Tuesday, January 25, 2005

Gospel Gal goes to the Stellars

Yup, I was there, and it was great. I've always, always wanted to go to the Stellars, and I'm hooked. I'm not done with Stellar coverage, but did need to do a quick write-up. It's kind of People magazine-ish--and there will be more, gospelgal.com exclusive stuff, but here you have it:

Last weekend's taping of the 20th Annual Stellar Gospel Music Awards was a gospel music lover's dream. Like any awards show, the Stellars featured tearful acceptance speeches, amazing performances (Kirk Franklin + Texas Southern University's "Ocean of Soul" Marching Band = Whoooooa!), and haute couture juxtaposed with fashion choices that were, shall we say, of dubious taste.

The gospel glitterati mingled with some of mainstream entertainment's best known, sometimes with humorous results—for example, presenter Evander Holyfield's unfortunate reading of nominee Natalie Wilson and S.O.P. as "Sop" during the pre-show. Sop? 'Sup with that, man? Later, songstress Roberta Flack was on hand to present her former eighth-grade music student Richard Smallwood with the James Cleveland Award. Safe to say, she probably thinks he turned out pretty well.

A hint of friendly drama was in the air as mentors and their protégés were up for the same awards and longtime favorites met youngbloods in the same award categories. Newer artists shook hands and mingled, promoting their upcoming projects. For the press, the Stellars were also an opportunity to get red-carpet-style soundbytes from some famous faces and to wait hours to get thisclose to interviewing others.

In my case, thisclose was Yolanda Adams. After the awards, I ventured into the television media room to get a quick quote from Adams, who hosted the ceremony with Donnie McClurkin and Tonéx. As I waited my turn, I discussed high-fashion Mary Janes with Adams' preschool-aged daughter, Taylor, who already has quite an eye for formal fashion. Just as Adams finished taping a TV spot, she was whisked away by her equally elegant manager, faster than you could say, "Just one question, Ms. Adams." Oh, well. There are more difficult assignments for a religion-reporter-turned-infotainment-journalist, and there's always next time.

Other fun moments included Mary Mary's Tina and Erica Campbell stopping by the media room, toddler and four-month old daughters in tow (if their showcase performance was any indication, their next album is going to be craaazy good), and the sparkling-warm, elegant Vickie Winans, whose black slippers peeked out from under her floor-length, sea-green dress in a sweetly humanizing touch.

Because this was the 20th year of the event, there was also a sense of history in the atmosphere. The Stellar Awards (originally called the First Annual Gospel Music Awards) have come a long way from their humble beginnings at Chicago's Arie Crown Theater. With them, the level of professionalism and mainstream interest in the gospel music industry has grown, shifted and changed. At one time, performances that reflected a more mainstream sensibility were earthshaking news. (Does anyone else remember when having rap duo Preachers In Disguise on the show was a Big Deal?) Now, the musical progeny of early winners simultaneously push the genre in new directions while making solid references to the old landmark. At first, the show had to be "branded" as a tribute to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. to generate advertiser interest. Now, the task is easier, partly because the idea of gospel music as entertainment has gained an uneasy acceptance, and also because of the significant successes many gospel artists have in the choir loft and at the cash register.

The awards hold a special place in many hearts, largely because they honored black music before it was widely recognized or honored in the mainstream. "I thank God for the Stellar Awards, because they're honoring Afro-American music," Pastor Shirley Caesar said. "I love the Doves, but this is us. This is what we know."

The Stellars will air in national syndication between January 22 and February 20, so check your local listings (or look here or here) and set your VCR. If you can't wait to find out who won what, the results are posted here.

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