Since the beginning of her career, gospel legend Yolanda Adams has accomplished an enviable feat for artists in the genre the Queen of Contemporary Gospel is respected and still sought after in both the genre and secular music world, but seemingly without the criticism and pushback her peers like Kirk Franklin and Mary Mary have faced at various times for straddling the two. We’ve marveled at the Grammy-award winner and radio host for her “She is serving - Wait, can she wear that?!” fashions and Ebony Fashion Fair model realness. And Yolanda, as a person, seems connected to “the world” in a way that may leave some church kids clutching pearls. But the Houston native (Houston clearly only produces real ones) didn’t grow up under the same strict doctrines as some of her gospel peers and her less restricted understanding of obedience in faith has made her incredibly open, accessible and connected.
On the eve of receiving the Gospel Music Icon Award at the 2019 Black Music Honors, VIBE talked to Adams about the sisterhood of Gospel, how she maintains her eternal slayage (who knew Yolanda Adams was a distance runner?), the power of music, and man-made restrictions in the church.
VIBE: You are being awarded the Gospel Music Icon Award at 2019 Black Music Honors. The BMH are meant to tribute trailblazers in Black music who may not have otherwise gotten their roses. You are definitely a trailblazer, but do you feel like you’ve been under-appreciated considering the magnitude of your contribution not just to gospel music, but music overall?
Yolanda Adams: I’ve never felt as though I’ve been cheated or not awarded. As a matter of fact, I believe, personally, that I’ve been one of the most applauded gospel artists, especially female. One of the things that I do know is that sometimes you’re blazing trails that you really feel are just the norm. It’s not like you’re trying to do anything that’s different; you’re just doing you. And you’re enjoying doing you so much, that everybody else comes along and they join the bandwagon. I’ve never felt that I was in it by myself, although I’m a solo artist. I’ve had such a great support system with my family; my husband, my daughter. I’ve had so many people, like Shirley Caesar, Tramaine Hawkins, Albertina Walker - all of the great women who said, “We’re so proud of you, you keep doing what you’re doing. You make us look good every place that you go.” I had that support. Whenever I would call Tramaine and say, “How do I do this, this, and that?” She would always explain. Same with Pastor Shirley Caesar. Same with Nancy Wilson. I did (The Yolanda Adams Morning Show) as a result of having a conversation with Nancy Wilson. She said, “There will come a time, especially when [your daughter] Taylor gets older, that you will want to be home. So the best thing for you to do is something that you can use your radio/TV journalism degree in.” And I thought about it, and I’m like, “Wow, you know what? You are so right!” So a great conversation with her and being built up by her resulted in the creation of (the decade-long show).
So, no, I never thought that I had been underappreciated or undervalued. I always knew that what I brought to the table - and CeCe (Winans) and I have this conversation often - there was never any competition between her and I, or Vicky Winans or all of the great women in gospel music at that time because we all had our niche.
The thing that I have always said is that in this vast universe that we live in, there is an audience for everyone, and then there’s an audience that’s being left out, that somebody else needs to capture. I don’t have to fight for what belongs to CeCe, I don’t have to fight for what belongs to Vicky, or what belongs to Tasha Cobb, or anybody like that, because God has so strategically given me the platform that I have, and my responsibility in that is to be the best Yolanda I can be.
That’s a word. Let’s talk about your audience, though, because you were part of the class - along with Kirk Franklin and Mary Mary - that broke gospel music open to the mainstream. Bebe and Cece Winans cracked the door open (in the ‘90s), but you, Kirk, and the Marys blew the gap between gospel and secular all the way open. I think it’s hard for people to appreciate how big that was, then. You probably got less criticism than Kirk and the Marys because people felt like their sound was secular. Your sound wasn’t as secular; it just translated. Or did you catch heat?
When I first started, people were like, “She’s really jazzy. Why does she have to be so jazzy?” They have to understand; I was never part of a traditional gospel-type upbringing. In my household, we listened to everything. There was no restriction. We danced in our house, so I didn’t have the stronghold and the bars of “You can’t do this” and “You can’t do that.” I lived in such a cool house, God was so cool, he went to the skating rink with us on Friday and Saturday and went right to church with us on Sunday. So in my mind, I never had those types of restrictions placed on me. It was only when I started my solo career - when I was totally solo from (Houston’s Southeast Inspirational Choir) and I started traveling - people were like, “Well why do you wear makeup? And why are your dresses so short? And why do you do this and why do you do that?” I’m the kid who was into modeling. I’m into fashion. I’m into all of this stuff, so for someone to tell me my lipstick offended them, I’m looking at them like, “Ok, well then you don’t wear it.”
So you didn’t grow up in the COGIC church.
I didn’t grow up in COGIC or Pentecostal. I grew up in a Damascus church setting, and then we moved to non-denominational, which was like, “Hey, if the Bible doesn’t put all these restrictions on you, then why would you let people put these restrictions on you?”
I love that because that is such a challenge: Even though Christians are called to be circumspect and “in the world, but not of the world,” people are the ones who put so much restriction on faith. That’s us doing that, not God doing that.
Here’s the thing about knowing the Bible; you have to know the Bible for yourself. You have to know what God said. Because if you look at what Jesus concentrated on - and I tell people all the time, you need a Bible or a Bible app that shows you the words of Jesus in the red - think about it. He’s concentrating on being loving, sharing, caring and giving, and treating people like you want to be treated. And healing people from the inside out. That was His core thing. And He said, “I came to bring the Kingdom to you,” so what is Kingdom mentality? Kingdom mentality is; if you’re broken-hearted you don’t have to be hurt; if you’re poor you can become wealthy; if you’re lonely, you don’t have to be lonely anymore. So you have to look at that, because folks start taking the Bible at face value, and they never look at the history behind it.
You’re thirty years into your career and working on new music now. Gospel music is going through some of the same transitions that R&B is going through, and we’re having the same conversations about the fundamental ways (of making music) versus the new ways, etc. What are you looking to do with your music now?
Here’s the thing: everything in life goes through cycles. Everything. Whether it’s fashion, whether it’s automobiles, whether it’s tech. It doesn’t matter. Everything goes through cycles. We’ve been having this conversation since…1987 (laughs). “What do you expect your music to do?” “Why is it that gospel music is going through this transition?” Well, all music goes through transitions; life goes through transitions. I’m going through a different transition with my life right now with my daughter being in college. It’s just the way life goes. Everything turns around. It’s the way of nature; the sun rotates and we rotate, and we’re always turning on an axis, so that is the rhythm of life.
But here’s what I always focus in on: I am not recording an album to get another Grammy. Thank God if I get one, or when I get one because we call those things that be not as though they were. And you know, thank God for all these accolades. But at the end of the day, how can I help heal the world with what God has given me in my heart? That is always my basis for doing any album, any product, going into any business venture. All of that. Everything in my life has to do with what is in my heart at this present time. God, how can we get it out to the people that need it?
You said earlier you believe you’re one of the most celebrated female artists in gospel, and you’re definitely still one of the most visible artists in contemporary gospel. You get called for every tribute. I’ve seen you tribute Lionel Ritchie, Patti Labelle, [and] other gospel artists. You walk that line between gospel and secular so well. What do you attribute to people calling you up, even when they’re doing a regular tribute for R&B artists, and are like, “We need Yolanda”?
One of the things I think people sense with me is that I truly love people. That’s the first thing. And usually, I have a relationship with the people that are being honored. So they know that I will be very respectful to the tribute, and I will be very respectful to the artist. I will be very respectful to my friend. They know that my gift is being able to translate other people’s music that I admire into my own style without veering so far away from what they originally did with it.
I saw you do “Jesus is Love” for Lionel Richie a couple of years ago, and I was at Black Girls Rock last year getting the holy ghost right quick (during the Aretha Franklin tribute). You just bring the house down with your energy and your vocals every time, you kill it, so I think another thing is that they know you’re gonna SANG! (Yolanda laughs).
We touched on your fashion and the fact that you briefly dabbled in modeling. When you step on stage, so many women I know are like, “Yolanda is snatched! I need that dress!” Can you speak to the choice to be fashionable even while ministering?
I think I inherited that from folks like Mahalia Jackson. If you look at the history of gospel music, we have a history of being fly. You have to go back to the Clara Ward Singers, The Barrett Sisters, and folks like that. Even when Shirley Caesar and them were younger, they would wear gowns, they would wear updos. You could see Albertina Walker in the same room you saw Aretha Franklin, and Albertina Walker’s gown would be more killin’ than Aretha’s at the time! The beauty of gospel music is that our fashions are so unexpected. People are like, “Oh, they’re just gospel artists.” Then you show up and they’re like, “Wait a minute, now!’ And if you go back into our history as African-Americans, that’s why they call it your “Sunday Best” because church was the place you could go to show off your fashions. The hats, and the gloves, and the pocketbooks, all those kinds of things. We had to have it straight.
Do you have a fitness regime?
Oh yes, I am very wellness-centered. I know that at any time, without warning, I can be called to be on television, and it has been a practice of mine, since I started, to make sure I am physically fit, spiritually fit, emotionally fit, and sometimes that’s not so easy with the climate of the world that we live in now. But my regime is once I get off the morning show, I go straight to the park or the gym for strength training. I run at least three miles when I do my runs. My long days can be anywhere from 9-12 miles, but I never do less than three miles. Sometimes it’s for sanity purposes, sometimes it’s for meditation purposes, but I love fitness because I know what I want to look like in my clothes.
For the record, you’re 50...something. I’ll say fifty-something. But you are in peak shape, form, energy, all of that. So it’s obvious that you take care of yourself.
I tell people all the time: If you want to start living better, start today. With an extra glass of water, an extra apple. And I’m not saying cancel sugar out altogether because our brains need the sugar, but you don’t have to add extra sugar.
Right. And I do think that’s something that presents a challenge for folks who’ve grown up in the church - we eat with our fellowship.
It can be food and fellowship as long as the people who are bringing the food know how important eating well is. Just like you can bring fried chicken, you can bring baked chicken. Just like you can bring fried fish, you can bring baked fish. You don’t have to put all of that grease in your system. Now if you’re only doing it once or twice a year, that’s not a problem. But if you’re doing it every Sunday, every Wednesday, every Thursday, every Friday, you gon’ have a problem.
I used to go to [your 1993 hit] “The Battle is Not Yours” when I needed encouragement. Who do you listen to for encouragement?
I listen to a lot of the stuff that I have recorded and have written. My go-to's are Tramaine, Cece, Vicky, Richard Smallwood, Donnie (McClurkin), Donald Lawrence...I listen to everybody. I love listening to all gospel music. Especially at that time.
Who do you listen to on the secular side?
I listen to Mary J., Lauryn Hill, I listen to Monica, I listen to Brandy, Kenny Lattimore—
You listen to the voices.
Yes, I love voices, and I love different voices. Rashan Patterson. PJ Morton - I’ve known him since he was three years old. I love to hear young people express themselves, whatever it is. India Aire; I love her new album (2019’s Worthy). I’ve been listening to “Roller Coaster,” that song is so amazing. There are just certain things I hone in on. Tamia’s new project (2108’s Passion Like Fire). Johnny Gill has a new project (Game Changer II). Uncle Charlie (Wilson) has a new project. Lalah Hathaway, she is so amazing. I love the richness of voices, and I love people who are passionate about what they’re writing, what they are expressing and how they make you feel. I need some feeling in my songs, you know?
Who would be in your ideal line-up for a tribute to Yolanda Adams?
Oh my gosh, can I pick like 20 people? (laughs). If I could pick 20 people, it would be Avery Sunshine, Anita Wilson, Jekalyn Carr, Tasha Page House, Monica, Brandy, Jazmine Sullivan, Kelly Price, Donnie McClurkin, Jonathan McReynolds, Brian Courtney Wilson… I know I’m probably at 40 now! Joss Stone...So many people. I am a music lover, and I love to hear people expressing their love for what they do, and I know I’m repeating that, but all of those people I named, they’re so passionate about everything that they do. I could just listen to all of those people all of the time. Oh, and Lalah!
Based on how much you love music and you love feeling the emotions, can you speak to the power behind ministry in music?
Music is so… it’s so a part of us. Remember I said earlier that everything has a rhythm? It is in us. Our hearts beat at a rhythm, our blood flows in a rhythm. We can be walking down the street and then all of a sudden, we’re walking at a rhythmic pace. It’s just the way that we’re wired. So it is automatic that music has such a profound influence on the way we feel. When we’re in love, we can listen to Anita Baker. When we’re asking questions, we can listen to Donny Hathaway or Roberta Flack, or Donnie McClurkin or Fred Hammond. When we have a heartbreak, we can listen to Mary J. Blige. When we wanna be empowered, we can listen to Beyoncé. When we wanna cuss somebody out, we listen to Cardi B (laughs). I love Cardi!
But I’m just sayin’. There’s a rhythm to everything, so my thing is, it is automatic that we feel the power of someone’s interpretation when we’re listening to music. There is no way you can’t get the feeling that Jazmine really did knock the windows out of somebody’s car. It’s almost like you go back to that experience where somebody made you so mad you wanted to do that. And this is what I think music does as ministry. When we talk about ministry, the root is “minister,” which is also where we get “administer.” So music can administer healing, it can administer hope, it can administer empowerment, it can administer everything that you need it to. Power that changes people’s lives comes with the impact of music.
The 2019 Black Music Honors, celebrating Yolanda Adams, Tamia, Xscape, Freddie Jackson and Arrested Development, is set to air in broadcast syndication Saturday, September 14, 2019. Visit BlackMusicHonors.com/airdates for more information.