’s serious this time. But we’ll believe it when we see it.