Michael Grecco

From The Vault: Poetry In Motion - The Director, John Singleton (Fall 1992)

John Singleton battles racial tension in L.A. as he takes his road movie, Poetic Justice.

Simi Valley, Calif. — April 29, 1992

Today an all-white jury in this predominantly white community found a group of police officers charged in the beating of Rodney King innocent. As the old folks would say, it is the Day of Reckoning. Generation after generation of African Americans in Los Angeles had grown up saying don’t trust the police, and, finally, the videotape of King’s beating showed millions outside the hoods just what they’d been talking about. President Bush would later declare on prime-time television that he found the verdict “hard to understand.” Whether or not the system failed, things certainly look that way.

Hard thoughts run through John Singleton’s mind as he hears the verdict on the radio in his Pathfinder all-terrain vehicle. He’s driving to the set of his new Columbia Pictures film, Poetic Justice. Singleton, the 24-year-old director of last summer’s explosive, money-making Boyz N the Hood, is livid. Impulsively, he decides to drive directly to the courthouse. With him is his assistant, a 6’7” man named Shorty, who used to work for Tone-Lôc and was hired to keep Singleton insulated from the masses that besiege him during a shoot.

On the courthouse steps, Singleton and Shorty are immediately pressed by newspaper and television reporters barking questions. In the quiet, steady voice he adopts to make a point, Singleton tells them: “The judicial system feels no responsibility to black people—never has, never will. We have too many lawyers who don’t practice true law. They had a chance to prove the system works and they messed it up.” His piece said, he heads for the Pathfinder.

Back on the set, everyone tries to carry on business as usual. But the King verdict has turned Los Angeles into a tinderbox, and film crews are not immune. Some crew members say they feel there’s a schism between whites and blacks on the set, though there are no overt incidents. The blacks are visibly angry, the whites either silent or apologetic. The racial split on this crew is about fifty-fifty, unusually integrated for a big-studio production. But holdovers from Boyz, whose crew was almost entirely black, feel the added white presence.

It doesn’t help that, on a street only yards away from the set boundary, a dozen police patrol in full riot gear. It’s almost as if they think Singleton might lead a riot, then and there.

The first shot goes up. The scene is set in an old-fashioned open-air drive-in theater. Because the initial shot is panoramic and doesn’t involve any of the actors, most of the crew, including Singleton, aren’t directly involved. They spend the time crowded around Singleton, who’s sitting in his director’s chair holding a small television on his lap. The two dramas unfold concurrently—one starring Janet Jackson, the other starring the angry throngs of Los Angeles. On the small television, the riot looks surreal, a Hollywood concoction of burning buildings, cars on fire, helicopters circling and people in the streets.

All three days shooting continues in Simi Valley as the riots rage on. Although the physical violence never reaches this suburban area, other kinds of violence do. The whole time, crew members alternate between watching the news and the scene being filmed. By the weekend, the worst of the riots have passed, but upon returning home, many of the cast and crew find that their neighborhoods have been hit hard. Singleton’s own neighborhood of Baldwin Hills, a pleasant middle- and upper-middle-class black area, was only brushed by the violence. It takes days for the blunt anger to dull and the miasma to lift. To many on the set, the whole idea of making a movie amidst all the destruction of property and spirit seems an aberration.

But, like everyone else in Los Angeles, the cast and crew must get back to work.


John Singleton sold Boyz N the Hood shortly after graduating from the University of Southern California’s film school. Because of its relatively minuscule $5.7-million budget, it generated the most pure profit of any film last year. Boyz was straight-up family drama—with the twist that it was set in the hellish epicenter of South Central Los Angeles. Its sleeper success started a tsunami brewing, one that Roger Ebert promptly dubbed the black new wave. To Hollywood, it proved there was a new way to sell pictures. And it earned Singleton all of the town’s most valued perks, including creative freedom, numerous ducats, and representation by Hollywood’s most powerful agency, CAA. It also created for his second picture the kind of expectations that can only be called unrealistic.

Poetic Justice is the story of a young black woman named Justice who has known more than her fair share of tragedy. She writes poetry, hence the movie’s title. Through a blind date and a crazy road trip, the winsome poet is thrown together with Lucky, an around-the-way boy who teaches her a thing or two about men. But make no mistakes, Justice couldn’t have been directed by John Hughes. It is populated by black women you know and love: mamas, aunts, and grandmas; best friends and sisters; rappers and chit chats, divas and hootchies. After the male-heavy Boyz, Singleton decided to focus on women’s stories this time around.

Even before casting began, Singleton and casting director Robi Reed were besieged by black actresses asking to read for parts — from the famous (Robin Givens, Lisa Bonet) to the vaguely familiar (Jada Pinkett from A Different World) to the unknown. It has been said that sexism is a bigger monster than racism in Hollywood. For black actresses, who must deal with both, meaty roles that move beyond simple stereotypes (hooker, welfare mother) are few and far between. In the end, the lead went to pop singer Janet Jackson. She did not supply her own poems, however—they were penned by Dr. Maya Angelou.

Jackson isn’t new to acting, of course. As a child and teenager, she appeared on such television shows as Good Times, Diff’rent Strokes and Fame. Understandably, there were doubts that the Encino-bred Jackson could play a girl from South Central. But Jackson, sporting the de rigeur Fendi bag and Nefertiti-like braids, went to town in the screen test. The head honchos at Columbia were duly convinced.

In the movie, Jackson is teamed with another musician, rapper Tupac Shakur. On a recent solo pin from Digital Underground, Shakur landed a smooth one-two earlier this year with a hit movie, Juice, and a boomblasting debut album, 2pacalypse Now. Ice Cube, for whom Singleton wrote the role of Lucky, turned it down because he was “too busy.” Ultimately, Shakur and Singleton made a fine match. The scene in his video “Brenda’s Got a Baby,” in which Shakur’s seen holding an infant, reminded many of Singleton’s point in Boyz that the black man must be a real father to his children.

Poetic Justice also features Boyz co-stars Tyra Ferrell, Baha Jackson, and Regina King. Roger Smith (Do the Right Thing, Deep Cover) gets a lot of laughs—at singer and co-star Keith Washington’s expense. It’s a very musical cast that also includes rappers Q-Tip from A Tribe Called Quest, Tone Lôc, Dina D., Miki Howard, and a cameo by rapper Nefertiti. Singleton insists that the musicians were the best actors that auditioned, (Likewise, music videos have become a stage for many would-be actors.) He’s also confident that this movie will be better than his first because “it has rhythms—ups and downs, drama and humor, like a good song.”

Los Angeles — Spring 1992

The song begins. It’s the first day of principal photography, and, because the crew hasn’t become comfortable with one another yet, tension hangs in the air. Everything is brand-new, including the director’s chair. The logo on the back of the cast’s and crew’s chairs reads: POETIC JUSTICE: BACK TO THE HOOD. Singleton is dressed in his usual B-boy uniform of T-shirt, baggy jeans and baseball cap, a Malcolm X pendant dangling from his neck.

We’re in a predominantly black Los Angeles community, near where many of the scenes in Boyz were shot. It’s a street scene: Lucky is driving up the street to visit somebody he knows in the neighborhood, and on the way he runs into a few old friends. While that encounter unfolds in the street, non-actor neighbors peer out of their windows and around the corners of buildings, out of range of the cameras.

The street is full of cars and people. But it’s hard to tell which are the studio cars, which people are actors, and which live in the area. In some circles in Hollywood, fantasy is out and reality is in. Particularly African-American reality. Singleton knows his strengths: every hour or so, he says to whoever wants to listen, “This is it, this is the real shit.”

As a practical matter, the experience of shooting Boyz N the Hood made Singleton a stronger filmmaker. He admits, “With Boyz, I didn’t know how to direct a movie. I just went with my feelings. Somehow, it came out right. I was really intense in film school, a lot more intense than I am now. Whenever someone foils a person’s ability to be creative, they make that person dangerous. A lot of people should be glad I’m making movies. I could be out somewhere robbing cars.”

Culver City — Later

Singleton drives onto the Sony Pictures lot, blasting Leaders of the New School on his sound system. He is happy because Boyz is up for two big Academy Awards—Best Original Screenplay and Best Director. He is the youngest person ever to be so honored.

As Singleton approaches the lot’s gate, two young brothers guarding it shout, “Whaddup?” They give him dap for the nominations, obviously proud, even a little in awe of him. Singleton thanks them, shaking their hands.

“These are the people I make movies for,” he says, driving on, “the regular brother and sister on the street.”

Many expected the writing nomination, but best-director is a surprise. With it come two firsts. Not only is Singleton the youngest director ever nominated (Orson Welles was 25 when he was nominated for Citizen Kane), but he is also the first African-American director to be recognized by the Academy.

The latter is a fact that makes him both proud and uneasy. He says, “It’s all political. Spike should have got it first. If not for School Daze, then for Do the Right Thing." Spike Lee and Singleton have a close friendship, with Lee functioning as a mentor to the younger filmmaker.

Lee is many things, but he is not a darling of the movie industry. He lives in Brooklyn and doesn't play on Hollywood's social lots; he's a no-show at industry parties and refuses to join the Directors Guild. On the other hand, Singleton is Los Angeles born and bred. Although he won't win an Oscar this year, the industry likes the USC grad. If nothing else, they like the fact that he made a movie for $5.7 million that took in ten times that much at the box office. Politics, racism, and class struggle go over a lot of these people's heads. Money does not.

Los Angeles — One Week Later

The cast and crew have moved to a different location, a residential block in a more upscale neighborhood. This neighborhood is also predominantly black, but it has bigger houses, with pretty gardens and lavish, rolling lawns around back. About fifty people, cast and crew, stand disconsolately inside and around a comfortable-looking house, doing nothing, burning up studio dollars and valuable production moments. It’s a couple of hours after lunch, and Singleton is sitting outside, quietly fuming.

The trouble is, an important video segment hasn’t arrived as scheduled. Today’s scene can’t be shot without it. It’s a scene in which Justice sits in the living room of her home watching television; the missing segment contained the images that were supposed to be played back on the television. Production assistants point at one another, saying, “I thought you were supposed to bring it,” and, “Like hell I was.” Because of the timing and location, there’s nothing else that can be done until the tape shows.

Singleton is characteristically even-tempered. Sanguinely, he says, “It should’ve set us back an hour, but it’s taking most of the afternoon.”

While many directors habitually rant and rave, Singleton has never been known to blow up. He admits to getting frustrated and says he often wants to vent. But he doesn’t believe overt anger has ever made something happen more quickly on a set.

For some reason, the delay has raised the tension level to its highest pitch yet. It’s still relatively early in shooting, and the crew has yet to settle in. Everybody looks uncomfortable. Trying to cope, Singleton locates a box. He puts on Rick James’ “Super Freak” at block-party decibel level. A few of the crew members start dancing. Singleton says, “I should have thought of this sooner. Play some music when things are getting tense. We used to do this all the time on Boyz.” The earlier film was shot in six furious weeks; the box was out a lot.

The Poetic Justice shoot must be going smoothly, because he hasn’t had to pull out Rick James until today.

Los Angeles — The Next Day

A 12-year-old girl visits the set with her mom and two brothers in tow. She wears a key on one of her hoop earrings and a “Rhythm Nation World Tour” T-shirt. Looking around anxiously, she explains that she is “Janet Jackson’s biggest fan.” Her little brother pipes in, “You should see her room. Janet Jackson everything.”

The girl explains that she met Singleton last year when he visited her elementary school. When she heard Jackson was co-starring in Singleton’s new film, she wrote him a letter asking to meet her. “John liked the letter and invited me to the set,” she says. The girl keeps one eye cocked, looking for Jackson at all times. She spots Jackson’s chair and squeals, “Oooooo. She’s here. This is her chair.” Like Goldilocks in the Three Bears’ house, the girl and her two brothers take turns sitting in Jackson’s chair.

Singleton comes out and greets the family as respectfully as he would any studio vice president. Then Jackson comes out to meet her fan, trailing two bodyguards who try to stay unobtrusive. She looks like any of the very pretty black women on set, the sort of girl who’s always told she should be a model or an actress. Face to face, and not projected larger-than-life on a video screen or dancing around a stadium stage, you realize that she’s a real person. It’s oddly comforting and reassuring.

Although not very tall, Jackson has an almost regal grace and posture. Perhaps the most-avoided subject on the set is the fact that she’s the youngest member of America’s First Family of Soul. Clearly, to this little girl, meeting Jackson is like meeting the Queen. After burbling a few compliments, the girl and her family is shuttled offset so that the actress and director can continue. The meeting is a rarity; the schedule is so tight that every interruption, be it from fans or press or studio heads, takes away precious minutes.

Los Angeles — Two  Weeks Later

A month into shooting, the barrage of visitors continues: press, industry, and financial-types, hangers-on and hopefuls, most of them gunning for Singleton. The array of suits constantly dogging him includes his legitimate Sony colleagues, as well as the enemy—writers and producers who bluff their way onto the set and try to woo Singleton with big talk and outrageous promises.

So, the two white men in suits standing near the camera truck could be anybody. They’re talking to another white guy, a member of the camera crew. The suits, who obviously haven’t read the Poetic Justice script, ask him what the movie is about. “It’s a love story,” the camera guy says. The suits pause.

“So, it’s a nice story?” one of them asks.

“Did you see Boyz N the Hood?” the camera guy says, looking at them dubiously.

“No.” The suit shakes his head. “But I saw New Jack City.”

It’s a minor moment, but it makes you think. There will always be those who throw Singleton’s work into that big grab bag called Films About Black Folks. Those who will never be able to tell the difference between Superfly and Lillies of the Field.

Baldwin Hills — Two Weeks Later

On location in a Baldwin Hills hair salon, Singleton is reading Rising Sun by Michael Crichton between takes. A fictional diatribe against a perceived Japanese threat to our way of life, the book is being made into a film—a major production—starring Wesley Snipes and Sean Connery. So Singleton is especially curious about this novel, though he is always working his way through one book or another. That is, when he isn’t playing Lynx, a hand-held video game system. Either way, he has the ability to concentrate on the book or game despite the bustle of activity surrounding him.

The mood on set is light. It usually is while shooting scenes in the hair salon, where Justice works. They are typical on-the-job comic riffs, like sitcom set pieces—Cheers meets the ghetto. Shampoo for afros. Today’s scenes strike the giddy crew, at least, as the film’s funniest so far.

Singleton looks up from his book and shouts, “Action!” Jackson and Tyra Ferrell cut up, almost losing their self-control in a maelstrom of giggles. Their timing is right-on, but after film stops rolling, Peter Collister, the director of photography, says that the shot was no good because one of the screens used for lighting purposes shows in the shot.

“Maybe it will just show a little bit,” Singleton says, hopefully.

Don Wilkerson, unit production manager and first assistant director, shakes his head. “John, at a drive-in, that screen will look a block long.”

Singleton looks annoyed. “But the performance was so good. It gets no better. Damn, I hate when this happens.”

Seizing an opportunity to nag, Collister says, “Now if we were on a soundstage….”

Singleton just smiles at him, acknowledging the point. He fought for location shooting, even though Hollywood lots make work much easier. Defiantly, Singleton says, “I didn’t want to be on a soundstage. It’s too artificial. I wanted to be on location. With my people.” To emphasize his point, he turns and hugs the person standing next to him. He does this a lot.

The screen is cleared and the picture’s up again. Singleton whispers directions to the actors between shots.

After one good take, he yells from his chair, “Now that was perfect. Let’s do it again.”

The cast and crew groan. They’ve heard the line before. And they’ve also heard what comes next: “I love you and I love myself. Action!”


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TBT.... Me at my purest time... 1986.... Graduating Blair High School.... On my way to USC Cinema School where is planned to make my mark on the world.... Today is October 2015.... Four years after this picture was taken... And 25 years ago I began principal photography on Boyz n the Hood... I was only 22... Now today I'm blocks away from where Boyz was shot doing scenes from SNOWFALL my first TV series... More dreams to be fulfilled and soul to capture on film. Give blessing to God that I've survived when so many of my folks didn't make it... I think our purpose is to honor those that came before us and pull as many of us trying to get ahead forward as well... I was a kid with lofty dreams in this picture now I'm a general on the battlefield.... Time to work!!

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* This article originally appeared in a 1992 issue of VIBE Magazine.


EDITOR'S NOTE: Photographer Michael Grecco wrote a passage reflecting on John Singleton's passing. Read below:

Monday was a sad day knowing that great American artist John Singleton passed away. John was a truly extraordinary creative artist, and in his memory, I wanted to share a special moment we had many years ago.

I had the privilege of photographing John in 1992, in a shoot that marked my career transition from photojournalist to an artistic portrait photographer. On a personal level, John has come to represent this final switch from covering events to developing my own vision.

At the time of our memorable shoot, I had spent five years in L.A. working for People Magazine. Moving from the Boston Herald on an invitation to be one of their regular shooters was hard for me. I loved the storytelling aspect of being a news photographer but wanted to explore my personal vision as an editorial and commercial photographer. This was uncharted territory. Little did I know John Singleton would help me take the first steps in this direction.

Prior to the Singleton shoot, I had just purchased the Holga camera to experiment with. The Holga was a plastic camera with plastic lenses that took artistically slightly soft images. It also gave me the ability to use my strobes (flash) outdoors.

On that early spring day in March, I picked John up and he suggested that we go to South Central for a location. I didn’t know that area at all, but I figured the legendary Watch Tower was a good symbol of the neighborhood, and so that’s where we went. I pulled the Holga camera out for the first time. John truly understood how to collaborate and make the elements of the photograph tell a story. During our shoot, he was a true creative partner, contributing his ideas, patience, and intellect.

The experience and resulting portrait were unfamiliar in a new and tantalizing way. With John’s help on that day in 1992, I had broken ground into new photographic territory. Since then, I have moved my career into a more creative and stylized direction of portraits, capturing celebrities all around the world. Thank you John, for taking that first step with me. I will miss your achievement and contribution to this world.

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Kanye West, ‘Jesus Is King,’ And The Unspoken Bipolarism In Between

Last week, Kanye West brought his California-based Sunday Service event series to his hometown of Chicago. In a clip that’s been making the rounds on social media, West is seen in the middle of the massive crowd, attempting to move toward the stage to watch his assembled choir perform both standard hymns and gospel interpolations of 2000s pop/R&B songs. When a security guard intervenes to lead the way, Kanye grabs him by the shoulders.

“Step back,” Ye says confidently. “Watch this. This is my city.” He then proceeds to walk through the crowd, parting the sea of people with minimal hand movements. As he passes through, fans call him by his alter-ego, Yeezus, while screaming in a manner reserved for the day you finally meet your hero.

“Somebody said #Kanye thought he was Moses,” The Shade Room posted on Instagram along with the video. Naturally, I migrated to the comment section, where it didn’t take long to find the most-liked response: “This isn’t about God or church and it’s sad to witness.”


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#PressPlay: Somebody said #Kanye thought he was Moses 😩 #ThatsHisCity (📹: @kdeo0)

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If you’ve paid even the slightest bit of attention over the past two decades, you’d know by now that it doesn’t matter what anyone else thinks about Kanye—once he’s attached himself to a concept, he’s all in. Religion is no exception.

Last month, Kim Kardashian West announced that her husband would be dropping a new album called Jesus Is King, a 12-track project set to be released on September 27. It will contain tracks featuring titles like “God Is,” “Baptized,” and “Sweet Jesus.”

When I first saw the handwritten tracklist, I wasn’t surprised. Kanye has been hosting Sunday Service since before his Coachella/Easter performance, so it’s only natural that his next effort might be linked to gospel. But once I saw the clip of him moving through the crowd, my stomach twisted in knots: Kanye has always thought highly of himself, but his recent actions, and focal points, border on messianic. He’s not going to make this release low-key or easy.


— Kim Kardashian West (@KimKardashian) August 29, 2019

The past year and change has been challenging for many Kanye West fans, myself included. Look no further than his views on Donald Trump—and, uh, slavery—to understand why a significant portion of his listeners (mostly black) have called it quits. As tempted as I’ve been to follow, my relationship with the rapper is a bit more complex.

We’ve both been diagnosed as bipolar, a mental condition characterized by manic highs and depressive lows. Depending on where you are on the spectrum, mania can either make you feel mildly irritated and erratic, or a deep, yet deceiving, purity that makes you think you’re in touch with God Himself. I fall solidly in the latter group, and my condition began with a grand epiphany that didn’t feel like a mental disability at all.

It came to me as I sat in a Texas church in September 2016, with my arms wrapped around my grandmother at her brother’s funeral. I’ve never heard an unspoken message so loudly, but there it was in my brain: “Your purpose on Earth is to spread the word of God through music.” It was so unmistakable that I looked up at the pulpit with wide eyes, convinced the pastor had spoken directly to me. I was shook, but invigorated by the imaginary prompt, a marked shift from how I felt weeks prior.

Before I flew home to Texas from NYC to be at my grandmother’s side, I was in the darkest depression I’d ever experienced, triggered by a profound disappointment that my life wasn’t panning out the way I had hoped, both professionally and personally. I was jobless and falling out of love, so I spent the majority of my time in bed, curled up in the fetal position and sobbing endlessly.

I felt myself slipping and began to pray nonstop for any kind of change, a thread to hold onto. Seriously: that’s how this all started. When I began my own informal research later, I found that others with bipolar disorder had been set off by the same thing. “What drove me into my first manic episode was me being extremely, unhealthily single-minded in pursuing the Lord more than I ever had,” one YouTube commenter wrote underneath a video titled “A Look at Bipolar Disorder from a Biblical Perspective.”

That’s how focused I was. I surrendered myself to prayer until the tears stopped and I began to experience thoughts and sensations I had never felt before. My depression dissipated, replaced by a divine sense of calm mixed with an insuppressible desire to save the world with my bare hands. As time would tell, I was going through my first bout with mania, but it felt as if my body was crackling with the electricity of a natural-born superpower (albeit one I couldn’t control).

So imagine my surprise last June, when I heard track two of Kanye’s most recent album, ye. “That's my bipolar shit, ni**a what?” he said braggadociously at the end of “Yikes.” “That's my superpower, ni**a. Ain't no disability. I'm a superhero! I'm a superhero!”

It was a hell of a statement—and Kanye’s first admission of his diagnosis. I related so deeply to his revelation that I threw myself into explaining away his distasteful comments and actions. I assumed Kanye would become a poster child for bipolar disorder, and I wanted to protect him at all costs.

Instead, Kanye has rejected the diagnosis (which Kim Kardashian eventually walked back), and given select interviews to people who have no intimate knowledge of living with a mental condition like his. In these conversations, he tip-toes around explaining exactly why being bipolar makes him feel like both a superhero and a warrior for God; the most vocal artist of our generation prefers to instead keep his experiences mysterious and otherworldly.

I want Kanye to open up because not everyone diagnosed with bipolar disorder experiences it in the same way. For many, especially those with bipolar 2, mania manifests on a less intense scale: individuals can feel untethered to the real world, and become irrationally worried and antsy.

As someone with bipolar 1, the extreme iteration of the condition, I mentally skyrocket up to the heavens where I feel one with the universe, and believe I have the ability to connect with anyone through love and spiritual energy. The episodes are intense and disorienting, but those lofty feelings linger indefinitely.

“No matter how many times people told me I was sick, I felt this unshakable knowingness that I had encountered the divine,” Waking Up Bipolar host Chris Cole explained on his podcast in a February episode, “When Depression is Awakening: Attachment, Faith, and God.”

When Kanye first announced he was bipolar, I hoped he would shine a light on the stress of vacillating between grandiose heights and the depths of depression, which Chris Cole broke down on his podcast. “I have an ability as a bipolar person to get really small, and then get really big,” he described. “That can be energetically, that can be my ideas of who I think I am… It could be something like, I don’t need to address anyone—I don’t need to tell my story to anyone—and then all of a sudden, I need to tell my story on the grandest of stages.”

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, diagnosis of bipolar disorder is “based on symptoms rather than brain imaging or other diagnostic tests.” In other words, uncharacteristic behavior is the determining factor that sends red flags to those around you. For example, my family can hear in my voice when I’m starting to become manic: I talk faster, I’m more charismatic and funny, I have no filter, and I make big plans that are clearly out of my reach. Meanwhile, in my brain, the whole world is shedding its old skin and it’s my job to lead people to “the light.”

In the moment, it feels like a responsibility that I never asked for, but a blessing all the same. This kind of experience is exactly why some bipolar people choose to reject their diagnosis altogether: they’d rather run toward God than an illness.

I wholeheartedly believe in science, doctors and psychiatry, but I’ve yet to find a treatment team that is willing to balance “spiritual encounters” with the clinical. I’m typically told to forget that mumbo jumbo, just take your pills and get back in line with society. (Some doctors are nicer than others, but this is always the underlying message.)

As with any condition, perception is a slippery slope—but to ignore the thoughts and observations that bipolar people feel they legitimately experience is to push them away from medical insights and drive them strictly toward faith and religion.

“I think we have to really be careful thinking about faith as something that can be measured in a biological sense,” Cole advised in his podcast. “Then we get in a lot of trouble because we say, ‘Well, I have so much faith—I’m burning so bright, look at me.’”

In my personal experience, heightened mania feels like you're the oracle sent to speak to the rest of the world on behalf of the Most High; like you're the one selected to advance humanity through never-before-seen methods. Sound familiar?

While being manic can make me (and countless others) feel like the Chosen One, it also makes me focus strongly on community, collaboration, love, and kindness. I see all of these qualities in the Sunday Service series.

In an archived live stream of the Chicago Sunday Service, the choir of mostly black millennials swag surfs and milly rocks together while singing God-centered flips of popular songs like the Clipse’s “Grindin’” backed by a drumline and horn section. To keep it a buck, they sound excellent. As many on Twitter have pointed out, though, the approach isn’t exactly new. “Every Black child that grew up in Baptist church has done mashups that sound just like this,” social justice organizer @brownblaze tweeted. “Please don’t call this innovative or creative.”

Halfway through the service, West performs his first attempt at worship music, the 2004 single “Jesus Walks.” To end the song, he changes the repentant line “I wanna talk to God but I’m afraid ‘cause we ain’t spoke in so long” to a defiant “We ain’t afraid to talk to God!” After his proclamation, West surveys the crowd, sunglasses covering his eyes on a rainy day. He takes in the moment he’s created before exiting the stage to continue tinkering with the instruments that got our attention in the first place.

While I don’t have the power to build a viral choir or make an album about Jesus, I do have the power to peek through mania and open the doors to the church in Kanye’s mind, and my mind.

Since the day my religious epiphany was explained to me as a symptom of my condition, I’ve been trying to draw a line from point A to point Z, and drag people from the medical side and others from the spiritual side and have them meet somewhere in the middle for a discussion. As of now, the chasm between the two communities couldn’t be more wide.

So when I see a bipolar person like Kanye, speaking loudly about God and feeling like a superhero, I understand what’s going through his head. But I wonder what his motivation is. I wonder if he will ever make the connection himself and help his listeners understand exactly why he’s releasing an album called Jesus Is King. I wonder about these things constantly because I have a confession: I still believe Kanye West can change the way we talk about mental health.

I just wish he would start a real conversation.

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Over the last several weeks, there’s been an onslaught of Top 40 and 50 music conversations. A (truly misguided) top 50 rappers list led to people in the music industry and entertainment industry creating their own (including a really solid one from Mike Tyson), even a Top 40 Best Dressed/ Flyest Rappers of All Time list (immediately rendered void by Sean John “Preserve the Sexy” Combs sitting in the bottom three). In the midst of the listing frenzy, Timbaland put forth his Top 50 producers. Notably missing: any of Bad Boy’s famed Hitmen squad, the collective responsible for the overwhelming majority of the label’s hits in the mid-late 90s.

First, the Hitmen “captain,” Deric “D. Dot” Angelettie, reacted.

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What Producer lists??? #Hitmen - We are the soundtrack to a generation, an era. We birthed a lot of you cats out there!! #WeDareYou Over 200 milion sold... #DiamondRecords - Top 5 Dead Or Alive!!! #Historic #HowSoonTheyForget #BadBoy @hitmansteviej_1 @diddy @iammariowinans @chucklife365 @ronlawrence @nashiemmyrick @richyounglord @hitdent @dubzworld @hittmobb411 @carlosbroady

A post shared by D-Dot (@ddotangelettie) on Aug 18, 2019 at 1:41pm PDT

Then, the head Hitman himself, Puffy, bigged his squad up.

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Back in the 90s I put together a crew of producers. We all worked together in a musical brotherhood and created the soundtrack to a generation!!!!!! Over 200 million records sold. We are the motha fuckin HITMEN!! And don’t you EVER forget it!!! #BadBoy4life @hitmansteviej_1 @iammariowinans @chucklife365 @ronlawrence @nashiemmyrick @richyounglord @hitdent @dubzworld @hittmobb422 @carlosbroady @ddotangelettie

A post shared by Diddy (@diddy) on Aug 18, 2019 at 5:07pm PDT

Puffy and D. Dot were absolutely right to say, “Um, remember us? The folks who kept the parties poppin’ for almost a decade?” The Hitmen are among the architects of the East Coast hip-hop sound. For the better part of the ‘90s, Bad Boy’s in house production team carried the label to dominance by mastering the marriage of hip-hop and R&B, creating the remix, and pushing rap to the top of the pop charts. However, it’s normal for them to be left off of classic producer lists specifically because they took hits from the ‘80s (yeah yeah) and made them sound so crazy (yeah yeah), instead of pulling obscure samples and/or creating complex sound structures like, for example, RZA. A producer friend once critiqued a Bad Boy song by dropping the needle on a 12”, and remarking, deadpan: “That’s how D. Dot produced that track.” But this is an unfair critique; if you go beneath the surface, you'll find that the Bad Boy Hitmen were talents with their own styles, true musicianship, and the elusive understanding of the anatomy of a hit. And yeah, there was a lot of shiny pop and disco samples, but there was some real New York street ish in there, too.

Full disclosure, I’m a little biased about the Hitmen. I worked in Reggie Osse’s (aka Combat Jack’s) entertainment law office when his firm represented the full roster of producers. I remember when VIBE’s feature on the producers, “Mo Money Mo Problems,” hit stands in August 1998, and gushing to Mario Winans (who I had a paralyzing crush on) about how great he looked in the spread. I then went on to work at Bad Boy, so definitely not objective, but there’s plenty of sound evidence to support my argument. Production collectives don’t hit like they used to, but from the Motown and Stax era through Hip-Hop’s rise to the mainstream in the ‘90s and early ‘00s, a tight, dependable team of talent was often the secret ingredient in a label’s winning streak. Bad Boy would have lockouts at NY’s Hit Factory studios, and later Puffy’s own Daddy’s House studio, with a nonstop rotation of producers, talent, friends, etc falling through sessions. It was fertile ground for collaboration.

Season 3 of Netflix’s award-winning Hip-Hop Evolution looks into Bad Boy’s dominating era in music, starting with Biggie, but propelled by a distinctive Bad Boy sonic. Puff shared his motivation for forming an in house production squad: “I was always a big fan of Quincy Jones, not as a producer but as an orchestrator. I never saw him play an instrument, and that empowered me because I didn’t play any instruments (for the record, Quincy is a legendary jazz trumpeter, but had to stop playing after a brain aneurysm). I saw him giving direction, I was good at giving directions,” he explained to series narrator Shad. “The Hitmen believed in me and my leadership, so you had that cohesive sound, so it’s coming from one brain; our collective brain.” The formation of the Hitmen - of the Bad Boy sound - was the key to Bad Boy surviving Biggie’s death in 1997.

In 2016, D-Dot, Nashiem Myrick and a few other Hitmen sat with their former lawyer Combat Jack to talk about their legacy at the A3C conference. D-Dot compared the producers in their prime with another legendary NY team. “We started believing that we were the Yankees. We were puttin’ up home run hitters...everybody was contributing...Stevie would walk in with something. Then other teammates came; the next thing you know, Mario Winans joined [the team] later on. Then, shit got even crazier ’cause Chucky [Thompson], Stevie, and Mario are musicians. Like, for real musicians—five, six instruments apiece. Then to watch the three of them battle each other. Like, ‘Okay, we gotta make D-Dot or we gonna make Nash’s beat hot’...So Mario’s playing drums, Chucky is playing the bass, and Stevie’s on the keys—playing at the same time; they didn’t rehearse.”

The squad taught each other new techniques, played off of each other’s strengths and pushed each other to be better. “It made for great competition...That’s how the hits got made.”

Over the full course of Bad Boy’s run there’ve been more Hitmen than Wu Tang members - even Kanye was rumored to have joined the production team for a hot second several years ago. However, not all Bad Boy producers are Hitmen; that’s a special distinction appointed by Puff himself. As with other collectives, sometimes individual credit was skipped for the sake of the bigger picture. But also, in true team style, several Hitmen often worked on a track, with one laying the foundation, working with the artists on their vocals, and one closing out as the anchor with final touches. Today, we’re focusing on some of the key members in the lineup at its strongest: Deric “D Dot” Angelettie, Ron “Amen-Ra” Lawrence, “Stevie J” Jordan, Nashiem Myrick, Chucky Thompson, Mario Winans, and Rashad “Ringo” Smith.


THE CAPTAIN: Deric “D-Dot” Angelettie THE ELDER: Ron “Amen-Ra” Lawrence

Several of the original key Bad Boy staff members and label collaborators originally met at Howard University. Deric "D Dot" Angelettie (aka the Mad Rapper) promoted parties with Puff, and he and another day one Hitman Ron "Amen-Ra" Lawrence started as a rap duo called Two Kings in a Cipher.

Deric is universally recognized as the head of the original Hitmen, second to only Puff, and had his hands in almost everything the collective did not only as a producer, but the label’s head A&R: figuring out what track worked for whom, coaxing performances out of developing artists, and guiding new producers coming into the fold on how to develop Bad Boy’s Midas touch. As a producer in his own right, he and partner Ron Lawrence were behind some of Bad Boy’s biggest hits.

Even though Deric was at the helm in the shiny suit era, he prefers a harder sound than the bop-inducing tracks. “I’m more grimier hip hop, that’s where I’m from.” Deric has explained. “But I love to dance and I love money. Puff said ‘If you can combine those two with what you do, you can be an asset to me.’”

While the dance and bling tracks are what most immediately come to mind with Bad Boy’s chart-topping era, there was way more in the catalog than the soundtrack for bottle poppin’ and partying. The Mad Rapper reminded the A3C crowd in the Combat Jack conversation, “What people don’t realize is that we probably had some of the grimiest hip-hop records in history...along with them joints that popped on top.”

He was talking about songs like classic posse cut “Money, Power, Respect,” a power anthem flipped from a ‘70s jazz fusion song, complete with DMX barks for that extra umph.

And “Where I’m From,” the haunting track Deric and Ron gave to Jay-Z after Puff passed it up, (and then got mad, even though he passed it up). 20 years later, the song still prompts that screwface only a disgusting beat and flow can inspire.

But even when moving on the dark side, a necessary Hitmen trait was the ability to walk the line between street, soulful and sexy. Shout out to Carl Thomas and Too Short.

There was one track D-Dot absolutely did not want to touch because it was too on the nose: Mase’s “Feels So Good.” (The sample from Kool & the Gang’s “Hollywood Swinging” is the one my producer friend criticized.) He tried to pass it to Nashiem or Stevie, but Puff insisted he produce it.

Even though Deric and Puff weren’t always on the same page with musical styles, he has always been one of the most vocal defenders of the team’s talents and the Hitmen legacy, as he was back when folks were accusing them of just dropping the needle on the record. "Let me see you go up in the studio, coach vocals, mix a record, and add all the necessary shit you need to get them three thousand eight hundred [radio] spins a week," he told VIBE in 1998. "Puffy can do that. Deric Angelettie can do that. Stevie J. can do that. Nashiem can do that. Ron Lawrence can do that. That's what makes us producers."

While Deric’s sonic heart was sometimes more in the streets, his partner Ron Lawrence - who could just as easily move between the two works - often kept the party stuff going even when working outside of the label.

THE GRIMEY ONE: Nashiem Myrick

Day one producer Nashiem Myrick is rarely one of the first - or second, or third - Hitmen that comes to mind, but he was one of Big's favorites - probably because he translated Big’s energy to track so perfectly. Nah started as a studio engineer, and started being pulled into sessions until he became part of the official first Hitmen lineup, along with his partner Carlos Broady. He’s lowkey been responsible for some of the grittier songs out of the camp. I mean, this is one of the hardest tracks of all time. Period. Till this day. The song was originally for Mary J. Blige’s “My Life,” but Big went too hard with his verses. They put an interlude version on Mary’s album (with Keith Murray), and when the full version dropped it was perceived as a shot fired at 2Pac, inciting the infamous East Coast/West Coast beef between Bad Boy & Death Row (the song was written and recorded long before Pac was shot at NYC’s Quad Studios). Song lore aside, it’s still one of Big’s best (and still my go-to when I need motivation for anything - public speaking, a negotiation, a run, a drug heist, whatever).

Nashiem got (and gets) very little light, despite the classics he’s put up. He was never one of the “faces” of the camp, but he’s said that wasn’t his goal. “I didn’t care about radio...Radio wasn’t in my domain. I just wanted to rock the streets, rock people’s minds...I just wanted to be the hardest dude out there.” And he did that without losing or compromising the trademark Bad Boy energy. (Nash’s songs are also some of Puff’s greatest adlib moments.)

Some of your favorite ugly Big joints are Nash’s. (This is also one of my favorite uses of this Al Green sample.)

He was also behind Lil’ Kim’s most Biggie’ish song.

The thing about being part of a collective is, there’s work that nobody will know you did because it was credited to the collective name, or to just one of the producers, or, in the early years with this team, sometimes just Puffy. Nash has said he produced one of the best Mariah remixes of all time (with Puff, of course).

Nash did put some radio points on the board under his own name.

And here, with the help of Stevie J.

His R&B direction was even still kinda hard – a reminder that the Hitmen were one of the earliest and most adept teams at using hip-hop tracks under R&B voices.

Almost all of the Hitmen also had East Coast hip-hop classics outside of the Bad Boy ecosystem, and Nash had one of the most NY joints ever - the inspiration for his eventual company name: Top of New York Productions. You got beef, I got beef.

THE R&B SPECIALIST: Chucky Thompson

DC native Chucky Thompson was part of the Hitmen before the Hitmen were the Hitmen, but he isn't discussed as much as his counterparts. That may be because his work is better known in R&B circles - two of Chucky’s biggest career markers are his work on Mary J Blige’s seminal sophomore album, My Life, and on Faith’s debut album. But he was a core element of Bad Boy’s foundational hits.

He joined the Bad Boy affiliation to work on Usher’s debut, which LA Reid had turned over to Puff to oversee. There was no real Bad Boy production team of any kind yet at this point.

Look at little itty bitty baby Ush!

Chucky became a core producer for the label, and would float from session to session in NY’s Hit Factory (Bad Boy’s studio home before Daddy’s House), adding keys here, guitar there, a drum track there. The beginning of the collaborative nature of the eventual team.

He really found his groove when he started working with Mary. Puffy initially wanted him to do maybe one song for My Life, but Chucky ended up spearheading the production of the whole project.

(This is my sh*t.)

The producer met Faith while working on Usher (Faith and Donnell Jones wrote “Think of You,”) and then continued working with her on Mary’s album. When Puff signed her, Faith told Chucky she wanted him to produce her album. His church-taught musicianship and her church-bred vocals were a perfect fit. She heard a track Chucky was working on for Total, who Puff was developing, and snatched it up.

Chucky didn't just bless R&B artists; he was also good for adding a bit of swing and melody in a rap track.

He was also great for a good ol’ hip-hop hood love story.

Like I said, all of the Hitmen also had key classics outside of the Bad Boy roster, Chucky included. He’s a regular collaborator with Nas.

THE MVP: Stevie J

In 2019, Stevie J. is known mostly as a reality TV star, and there’s an entire generation of people watching his exploits and ego like “I don’t get it.” But his self-aggrandizing is kinda justified: he was an integral part of one of the hottest eras in urban music history. Listen, “Steebie” ain't sh*t. Ain't never been sh*t. But he is talented as hell. The PK (pastor’s kid) plays multiple instruments, writes, arranges, sings…

Stevie said in his own response to the Top 50 list, there’s a difference between a beatmaker and a producer. Steven Jordan is a producer.

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Timberland- diddy- swizz & Dre know what’s up! There’s a difference in beat makers, people that don’t produce but say they are producers & then there are Producers. I’m a Producer

A post shared by Stevie J. (@hitmansteviej_1) on Aug 18, 2019 at 1:01pm PDT

Stevie came into the Bad Boy fold working with Jodeci, and at one point was was part of Devante's Swing Mob collective. He was the on-call person when Puff needed a specific touch. Much like Puff himself, Stevie was good for making a track sexy (“sexy” is a tangible thing at Bad Boy).

Like Deric tried to do with “Feels So Good,” other producers would kick certain songs over to Stevie when they felt like it was something destined for the pop chart by way of the dance floor. “One day Mase comes in the studio… he pulls up a Diana Ross record, ‘I’m Coming Out.’ He was like ‘Yo, Nash, hit that for me. I need that. I want to do that.’” Nash once shared. “I was like, ‘Nah, that’s not me. Steve about to come here. Let Steve do that.’” Mase took it personally and was allegedly never really good with Nash after that, but Nash wasn’t trying to be shady. “I knew I couldn’t bless it like Stevie. Stevie comes in, does it, it comes out, sold 2 million.” Then Puffy heard it, said it was fire, and told Mase it was going on Big’s album (poor Mase).

In my personal opinion, Stevie and Puffy were very similar. They had the same flair; Stevie moved a lot like Puff back in the day - you’d catch him out with full-length furs, platinum crosses and Jesus pieces, and no shirt on - which made him a perfect collaborator.

But that also meant they were destined to eventually clash. Similar to young Puffy while at Uptown, Stevie was hungry to grow, telling VIBE in ‘98 “I wanna see my name in big lights without Puffy as well as with Puffy.” With his ability to add live instrumentation on top of samples and loops - or even recreate samples on the spot - Stevie was an MVP for the team and contributed to two of Bad Boy’s most anthemic hits.

Stevie had a strong run of success outside of the label, too, if not long-lived.

He co-produced several songs on Mariah Carey’s Butterfly album, garnering his second Grammy.

While not the biggest of his hits, one of my personal favorite Stevie J contributions is Dave Hollister’s "My Favorite Girl," his debut solo single after leaving Blackstreet. I love this song so much, because it is so soulful, has so much church up in it, but is so damn disrespectful. If you listen closely, you can hear Stevie in the background vocals.

THE BABY: Mario Winans

Mario Winans kept things poppin’ when the veterans started leaving the fold, bridging the gap between the classic Bad Boy era and the P. Diddy and the era with The Family, G Dep, Danity Kane, Da Band, and Dirty Money.

He’s like a Stevie J. Jr with a touch of Chucky: a church-raised musician (his mother is Vicky Winans) who could play multiple instruments, write and sing.

He brought the sexy...

The core R&B feel…

And he was an artist in his own right.

But if Mario never did anything else in his career, we are thankful to him for these two classics. I’m team Part 2, by the way.

THE MOST KNOWN UNKNOWN: Rashad "Ringo" Smith.

Ringo Smith is a wildcard member of the Hitmen. There’s almost no info on him - google him and you’ll find some credits but no real interviews or video footage. I’ve worked in this game my entire career and never heard anybody say, "Yo, Ringo Smith is dope." And yet, he’s respected enough in music circles to have been one of the faces memorialized on A Tribe Called Quest’s iconic Midnight Marauders cover.

But the super low key Smith produced some of Bad Boy’s biggest early bangers.

He belongs in the hall of fame for this alone.

Ringo even made some of your non-Bad Boy faves from this era. “Doin’ It” was originally intended for Big’s Life After Death follow up, which is why “Go Brooklyn” is sampled throughout a song by the very-much-from-Queens LL. *Makes it hot*

I called Ringo a wildcard because he could move in so many different directions. He doesn’t have a sonic signature.

He could effortlessly go back and forth between left-of-center and shiny, happy, everybody-report-to-the-dancefloor right now.


Finally, we have to address the team General Manager (literally; all Hitmen were managed by Puffy). There's been a lot of speculation over the years about Puff as an executive producer. Did he just come in and push a button and get EP credit? But a majority of the Hitmen have said on record that Puff has the most important element of a good producer: the ear.

Hitmen Jeffrey “J-Dubb” Walker and Anthony Dent talked about Puff’s strengths as a producer in a round table with other members of the team for The Urban Daily. He echoed the same sentiments Puff shared in Hip-Hop Evolution. “People say Puff can’t play an instrument, he ain’t no producer. You ain’t gotta play sh*t to be a producer,” J-Dubb argued. (Clearly, that standard for producers is long gone) “He knew what he heard in his head and he knew who could make that happen. … That was his job!”

Anthony added an example from his early days with the team when Puff asked him to turn off the sample machine while he was talking to him. “(Puff) was standing by the SP and I said, ‘It’s right there, turn it off.’ He looked at the equipment and said ‘Playboy, I don’t know how to work none of this sh*t in here. I know how to make a hit.’ And that’s when it hit me: You know how to put a record together, you’re a producer.

So the Hitmen were not just a  ‘70s and ‘80s sample factory - but also, why was there even so much hate around sample-based hits (aside from the whole not seeing any back-end money because of publishing thing)? As Nash exclaimed at A3C, “Hip-Hop was created by taking an old record, rapping on it, and making it new again. That’s how the foundation of Hip-Hop started, so how could you be mad at what we’re doing? We were just doin’ it on another level.”

From the perspective Puff shares in Hip-Hop Evolution, crossover or not, the music was still serving us: black folks. “I just started to choose real big, worldwide samples, and I figured out how to keep it black as a mothafu**a. And they would go pop, but they would still be so fu**ing black. We make that cookout music, we made that get married music, we make that make that make your baby music.” As much as we look back on the shiny suit era with disdain today, after years of gangsta and mafioso rap, we needed some party music. We needed fun hip-hop. And there’s a reason the songs still hold up: the samples were classic and the production was flawless. In my opinion, the sole difference in good production versus flash in the pan ish is whether or not you can run the track in 20 years and it still feels fresh. I guarantee you danced to a Hitmen-produced track at least once this summer. All their top joints still feel fresh.

Even though the OG’s are long gone and the days of Bad Boy as a full roster of artists and producers are gone as well, the Hitmen are a lifetime fraternity. Going back to the VIBE interview 20 years ago; the vets were just starting branch out. Deric was cultivating Crazy Cat (with more John Blaze), Stevie was working on his own stuff (he didn’t even show up for the photoshoot, on some superstar ish). But Deric, in true team captain fashion, insisted it didn’t mean there was bad blood. "In fact, it's endorsed.” He insisted. “When Puffy assembled us, the first thing he said was, `It's gonna take time for y'all to become what y'all need to become, but at the end of the rainbow, there could be label deals, production deals....' So kill all the rumors. If Stevie J. leaves, if Deric leaves, we're still Hitmen. Our line to each other is, `Once a Bad Boy, always a Bad Boy.' "


#MusicSermon is a series by Naima Cochrane that highlights the under-acknowledged and under-appreciated urban artists and sub-genres from the '90s and earlier. The series seeks to tell unknown and/or forgotten stories that connect the dots between current music, culture and the foundations of the past.

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Courtesy of Black Music Honors

The Unrestricted Music Ministry Of Yolanda Adams

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 for more information.

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