Stars in My Black and Blue Sky
One of the things I’ve always appreciated about Adam is his understanding of real diversity. It’s one of the reasons I love him like I do. He gets it that diversity means so much more than ethnicity, gender or sexuality. You know that recent photo of him with all of his stage performers? It was great to see the broad spectrum of diversity so purposefully in action. No matter who you are, you’ll see something about yourself up on his stage. For some of us who are black women, especially larger black women, and who don’t see a lot of ourselves reflected in the entertainment industry, it’s more gratifying than you can imagine. Not only does it show that somebody “sees” and accepts us, it says that our dreams can come true, too.
Lately there’ve been some questions and comments about the back-up singers Adam has chosen. I’ve been hesitant to write about this because it hits home in more ways than one. You maybe can imagine my immediate response.
First off, please don’t see this as me being some kind of overall expert about these things. It’s just that, being a large, black woman who sings church music, I have a perspective that readers might find interesting, maybe even insightful. Maybe even helpful.
Secondly, know that the concept of “gospel” has been broadened to include many types of the music sung in churches. What most people think ties them together is the ability to “bend” notes and do runs and riffs, the kind that we’ve sometimes heard from Adam, some authentic enough to elicit “amens” and church waves during GNT.
What’s a “church wave”? It’s sort of like the gesture you make when you’re trying to get someone to go away, only with the hand extended out directly in front of you and going down instead of sideways and up. It definitely does not mean “go away”; in fact it means exactly the opposite! It’s often accompanied by something spoken, like “Go on, boy (or girl), sang dat song” with a serious look of approval and looks around to affirm that others are feeling the same way you are. (I must add that another black Glambert and I compared notes after the GNT concert we’d just attended, falling on each other as if long-lost sisters because we were so glad to see someone else like ourselves. We each admitted to an “amen” and a church wave at the same point during the concert and the looks of confusion we got when we looked around at other, non-black fans! Oh, well.)
As I’ve read the questions and comments about the back-up singers, there seemed to be four things that came up. These are in no particular order. They appeared to be (1) the women’s size, (2) the replacement of one by another, (3) their ability to sing and (4) the musical background they may have come from. I want to address all of these, again in no particular order and probably with some overlap. I will, though, try to address all four, again solely (soul-ly? <grin>) from my own perspective.
Yes, the commenters are right. There is a stereotypical view of black female gospel/church singers as being dark-skinned, overweight/obese and capable of shouting out praise when they sing. But remember, this is a stereotype. It’s been held over from a long time ago. Yes, there are a number of these singers but they by no means capture the variety of female artists who sing church music today. Think of Helen Baylor, CeCe Winans and Cynthia James among others. I know, you’ve probably never heard of them but they are known by many of us who sing solos in churches. (Two of them, like myself, have “smaller” voices that are just as effective at conveying a message.) You have heard of Aretha Franklin, Whitney Houston, Natalie Cole and Gladys Knight, small-to-medium sized women (RIP, Whitney) who, early on, came out of churches into the world of pop music. Check them out on YouTube. A great one to watch is Natalie and Whitney singing “Bridge Over Troubled Water” together. You’ll definitely hear the traditional black church style. You’ll also notice that, although Whitney uses more of it, Natalie, whose style is different, keeps up with her with no problem. Here’s the video:
All of these women can make their congregations and concert audiences feel something deep within. Some do the bent notes, runs and riffs, some don’t. What they have in common is that ability to reach into your soul. A lot of black singers, with all kinds of styles, male and female, come out of the church, but not necessarily gospel, experience. I was born and raised a Presbyterian. I don’t sing traditional gospel, I sing inspirational and contemporary Christian music—in churches, anyway– plus, I can sing the alto line of Handel’s “Hallelujah Chorus” from memory! Again remember that I’m “a large black woman who sings church music.”
As to the size issue, have you seen the polls verifying that black women are more comfortable with our bodies than white women are with theirs? Many black men prefer “a little meat on our bones,” as the well-known saying goes. And I could go into detail about the “grocery deserts” throughout poorer neighborhoods in this country. Yes, I know there are more white people on food stamps than black people (check the USDA website for the stats on food instability) but a larger percentage of black people live in poverty and in communities without nearby grocery stores. There the majority of food sources are fast-food outlets, with their salt, sugar and fats. Sources of healthier food are scarce there. And less-expensive farmers’ markets don’t tend to be conveniently located to poor neighborhoods.
Just thought I’d try to bring a little light to the subject of healthy eating, that’s all. Maybe some offers of a ride to the farmers’ markets through a local nonprofit would help?
I especially wanted to address the comment about Adam’s replacing one back-up singer with an almost visually-identical substitute. I found this one really hard to read and I don’t think I’m the only black person out there who would. The two current back-up singers might have that same response, who knows? It harkens back to “you all look alike.” Just on the surface, think of the difference between them. Think of traditional caramel and traditional fudge. They obviously don’t look alike. The difference between the complexions of the new and the former back-up singer are obvious, too. For instance, like the new singer, I’m much more caramel than fudge, and still I’m a large black woman who sings church music. Now, as we know, both caramel and fudge are equally great in their own right and, if caramel and fudge candy had bodies and voices, I’d bet they’d both sing their asses off just like all three of these ladies do. I’m referring to the two current singers and the former singer.
Speaking of talent, we know Adam wouldn’t allow anyone to support him in performance who didn’t “bring it” (church wave). I have no doubt that these women do and are able to closely mimic Adam’s tones that we hear when he layers his own voice in recordings. Having them for live performances lets him improvise to his heart’s content knowing that the melody and harmony are being held vocally. And we’ve all heard him praise music that’s organic. Having a live background rather than a taped one may be part of what he means. I think he’d prefer to have the live one when he performs. These women can obviously do that or Adam wouldn’t have chosen them. Those fans lucky enough to see him live before tour time, when the rehearsing is completed and all the players get really comfortable with each other and everything is perfect, will hear it sooner.
Remember when the dancers were introduced into GNT? “Who are these people?” it was asked. “Why are they here?” “They take the focus away from Adam.” Remember how long it took before we got to know and appreciate them and understand their role? How Adam still—and will always—have our focused attention? This feels a lot like that, as if the back-up singers are trespassing into Adam-land. We’ll get used to them, though, and hopefully reach the point where we can celebrate them just like we did the dancers.
So all this is my own, individualized response to the questions raised and comments made about the back-up singers. At the end of the day, it’s Adam’s choice, right? I’ll trust he’s made a good one. And a sincere thank-you to the Universe that this beautiful, talented, wonderful man “gets it.”