In 1983, The Legendary Clark Sisters set the Grammy stage ablaze when they ran down the aisle in their matching Easter Sunday dresses and feathered headpieces singing their hit song “Hallelujah” along with their iconic choir mastermind mother, Mattie Moss Clark. They took the stage and Holy danced into the hearts of non-clapping white people everywhere while R&B stars like Sheila E. and Dionne Warwick politely clapped on beat and smirked for the camera like “finally some blackness up in this joint.” They may have danced their way into secular hearts but they literally danced themselves out of favor with the COGIC (Church of God in Christ.) After that telecast Mother Mattie, who was the National Minister of music for the COGIC, was informed that she would no longer be able to perform publicly with her daughters. That is, if she wanted to keep her positon in the denomination. Mattie agreed to the terms and never performed with her daughters again.
Flash-forward to New Year’s Eve 2016. Gospel singer and aspiring pop star Kim Burrell was outed as a homophobe through her own Facebook Live broadcast. She declared that any man that put his penis in another man’s face and any woman that shook their head between another woman’s breast was perverted. I would like to first point out that I as a woman love putting my face between another woman breasts and shaking it real fast. Although I understand that makes me a pervert in Kim’s eyes that’s not what this blog is about. Although I was, until this rant, a huge fan of Ms. Burrell, that’s not the purpose of this blog either. Yes, I know you thought that’s what I would write about. You thought I would drop scriptures and talk about the history of homophobia in the church but I’m here to bring a little more historical context to this narrative.
Let me start by saying that this essay has changed about three different times since I first started it. I started this essay on Sunday January 1st. Since then KimGate has grown bigger and bigger and bigger. By the end of the week Kim Burrell had lost her radio show and been uninvited to the Ellen Show as well as the BMI Gospel Trailblazer Awards. The fall has been swift and decisive. While we rejoice that an open homophobe that cursed death on our entire community is getting their due; you start to think just a bit more critically about how we came here. There are so many issues represented in this situation it is hard to focus on one. Where does you begin? Do we talk about the way that the Bible has been used as a weapon to beat down almost every oppressed community for generations? Do we talk about the black church specifically and the assumption that that the most homophobic community is black Christians? Do we talk about all the men and women who worship in the black church while living in glass closets that allow them to be seen and read as gay only if they don’t act gay? Whatever the fuck that means. I’m not here to talk to you about any of those things. I’m going to talk to you about flirty friendships.
What we have witnessed is the latest touchstone moment in the flirty relationship between gospel and secular music. The funniest part about the storied relationship between gospel and secular music is that gospel music is always the one doing the flirting. It doesn’t matter which type of secular music is on the other end. It can be rap, r&b, country, rock or disco. Gospel is always the one trying to merge together. The only exception was in the case of disco but we will get to that in a moment.
To track the jump off the flirtationship between gospel music you have to go all the way back to Detroit in the 50’s and you track two families on two different trajectories. The patriarch of the first family is the legendary Rev. CL Franklin whose daughter had such a powerful voice that he would take her on the road with him for his speaking engagements. These days you know her as the Queen of Soul Aretha Franklin. Pastor Franklin was Aretha’s biggest fan and pushed her to pursue a career as a soul singer. Aretha would go on the record hit after hit from Atlantic Records en route to becoming the undisputed Queen of Soul. She was one of the few artists who never lost her standing on either sides of the preverbal fence. So, it was no shock when she recorded her Amazing Grace album which was primarily produced and arranged by the King of Gospel music and her good friend James Cleveland. It would go on to become the biggest selling album in gospel history. It’s like the Thriller of Gospel music.
Somewhere else in Detroit Dr. Mattie Moss Clark was revolutionizing gospel music. She introduced the three-part harmony and pretty much everything that we now see as standard in arranging gospel music. She did all this while being a rising star in the hierarchy of the COGIC church and raising six children. She would take the five girls and turn them into the Dynamic Clark Sisters. The most legendary gospel group of our time. Along the way, the recorded several songs that some consider crossover hits but none of them strayed at all from being songs about God. They are a far cry from what we consider crossover. All of that changed in 1981 when they recorded the song “You Brought The Sunshine.” Anchored by a beat that Twinkie completely ripped from Stevie Wonders MasterBlaster; the song was destined to be a hit with the soul music crowd. What no one counted on was its rise on the disco charts. It became so hot that Dorinda Clark-Cole recounted the day when representatives from Studio 54 called and offered Mattie a large sum of money to come perform at the storied den of drugs and sex. Mattie turned the money down stating that the disco was no place for her girls. The tv show Unsung considered this the very moment that the Clark Sisters missed their opportunities to crossover into pop success. However, this would not be the last time that The Dynamic Clark Sisters would play a featured role in this flirtationship.
All of this leads us back to that night at the Grammy’s. The eternal question in the flirtationship between Gospel and Secular music has been how far do you go? Where do you draw the line? The ’85 Grammy’s actually provides great background for this question because there were examples from both sides of the fence represented in that 10-minute performance. The Clark Sisters were performing as part of a gospel medley hosted by Andre Crouch that included James Cleveland, Pop Staples (of the The Staples Singers) & Denise Williams. Denice’s own wrinkle in the flirtationship started here. Denise was a pop star at the time and on that night her record label thought she was going to sing her #1 hit single from the movie Footloose, Let’s Hear It for The Boy. Instead she took part in the gospel medley singing a song she had written called God Is Truly Amazing. Not long after she found herself dropped from her label. Clearly the knife of this flirtationship can cut both ways when it wants to.
Over the next four decades, the genre we now know as Contemporary Gospel, traditional choir music and praise & worship teams would continue to push the boundaries of what church folks deemed acceptable. There has never been a perfect scenario where the relationship is perfectly matched and its nearly always trashed by the church. In 1986 The Clark Sisters would record the first awkward as hell but I still love it gospel song featuring a rapper. Not only did they convince Melle Mell to grace their “Conqueror” album but the album itself sound like a Teddy Riley New Jack Swing album. It literally sounds like if they a scene in New Jack City where Pookie went to church before he decided to hit the crack pipe they would play that daggone album. It is still one of my faves.
In the late 80’s the younger siblings of the Winans Family, Bebe & Cece, would record their Heaven album that would confuse us all because you didn’t know if you were supposed to be walking holding hands on the beach or bumping and grinding for the Lord.
In the early 90’s John P Kee would change the whole choir game with songs that made the whole choir dance like they were at the club. In the mid’ 90’s Kirk Franklin would seal the with funk inspired baselines and a band that even through r&b remixes into the live shows. Ricky Dillard killed them all with a 100-person choir that danced like they were on Soul Train. With every musical progression, you saw writers and producers saying we must make music that’s relevant and sounds like what young people are hearing on the radio to get people to move and enjoy. In the eyes of the church they would continue to move further and further from what the old church mothers deemed acceptable. It got to the point where you just had to view the pursed lips and stern looks from the church mothers and laugh.
Which leads us back to Kim Burrell on stage at her church killing her own crossover attempt. Kim followed the crossover blueprint that had been laid out over generations by Gospel artists. She befriended Whitney Houston. She jumped on a track with Frank Ocean which is still a suspect move with what we now know she feels about queer people. There are a lot of theories floating out there about what exactly happened to Kim Burrell that night. Mine is that she was being featured prominently on this secular movie soundtrack. Her sound is the theme of the film ad being heavily promoted. She has multiple requests to perform the song on talk shows with Pharrell Williams, a man whose first hit was Shake Ya Ass by mystical. That information sent the Holy Ghost Enforcers antennas up. When word spread around her congregation that she was going on tv with that gay Ellen the mothers board had heard enough. In my mind, I can hear them asking her “Well What are you going to do Pastor?”
You must remember that this is not just another gospel crossover attempt. This is a crossover attempt right as we are on the brink of becoming Donald Trump’s America. We know live in a world where people feel entitled to their hatred towards people that are different than them. The expectations of gospel artists has always been to do as the old folks say and be in the world but not of the world. For generations, the goal was to go out and make music industry money and then bring it back so we can build bigger church ministries. Although gospel artists pushed the boundaries of what someone in the church should look or sound like; the industry has mirrored the church in being geared more towards preaching to each other than actually inistering to the needs of the world. However, they will take the worlds coint, yes coint not coin, though. Gospel has become a HUGE business. We are no longer talking about churches that allow their senior choir to make a few extra dollars by putting on their robes and traveling to church musicals or setting up a recorder to tape service and sell at black record stores. We are now talking about artists that travel the world and have a totally different perspective than our grandparents did when they were attending storefront churches and selling fried chicken dinners to pay off the mortgage.
However, the expectations haven’t changed and unfortunately the theology hasn’t either. The expectation is to hold up these false notions and backwoods theology that somebodies grandmama told them that her Pastor taught her back in the 1950’s. The question now facing gospel artists is are you going to choose a theology of love or hate to sing about? Kim CHOSE to expose herself that night. She was not tricked or conned. She was simply faced with the same questions all gospel artists face and she chose another road. Isn’t that how it always happens in relationships? You make a choice and you live or die with that choice. I, for one, am glad that she exposed herself. Don’t continue the history of hypocrisy that says we will use black queer people as long as they don’t act too gay. Don’t continue to hold up this false notion that if you hold your tongue in our presence you are practicing love. Show us who you truly are so we can push back and tell you that your version of love is not the version that Christ spoke f. You will always have a vehicle for your hate somewhere but thank God you won’t be making money off the backs of queer people any longer.