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Stars in My Black and Blue Sky

June 4, 2012

by Thea  Washington

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.

  Calmed down, however, I’ve decided to see this as a teachable moment because I think there are probably other Glamberts who have the same questions and comments.

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.”

22 Comments leave one →
  1. M-E permalink
    June 4, 2012 10:44 pm

    Sandy,I’m glad you mentioned Underneath; yes it is a gorgeous song especially as Adam sings it from the heart. Honestly this is a song that could be sung in church (I may do just that one day when I have the nerve to do a solo). Revealing all that is inside to One we can trust is a very spiritual message. How wonderful that Adam trusts his fans enough to believe in him and his musical choices!

  2. Ovationimpact permalink
    June 4, 2012 11:53 pm

    Thank you for your clear insight and reminder we all need to break free of our assumptive nature to see the truth and wonder of individuality. Never close our eyes to the bueaty of our soulful gifts to the world at large… I have now seen Adam, his new band and singers perform 4 times and even now at these early stages they are becoming an organic give an take with the audience in their group performance.  And the band and singers are just now becoming one with Adam’s free form within the song style and can’t wait for the 2013 tour performance music magic to begin when they act in free-style unison.  Which supports your point that back up singers will allow Adam the freedom to give us fan so many more historical music imprompt moments such as the Whole Lotta Love performance at fantasy spring! 

  3. June 5, 2012 6:37 am

    I love the back-up singers Adam chose. Think they add a whole new dimension to his sound. Talent comes in all shapes, sizes and colors. The more I listen to Tespassing, the more I love it. Loved For Your Entertainment, but this album has a more mature feel to it.

  4. alexis permalink
    June 5, 2012 9:38 am

    I always trust ADAM in the direction he takes with his entertaining the audience for he is a consummate showman and amazing performer and phenomenal singer. He made a few mistakes (who has not?) at the beginning of his career but he has learned and has grown. He is very focus.

  5. June 5, 2012 10:47 am

    This was a great article and very enlightening. At first I wondered why he chose the singers, but Adam really likes them and Adam is the mastermind of his own sound and effects – so I trust him and as was said, we questioned the dancers and now we miss seeing them! I really enjoy watching the VaJaJays. The taller girl (Kesha?) is so cheerful and fun to watch. I also like her taste in clothes! One question though: The article above mentioned another singer that they replaced – who was it?

  6. cyndyoga18 permalink
    June 5, 2012 11:13 am

    I love the Vjayjays ( and the fact that they call themselves that). I was not aware that one singer had been replaced, but I just saw the current duo at Six Flags and their voices and moves are a joy to watch. Adam is an artist/showman that is going for both the truthful, honest offerings of his talents and to create an experience at his shows. He surrounds himself with all types of of interesting people that visually represent the diversity of his fans…very smart and very Adam.
    Just like Adele he is blasting stereotypes. Is it calculated?…like all the TV shows and commercials that have mixed race friendships ( or get in trouble if they don’t). Smiling white Moms are always serving snacks to their kid’s friends who include the proper blend of a black kid and an Asian kid. I don’t think so.
    Adam wants a balance of looks up there…don’t we love seeing him sandwiched between those big, black ladies? Just as much as they love dancing and singing next to him. Maybe all those mean spirited “fans” who made snarky comments about Glambulge will close their mouths and open their minds.
    We loved his Fever kisses with Tommy Joe during GlamNation and maybe someday in a concert, sometime in the future he will flirt and tongue dive again when we least expect it. He is always surprizing us which is why we love seeing him up there…being sexy, raunchy, pop, cuckoo, sweet and vulnerable… switching effortlessly between MJ grunts…Stevie Wonder like growls in Shady and giving Barbra and Celine like soaring vocals on Underneath. He knows exactly what he’s doing…being himself, playing dress-up and loving his life.
    Did anyone question the addition of Ashley…a female version of Tommy Joe…shaved head, tats, etc and lesbian to boot? They all look good up there and they are all amazing performers in their own way. That’s all that matters.
    Being a dancer myself I loved when the GlamNation dancers first appeared. They had me with the unison strutting and shoulder thrusts in IIHY. I look forward to the next tour with backup singers and dancers and other cool stage effects. With a bigger budget I assume, Adam will keep experimenting and have a hand in every detail.
    I was listening to Outlaws of Love they other day and found myself imagining a video for it and perhaps a live version on tour with Sasha dancing behind Adam. Maybe it could be a duet with Melanie the winner and at times partner with Sasha on SYTYCD.
    The Glamberts are as unique as Adam. I stood at Six Flags with my boyfriend who allowed me to decorate him with a neon yellow lei, as this was his first Adam experience. He had a beautiful T-shirt made for me with Adam’s likeness airbrushed on the front and the Eye of Horus on the back. I was approached by another fan the moment I arrived, inquiring about where I got it, which I told my boyfriend Alan would happen. There were two young girls bouncing in front of me. The wonderfully decked out gay guy next to me…pink tights over ripped jeans dude…several MGG’s like myself ( Mature Glambert Goddesses) and a whole family…Mom, dad, and daughter. That husband smiled at my boyfriend as if to say…I get why the woman(en) in my life love this guy.

  7. Shannon permalink
    June 5, 2012 11:14 am

    Thanks for this article, Thea. I love the Vajayjays (what do you think of the name?) and am particularly impressed by their ability to mimic Adam’s tone in their harmonies– not easy to do with a voice like his. I think they are a great addition to the Glamily. I, too, am a large women and a singer (though not black and not in church) and feel a kinship with these women. Truly great observations. Thanks!

  8. gracian51 permalink
    June 5, 2012 12:23 pm

    Again, thanks to everyone for all the comments. It’s crazymaking to put yourself out there in words, you never know what you’ll get back! As to why the first “Vajajay” left, she did write a heartrending note about it, citing that her weight prevented her from continuing and how sad she was that now, having achieved her dream job, it was too much for her to do the moves. I know her feeling; sometimes it takes me being backed into a corner to get anything done. (Knees are very fragile parts of the body and carrying a lot of weight on them is tougher than you might think, something I personally know.) She said this was a wake-up call for her and that, now, she’s awake.

  9. June 5, 2012 8:46 pm

    I love the backup singers Adam has now. They both seems to be smiling and enjoying the ride, which in turn make me enjoy the concert even more. I wish Tommy would smile that beautiful smile of his more, although Tommy & Ashley were have a little fun during the Gaylord resort Nat’l Harbor gig. So more fun on stage I think for all as they all ‘gel’ together. Ok back to the subject!! I thought the first singer who left, gave me the feeling that she was angry, not having fun. Maybe she was, maybe it all hurt too much and she knew she couldn’t continue. I only saw her on the Jimmy Kimmel videos, at least that’s when I noticed her the most. Kesha appears confident & thoughly enjoying herself. I heard Adam say somewhere that the singers were made known to him (Adam) & were friends of his new keyboard player.

  10. Wendy Jackson permalink
    June 16, 2012 11:29 pm

    The comments attached to this article and of course the article itself was a joy to read. Women are great, we always seem to support each other when the chips are down – black, white, asian…all of us mixed up crazy people (after all how many men would have the courage to poop a football (baby). I marched on Washington to try to get the ERA passed. A shame the country was more concerned with where we would pee than our fair wages. Adam Lambert is a very special person. He truly cares about others feelings and that combined with unworldly talent will assure him of a happy future. I liked the old band and now I also like the new band. I think the addition of the female singers was brilliant and they really make me happy when I watch a performance. The diversity in that group is astonishing and welcome, much better than a small white boy trying to look getto and black guys singing together. We are beyond that stereotype.

    • June 17, 2012 1:32 pm

      I was at the Rock n Roll Hall of Fame yesterday and found myself mesmerized by documentary film footage of Elvis. I was never into Elvis, and to be honest had not really watched his performance films. It was hard to see past those late-stage costumes with the capes, rhinestones and aviator glasses, but yesterday for the first time I appreciated his charisma. There really is something Elvis-like in Adam. One thing that struck me is that during his Las Vegas phase, Elvis had a trio of beautiful black women with glorious Afros singing backup, and there was clear mutual adoration. That was really quite transgressive back then, especially considering Elvis’ roots in the South. The other thing that struck me was film footage showing Elvis and his entourage of young men gathered around a piano after the show, singing gospel songs late into the night. I’ve always thought Elvis could have been gay, and there was something incredibly poignant watching these men pouring their passion into spiritual songs while gazing at one another with that love that dared not speak its name back then. – J

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