Saturday, April 14, 2007

Rediscovering Commissioned

A couple of weeks ago, I started listening to Praise and Worship: Commissioned, one of several Verity Records/Legacy Recordings compilation albums featuring gospel music of the 1980s and 1990s.

This album reminded me what a significant part Commissioned has played in my life. Like Take 6 and the Winans, this group's discography is part of my soundtrack. Number 7 was one of the first albums I bought for myself, and somewhere in my apartment is a well-worn State of Mind cassette. I did lots of step aerobics to Matters of the Heart ('cause it was the 90s, that's why), and I made the 5-hour drive from my college campus to my first job interview listening to Time and Seasons.

During the group's heyday, Commissioned really had the total package. A combination of innovative production techniques and an urban R&B sensibility that drew from the male quartet tradition. Incredible songwriting that was very emotive, relational and contemporary.

Commissioned is so beloved because their music provides a soundtrack for those of us who are learning what it means to have faith permeate every part of our lives. Commissioned's music helped us hear what relevant everyday faith sounds like, Monday through Saturday, more directly than a lot of more traditional gospel music. It bridged the gap between the celestial and the temporal. The deacons may have raised "A Charge to Keep" from the front row pew on Sunday morning. But on your way to work, you could fight rush-hour traffic while bobbing your head to "Be an Example." Same concept, different language. And it wasn't superficial, the way some contemporary gospel can be. Put in a Commissioned disc, and you hear a lot of honesty. You hear wisdom earned through struggle. You hear frank dialogue with God, and the language of joy, celebration, repentance and dependence.

The music is especially powerful because while it's open to everyone, it offers an aural paradigm for a particularly masculine way of doing faith. (I wouldn't describe it using the idea of muscular Christianity, but I sense an intersection there. )My sense is that the men of Commissioned demonstrated a way of being Christian that young, cool, urban African-American men could relate to. Their music integrated values that many see as feminine--or typical of feminine/"feminized" religiosity (collaboration, expressiveness, emotiveness, vulnerability, humility, spirituality) in ways that are very masculine. (Parenthetically, I sense some of these same intersections in the music of jazz vocalist Kurt Elling.) Commissioned made room for a contemporary, masculine form of gospel that shaped not only a generation of young Christians, but young Christian men: a way to see themselves openly questing after God and pursuing faith, without having to wear a choir robe or a dark suit, or speak Christianese.

As I observe the ways that Christians are currently discussing ideals/ideas about masculinity and femininity, and consider the ongoing discussion about homosexuality in the gospel music community, I appreciate Commissioned's inadvertent contribution to the discussion. Musical gender work, as it were.

Because I listened to Commissioned during my formative years, listening now gives me an especially meaningful gift. I am reminded of what it meant to have innocent faith--to internalize the tenets of faith so that they became part of me before I truly needed to believe them with actual faith. As I sing along, I remember when trust was so very easy, and answers always seemed to fit. I am returned to myself, and returned to first love and belief. I am given a language for faith and repentance and hope.

After listening to the compilation, I pulled out my copy of the Commissioned Reunion live recording, and it's been in heavy rotation for the last couple of weeks. Even though it was their last hurrah, it's an excellent introduction to this groundbreaking group. And if you didn't get to see this incredible concert (and I did!) you'll feel like you were there. The excitement and energy stream from the speakers. A DVD of the initial recording is also available.

In response to a friend who asked what my favorite Commissioned song is, I generated a list of about 20 favorite songs. So I'm using that question to debut a new feature for the weekly poll (it's on the left side of the page). Weigh in by voting for your favorite song--and let me know why it means so much to you by posting a comment. If I haven't listed your song ("Oh, that's my jam!"), post about that, too.


Get acquainted with Commissioned--or download some of your old favorites--at Rhapsody's Commissioned page. Check out Google's Commissioned page to view their discography. has several articles on Commissioned, mostly focused on 2002's Reunion tour. This article offers a good overview of the broad impact group members have had on gospel and mainstream music.

Although I didn't pay it much attention when it was initially released, this week I'll be listening to Mitchell Jones' Still Commissioned.

If you're aware of a Commissioned tribute site, let me know by leaving the URL in the comments section.

1 comment:

TruSoulDJ said...

I can't believe that no one responded to this. But then, maybe the true Commissioned fans just haven't found your site yet (i.e. the comissioned fanclub at yahoo groups that has been running since about 2000).
I get your frustration in your most recent post (December 2009); having a lot to say and nothing seeming to come of it. At least, that's my story.
Imagine having a site where you review funky Gospel jams, but you feel like nobody is coming to get excited and run out to buy them like you wish they would.
Imagine being a DJ and wanting to break a song off of a great CD that won't be released until four months from now. But you have nowhere to spin it and no money to rent out a venue ... Then when it is finally released, as you predicted, radio ignores the strongest songs and doesn't seem to appreciate it for its true worth ...
I said all of that to say ... :) My favorite 20 Commissioned songs are as follows:

If My People (live version)
I AM Here (1991 live version)
Thank You For Loving Me
Psalm 84
I Can't Imagine (Parkes Stewart tune feat Commissioned)
The Race - Derrick Brinkley feat Commissioned
While You Wait - Billy & Sarah Gaines feat Commissioned
Charge It To My Head
For Real Christmas
All Because of You
Until My Change Comes
More Than I
I Can Love Again
Crucified With Christ
Find Myself In You
Work on Me Jesus
Lay Your Troubles Down
King of Glory
I Can't Live Without You
Ordinary Just Won't Do (live Reunion version)
What Will You Say