Wednesday, July 12, 2006

From the Vault: Interview with Israel Houghton

A Friend of God
by LaTonya Taylor

Israel Houghton and New Breed are known for eclectic, cross-cultural praise and worship music and high-energy performances. With 2002's Real, rife with funky 1970s influences, and 2004's Live From Another Level, the group has continued to break new ground with their musical combination of the fresh and the familiar. I spoke to Houghton just after the Live From Another Level DVD recording in Kansas City. There, he talked about his early influences, the New Breed movement, and how he came to see himself as a friend of God.

How did you become a worship leader?

Israel Houghton:
While I was in college, I got connected with my church's worship team and they just asked me to start leading. I was 19, and I was pretty out of touch with what it took to be a worship leader. It wasn't until I really got alone with God and began to hear his sound and his signature and his affirmation that I began to discover that I was born for this, created for this, called to this. And I haven't looked back.

When you say you were created for this, that's not something you say lightly. The story of your birth is very significant, isn't it?

Sure. I really should have been one of those abortion statistics you read about. My mother became pregnant with me when she was 17. My mother's white and my biological father's black. Her family wasn't supportive of their relationship and gave her the choice to have a back-alley abortion or to be disowned. I'm here because of the decision she made-and because of her conversion shortly after that.

So when I lead worship I'm crazy. I realize how fortunate I am to be called by God and to be protected, to be covered by him. I'm incredibly grateful.

Your mom later married, and you grew up a biracial child in a white family attending a Hispanic church. How did that shape you, culturally and musically?

That certainly had a big effect on me, culturally, stylistically, musically. There were never any compartments for me growing up. I listened to the Beatles and I listened to Andrae Crouch and I listened to the Eagles and I listened to bluegrass music, and it was just all kind of one and the same. It was all music to me.

It wasn't until I started to really consider music as a career that things got confused. When I started talking with record labels, I encountered these segregated musical societies. Industry people would tell me, "You have to only do this kind of music." Basically what they were saying was, We only understand it this way, and you should only do it this way or nobody's going to buy you.

How did you respond to that?

I told them, "The day is coming when the cool thing will be the most diverse thing." They just looked at me like, You're crazy. But I just held to that. It took somebody like Carlos Santana to show that you could work with musicians and influences from every walk of life and make it cool and sell millions of records while doing it.

I think of it this way. In the Lord's Prayer, we pray, "Let your will be done on earth as it is in heaven. What does it sound like in heaven? It's not segregated there. There's a sound that is just swirling and flowing and continually going. There are melodies and sounds and tones we've never heard. There are types of instruments that we have yet to experience and hear. So I'm saying let the sound of heaven resonate on the earth—and let me have something to do with it.

So, you had a strong sense of purpose, but things weren't really taking off. How did you cope with that?

There are people who take off right away. But I realize that to whom much is given much is required. Back in 1989, 1990 I wasn't prepared. If God had done what he promised he was going to do then, it would have killed me!

I had to go through a time of preparation and becoming trustworthy in what God was going to call me to do. There have been many years of Lord, I just love you. If it's just me and you and this keyboard in the kitchen from now on, that's cool. And when I really, truly believed that, it was like then the Lord said, "Now let me do what I said I was going to do." I never doubted that, but I came to grips with the idea Lord, if it never comes, it's already come. Just the time I've spent with you has been worth it.

What did that process of becoming trustworthy look like in your life?

I think the process of becoming trustworthy begins when God says, "Open your mouth and I'll fill it. Say what I'm telling you and I'll back you up on it." But that process continues as you get to the point where you say, "Lord, here's my 'Isaac.' Here's the knife. My dreams are yours." And just before you plunge he goes, "All right. All right. I got you now."

One of the songs on Live From Another Level says, "I Am a Friend of God." How did you come to see yourself that way?

At New Breed's retreat two years ago, we were kind of defining our group mission. We had a moderator help us think that through, and I assumed it would be kind of straightforward. Here's why we exist. It's great. God bless you, everybody. Have a good day.

But God hijacked our whole time together. The moderator handed us a sheet listing promises of God and ways we're described in the Bible. He instructed us to circle the one that stood out the most to us. So there are all these statements—"I'm more than a conqueror through Christ." "Nothing can separate me from God," Romans 8, all this stuff. And then I see the statement, "I am a friend of God." Without even thinking of it, I circled that. So the moderator went around the room asking everyone what we'd circled. When it was my turn, before I could even say "I am a…" I just started weeping, uncontrollably.

Why did that affect you so much?

I grew up in a fairly legalistic home. My parents loved God, and they did the very best they could with what they knew. They came from a very discipleship-oriented, fairly heavy-handed way of doing kingdom work. So I would have more easily said, "I am afraid of God" than "I am a friend of God." The view I had of God was dysfunctional, almost like he was looking for opportunities to punish me. That was more what I caught than what was taught.

But the more I said "I am a friend of God," the more that old, condemning view was purged from my life. I gained a healing sense of God saying, "I want to know you."

How has that realization affected the way you lead worship?

It's so liberating. It sets me free just to worship with reckless abandon, complete belief that God enjoys me singing to him and approaching him with reverence and fear.

I often hear that so-and-so is the queen of gospel and so-and-so is the prince of praise, and so on. Somebody asked how I'd categorize myself, and I said, "In terms of royalty? Hmm. I'm the court jester of worship." Why? Because the court jester entertains the king.

I get to a point in leading worship where I tend to just kind of check out and focus my attention on the King. My desire is that the King eventually says, "Come up here and sit with me now. You've caused me to smile. You've exalted me. Now just come and hang." I love that, so that's where I'm at. I'm the court jester of worship.

You've said that New Breed is more than a musical group, but a movement and a way of life. What does that mean?

I didn't want it to be "Israel Houghton Ministries." I wanted to be a part of something greater than myself. So we live by that idea: the thing of which I am a part is greater than the part I play. It's a big picture-focused movement, beyond the music. It's about God connecting our hearts to walk together.

Ultimately, it really is about the GPS of your heart. Does your heart beat for your local region or your comfort zone of church? Or does your heart beat for the nations who have yet to bow their knees? To me, getting around people who cry out for the nations of the world is what I live for. And that's what New Breed is all about.

It's been almost ten years since New Breed started. What accomplishments have been most meaningful to you?

I am as crazy, passionately stupid, ridiculously in love with Jesus now as I was when I first started this thing. And as long as my knees can handle it, I'll be the same way.

I can also say that I've been a friend to my friends for a long time, and I have vital relationships 10, 15, 20 years long. The passion for the presence of God has not left me, and what we set out to do, to be deliberately cross-cultural is standing today and it's ushering in a fresh sound and, fresh movement of the Spirit of God.

Monday, July 03, 2006

Joe Carter, 1949-2006

"[The spiritual] became the entrance, the open door, into . . .a whole new world of experience. The slaves could not experience the normal world. . .They were whipped, and they had
chains, and they found the secret door to take them into that world where the
tears are wiped away.

. . .One of the things I think about when I think about this body of music, I realize that it was the foundation for most other American music. And this music has changed the face of music
in the 20th century. And the story behind the creation of the spiritual is really--it's a miraculous story. Normally, when you hear the story of African American[music] in a documentary somewhere, they go back to Ella Fitzgerald or Louis Armstrong. And I say, `Well, that's great. But if you reallywant to know the story behind the story, find out who Louis' grandmother wasand wha t she was singing. What were the songs he learned when he was a baby, and what were the messages of those songs?'

And the thing that we find is that in the midst of all the most horrible pain, some of these powerful individuals, they transcend with shining lives. They were able to rise up above. I mean, they were able to be loving and forgiving in the midst of it all. . .The interesting
thing, you don't find mean-spirited sentiments in the spirituals."

--artist, musician and educator Joe Carter, to Speaking of Faith's Krista Tippett. The broadcast featuring Joe Carter will re-air this week, or you can listen to it by clicking the link.

Gospel-ish, in a way: Jenny Lewis' Rabbit Fur Coat

Jenny Lewis With the Watson Twins
Rabbit Fur Coat (Team Love Records)
by LaTonya Taylor

"Well you praise him / Then you thank him / 'Til you reach the by and by / And I've won hundreds at the track / But I'm not betting on the afterlife / …What have I done? / Why am I always messing with / The big guns? "—from "The Big Guns"

"I didn't intend to write a bunch of songs about God," singer/songwriter Jenny Lewis told NPR's Melissa Block about her solo album, Rabbit Fur Coat. "I guess that's what happens when you're about to turn 30… maybe being broken-hearted is not the only thing you want to sing about."

Rabbit Fur Coat takes Lewis in a different direction musically as well as lyrically. The Rilo Kiley lead singer and sometime vocalist for indietronic collaboration The Postal Service moves away from indie-rock and toward folk, country and soul. Reviewers frequently compare Lewis' sound to Neko Case, Patsy Cline, Laura Nyro, and Loretta Lynn.

The result is collection of soulful, occasionally anthemic musings marked by Lewis' ambivalence toward faith and the tensions she experiences between her questions and spiritual experiences of grace and joy. She's joined by Kentucky natives The Watson Twins, who bring a southern gospel sensibility to background vocals. Tracks were recorded on tape, using vintage equipment, and an eclectic, occasionally tough-to-identify mix of instruments (including an ebow, Wurlitzer organ, and lap-steel guitar) gives a track or two an especially haunted feel.

The album opens with a mournful, blues-gospel "Run, Devil Run," before segueing into the rollicking "The Big Guns," in which Lewis laments her inability to avoid difficult questions—and asks for mercy for the tired and lonely in the world. "Rise Up With Fists!!" is a modern protest song, lamenting social ills and offering a pointed critique of prophets with suspect lives. "Rise Up" suggests that God's grace—"there but for the grace of God go I"— is the force that prevents one from hypocrisy, and posits belief—and waking and rising up—as alternatives, if not solutions.

"The Charging Sky" extends the gambling metaphor from "The Big Guns." But rather than refusing to bet on the afterlife, Lewis bets for and against: "It's a surefire bet I'm gonna die / So I'm taking up praying on Sunday nights / It's not that I believe in your Almighty / But I might as well / As insurance or bail." It further critiques indifference toward suffering and the "fear and consuming and fight" that she views as a result of "institution." The title track is a ballad in which the narrator tells the story of a coat that seems to function as a symbol of wealth, greed or status-consciousness. In interviews, Lewis doesn't say to what extent the song is autobiographical, but it seems to be a fictionalized account of her life as "a million-dollar kid"—Lewis was a child/teen actress who appeared in several commercials, television shows and films in the '80s and '90s.

"Born Secular" stands out as a kind of anti-hymn. Lewis describes herself as "born secular and inconsolable." Yet in her insistence that God goes where he wants but is "not in me"—the last word one lilting, extended note—Lewis sounds an emotional note that's not easily identified. It's not the bold rising up with fists, but it's not necessarily a longing melancholy.

The album includes several other songs with a similarly confessional tone, including the haunting "Happy" and a cover of the Traveling Wilburys' "Handle With Care." It's an honest look at the messiness of wrestling with (messing with?) the big guns—God, life, and the past—for oneself.

Growin' Up: Interview with Kierra "KiKi" Sheard

By LaTonya Taylor

The last two years involved a lot of big changes for gospel's Kierra "KiKi" Sheard. She finished high school, started college, and enjoyed an unusual level of acclaim for her debut album, I Owe You, including both Stellar and Dove Awards. Now, with her latest release, This Is Me, Sheard makes a musical move even more deeply into the R&B sounds she loves. The daughter of Karen Clark Sheard, "KiKi" spoke with me about the changes in her life and how she's dealing with them—and with the folks who are apparently jealous about her rapid rise to stardom.

Let's start by looking back a little bit. It's been two years since the release of I Owe You. How would you say you've grown since then?

Kierra "KiKi" Sheard:
I think I've grown both in a natural and a spiritual sense over the last couple of years. I've started to make a lot of my own decisions, and to reflect on those decisions and learn from them. Of course, my parents are still around, and they will still pop me upside the head if they think I'm out of line (chuckling). But I'm learning people, and learning life, and starting to handle travel details and things like that on my own.

Spiritually, I've been seeking God, not because Mommy and Daddy told me to, but because I know that it's good for me, and I want to be closer to him. I'm also growing in ministry. I'm learning how to not just sing, but actually to minister. Sometimes people come up to me and say they were facing difficult situations, but felt like I was able to speak to them, without even knowing their business.

What's the difference between "just singing" and ministering?

When you're just singing you're basically just entertaining people, and showing them people what you can do. When you're ministering, you are spreading the gospel, and letting the Lord use you, and letting his will be done. You're helping to save souls, and helping people realize that it's important to get close to Jesus. You really have to be prayed up, and really have to be focused and know that you have a responsibility.

You've grown up in a well-known gospel family, and of course sang with your mom as a child on her album, Finally Karen. But you've really become part of the industry on your own terms over the last couple of years. Has anything taken you by surprise about being in the gospel music industry?

I've been surprised as I see what God is doing through me even though I'm young. I've enjoyed being nominated for and winning awards. And it's very fun to be able to be on the same stage with music artists that I've admired through the years—people like Angela Spivey, Donald Lawrence, Donnie McClurkin, Mary Mary, the Winans, people like that. It's just a blessing to be able to work with people that I've gained knowledge from.

You started college since your last album came out. You're a fairly well-known person, though. Do you feel like you're having a regular college experience?

Definitely. I'm studying entertainment law, and it's been a pretty regular experience. Sometimes people do recognize me and run over and want to talk, but I don't mind that, because I appreciate my fans.

Talk about one of the songs that's most meaningful to you from This Is Me.

Well, I sang every last song on this record from the bottom of my heart, and I wrote several. But one of my favorites, a song that means an absolute lot to me, is "Hear This." That's one of the ones I wrote, and it's my testimony. I wrote it when I was just so deep in sin at one point, and I felt like the Lord didn't want to hear my confession, because I wasn't making any progress. I felt like, "You probably don't want to hear me, since I do this over and over again." But I knew that without Jesus Christ in my life, I would definitely be somewhere lost and not in my right mind. So the song basically says Lord, please hear my cry.

Let's talk about "Have What You Want." It seems like that song deals with people discouraging you. Have you faced people knocking you or hatin' on you?

Most definitely, a lot of people. I think when God is opening doors for you and taking you to another level, a lot of people don't want to be left behind. It can be hard to figure out who your true friends are. Some people may not think you're worthy of having a position or the opportunities you may have. It feels like, you know, I'm going through heartache and pain because these people aren't liking me. Sometimes the Enemy will use people to distract you, hate you or break you down. That can make you feel hopeless, but this song says to do your thing and be encouraged.

Are people saying unkind things to you? Or is it more like old friends saying, "Who does she think she is?"

Those are some things that may have been said to me, or behind my back. I've had to figure out who my friends are. But when you have an anointing on your life, the Enemy will use loved ones to distract you and break you down—and they may not even realize it, because they may not be saved or have that discernment of spirit. But it's just something we have to pray about, and stay prayed up.

Saturday, July 01, 2006

Tagged With a Music Meme

A fellow blogger tagged me with the following meme:

"List seven songs you are into right now. No matter what the genre, whether they have words, or even if they're not any good, but they must be songs you're really enjoying now. Post these instructions in your blog along with your 7 songs. Then tag 6 other people to see what they're listening to."

I'll have to give the 6 people part some thought, but here are 7 songs that make me happy these days. Some of them are current favorites, and others are on my Unwritten List of Songs That Always Make Me Smile:

"Let Everything That Hath Breath," CeCe Winans, Purified
"Heaven," Izzy, In Awe of You (Look for a review in a few weeks)
"Blues 2.0," Fruteland Jackson, Blues 2.0
"Ain't That Peculiar," Bettye Swann, Bettye Swann
"Destination Moon," Dinah Washington, Jazz Profile 005: Dinah Washington
"Climbing Higher Mountains," Aretha Franklin/James Cleveland, Soul & Inspiration
"Mary Jane" DJ Green Lantern Evil Genius Remix, Motown Remixed

And there you have it, reader. Consider yourself tagged.

Psst! You Awake?

If you're up late tonight (well, early tomorrow, Sunday, July 2, from 3:30-7:30 a.m. CST), tune in to for Bob Marovich's monthly Gospel Memories broadcast. Here, from an e-mail Bob sends out to listeners, are some highlights from tomorrow's broadcast:

"-- In Loving Memory of Billy Preston, who passed away last month. Billy may be known as "The Fifth Beatle," but he started in gospel (his mother was an accomplished singer) and showed the world just how much a Hammond Organ could sing and shout. We'll hear examples of Billy soloing as well as accompanying the likes of James Cleveland and the Angelic Choir, and Bessie Griffin and the Gospel Pearls.

-- Pioneer gospel artists such as the Mighty Clouds of Joy and Bethlehem Baptist Church Choir covering patriotic songs to celebrate America's July Fourth.

-- Polk Miller and the Old South Quartette: Cylinders from this very early integrated vocal group courtesy of the amazing University of California - Santa Barbara Cylinder Digitization Project."

There's so much more, so tune in to the live broadcast.