“What’s Done in the Dark” Blog Series: Chapter 1
Chapter one in a new blog commentary series focusing on the down-low counterculture and lowdown hypocrisies of the African American church and the Gospel music industry
Posted below are excerpts taken from a commentary blog series by J Matthew Cobb entitled "What’s Done In the Dark: Understanding the Down-Low Counterculture and Lowdown Hypocrisies of the Black Church and the Gospel Music Industry." The views expressed in this and future posts in this series are the opinions of the individual author and may not reflect the opinions of the parent company HiFi Magazine. Reprint with permission.
Coming Out From Under
“Come out of depression/come out of low self-esteem/Come out of poverty/Come out of lesbianism/Come out of homosexuality”
— Tye Tribbett, lyrics taken from “Victory” (2008)
Most people who listen to gospel or urban inspirational programming on a regular basis have certainly heard Tye Tribbett’s 2008 gospel radio hit “Victory,” a cute go-go-fueled gospel ditty more than once or twice in their lifetime, but depending on who you are and what your sensitivity levels are, Tribbett’s need to go for rabid tent revivalism in the middle of the song produces one of the more unethical moments in modern gospel.
First of all, the gospel singer, who comes off sounding like an animated hype man aspiring to be a Kriss Kross rapper, hits a brick wall when he equates poverty with depression. Unbeknownst to some, poverty isn’t necessarily a easy thing to come out of. Third world countries wish they could just walk away from their present conditions. Poverty is a state or condition that bears little to no economic power, with a heavy burden of accountability failling back on the laws and policy of the land. If you have very little income and without any area jobs producing a sturdy economy, walking away from the dark sore seems to be a logical answer. Well, you probably think that Mr. Tribbett was just preaching to his American fan base and not to those dying kids in Africa who need late-night infomercials to feed them. Ahh, well, once again Tribbett is facing murky waters.
In a recent Indiana University study, over 46 million Americans are living below the poverty line. That’s up 27% since the start of recession of 2006. And if you thought it was that easy to just “come out of depression,” think again.
“Poverty in America is remarkably widespread,” concludes the study, At Risk: America’s Poor During and After the Great Recession. “The number of people living in poverty is increasing and is expected to increase further, despite the recovery.” John Graham, the dean of Indiana University, stated that the numbers of the “new poor” are expected to rise.
So what should the new poor do? Listen to a Tye Tribbett song and have their everyday fears washed away? They’ll probably get better inspiration listening to The Roots How I Got Over or Bruce Springsteen’s Wrecking Ball. At least, they are more realistic when compared to the “name-it-and-claim-it” gospel anthems that reverberate throughout the gospel music community.
But Tribbett’s biggest problem in this catchy urban track is actually his assault on homosexuality. Those who follow Tribbett passionately aren’t totally surprised at his choice of words. He’s a radical Pentecostal fireball that turns up the fire on the raging conservative values of mainstream Christianity. And when he gets the chance to preach at his concerts, he has no problem in letting you know what he believes. On this particular moment in “Victory,” he summons his parade of listeners to “come out of lesbianism” and “homosexuality,” once again using the same kind of “name-it-and-claim-it” bait that obviously dominate the messages in recent gospel radio songs made by Donald Lawrence, Vashawn Mitchell and Mary Mary.
So how easy is it to be delivered from homosexuality? Are there any pieces of evidence that can prove that there’s a such thing as deliverance from homosexuality. Or should I phrase the question using medical jargon: Is there a cure for homosexuality? Can the gay bug be killed?
Oh goodness, how silly does that sound. What kind of planet does Tye Tribbett live on? If he attempted to spray that kind of homophobic venom at the gospel industry that supports him, there probably would be only a handful that would remain standing.
But one of the peculiar elements that appears to be a bit hazy in Tribbett’s rant on homosexuality and lesbianism is the omission regarding his own remission of sin. In 2009, the gossip blogs burst on fire about the dirty inside scoop that involved the “Victory” singer having an auspicious affair with an unconfirmed choir member of his own background group, Greater Anointing. The buzz also involved an alleged cover-up that also included gospel rapper Da’ T.R.U.T.H (Emmanuel Lambert, Jr.) having an affair with Tribbett’s wife. For a year, Tribbett failed to address the story, which forced the water-cooler story to hit high profiled web blogs. Suddenly, Da’ T.R.U.T.H. released a press statement to the gospel media stating that he is “taking a sabbaticl from ministry” after a “moral indiscretion” in his personal life.
When his highly-anticipated album was expected to launch in 2011, now without Greater Anointing behind him, his record label and publicist forced Tribbett out of silence and placed him directly in front of the Associated Press to address the affair, confirming definitely that the leaked suspicion championed by the blogs were more than just typical gossip.
“I thought it was something that’ll never happen,” Tribbett said. “I still have to say the same thing as before because it’s a sin. I still say it’s wrong. But my approach is more compassionate. It’s not as militant. It’s easier to preach against something that’s not your struggle.”
Since then, Tribbett’s solo career and success has nosedived south, paled to his “Victory” era, but his fanbase – postured in the heat of conservative Pentecostal preaching – continue to advocate their “love the sinner, hate the sin” approach to homosexuals. Still, their failure to address their own private corruption – whether it be other “sins” or their own struggles of sexuality – remain undocumented.
From its very inception, gospel music – the bedrock of the African-American church and the source of inspiration for sister genres like rhythm-and-blues and soul music – has been fostered by the hands of gay men and women. It’s a stick subject of taboo, but any of the gospel artists, both past and present, are too ashamed to broadcast their own sexuality because of the fears instigated by their own religion.
It also remains a shaky subject for the Thou Art holies who wrestle with that notion, but many of the great gospel songs and choruses were penned, orchestrated and championed by gay men and women. Because of the hypocritical rhetoric that spews out of the black pulpits, gay men and women are afraid to “come out” to reveal their sexual identities due to the fear of rejection, shame and possible death.
The Reverend James Cleveland, one of the key architects of the contemporary gospel movement and who designed the Gospel Music Workshop of America – the largest gospel music convention of its kind – was allegedly identified in the Los Angeles Times and Jet magazine as “a closeted gay man, “ according to his adopted grandson. In a story titled James Cleveland Infected L.A. Youth with HIV, $9 Mil. Lawsuit Claims, the Jet article stated that Christopher Harris, a foster son of Cleveland’s filed a lawsuit in the L.A. jurisdiction claiming that he was infected with the HIV virus by the gospel singer. In the suit, Harris plainly addressed Cleveland as a “practicing homosexual for several years.”(Jet, Mar 2, 1992) The case was settled out of court. The terms prohibited him from ever discussing the settlement, but allowed him to discuss his life with Cleveland. “I wanted to sing,” Harris told the Sunday News Journal, while also stating that his sexual encounters with the gospel singer were not molestation, but consensual (Oct. 94, Graham). “I didn’t want to be like him. He promised that he would help me. He just played it to his advantage. He used my naiveness to his gain. People in Cleveland’s inner circle knew, people at church knew. But they pretended it didn’t exist.”
In a November 1991 article, another adopted son of Cleveland’s, Andre Cleveland, sought his share of the late gospel singer’s riches made against his estate. The Los Angeles Times mentioned prior to his request that a copy of the trust document gave LaShone, Cleveland’s biological daughter, $100,000 and Andre earned $10,000. Of course, Andre wanted more. “After a year or so living under the same roof, it was also mutually agreed that I become his common-law son, bearing his name,” said Andre M. Cleveland. “This, I became Andrew Miguel McIsaac Cleveland.”
Although he once was married, Cleveland’s high-profiled career – enshrined with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and once connected to the stars themselves, as he participated on recording sessions with Elton John, James Brown and Lou Rawls – just wouldn’t allow him to live outside the corridors of a closeted life.
Clara Ward, one of the greatest matriarchs of gospel’s golden era and close confidant to legendary preacher Rev. C.L. Franklin, the father of Lady Soul Aretha Franklin, was revealed to be an open bisexual, by her own sister Willa Ward. In the book Singing in a Strange Land: C.L. Franklin, the Black Church and the Transformation of America, Nick Salvatore mentioned a particular behind-the-scenes episode that unveiled just how mysterious the rich and powerful lifestyles of the black church really was.
“Gospel performers were as human as anyone else and did not live apart from any aspect of this performance culture. While not all had affairs with other performers or with fans – the Dixie Hummingbirds, for example, enforced a very strict doe of behavior for group members – many did. As a teenager in the 1950’s, Etta James toured with Little Richard and recalled it as “a time of crazy orgies, and Richard, along with nearly everyone else, was a willing participant.” One of the “wildest parties” she attended occurred in Philadelphia, where, among others, gospel singer Alex Bradford’s sexual appetites stood out in the young singer’s memory. “When it came to partying,” James commented in a more general vein, “the gospel gang could swing all night.” Willa Ward, Clara’s sister, recalled a particular evening following an annual Baptist convention in Chicago in which Bradford also figured prominently. Ministers and gospel singers, some of them bisexual, gathered and after earlier leading delegates “to holy dancing and shouting [they] were now doing their own inspired thing,” Willa archly commented. At this party she first discovered her sister’s bisexuality, when one of the hosts approached Clara to apologize for not inviting a woman for her that evening. Questioned by her sister, Clara explained, as Willa remembered, that while “my thing is men,” her mother’s controlling protectiveness and intrusive spying “gets between me and any man I decide to get tight with.” (2005, Salvadore, pg. 202-203)
The mystery behind the sexuality of Professor Alex Bradford, a Bessemer, Ala. native who went on to compose gospel standards (“Too Close to Heaven”) and starred in the off-Broadway, Obie-winning musical Don’t Bother Me, I Can’t Cope and in Your Arms Too Short to Box With God, has always been under question, since his live performances remained under high scrutiny for its alarming flamboyance and gay-like attributes, which helped inspire the stage persona and vocal dynamics of rock ‘n roll legend Little Richard. Music journalist Anthony Heilbut wrote in his book The Gospel Sound, “In his flamboyant robes, Bradford is Gospel’s Little Richard, letting it all hang out.”
TV One’s Unsung series has also opened up the floodgates and shattered all myths pertaining to the gospel music industry’s tight-lipped secrecy on their closeted homosexuals. R&B singer Miki Howard, who’s best remembered for her string of R&B No. 1’s including “Come Share My Love” and “Love Under New Management," opened up about her mom’s sexuality. Josephine Howard was a member of the Original Caravans, a gospel troupe anchored by the vocal support of Albertina Walker, Shirley Caesar, Dorothy Norwood, Inez Andrews and future disco diva Loleatta Holloway. The Caravans was also once spearheaded by the musical direction of Cleveland in the group’s golden years. Miki admitted to being teased as a child by her fellow peers because word on the street caught on to her mother’s “hell-bound” sexuality. “All of a sudden, these children cant play with you,” Miki admitted, “and they spit at you. And they are yelling obscenities at you and you don’t know why.”
Josephine tried to mask her sexuality by marrying a man after moving her family to the West Coast to help jumpstart Rev. Cleveland’s career as a choirmaster in Southern California. “My mom is gay, so all of a sudden she turned straight. And then she wanted to marry an ex-con and he’s crazy and he’s tried to molest me and I wasn’t having it, so I got get kicked out of the house.” Sadly, when Miki Howard moved in with a foster parent and later moved on to become a burgeoning local act, her mother’s life was cut short from lung cancer at the age of 42.
R&b/pop singer-songwriter Billy Preston also earned his own Unsung special, which led his closest friends to open up about Preston’s constant war with his faith and his sexuality. His sister, Rodena, who currently serves as the chairwoman on the mass choir committee of Cleveland’s Gospel Music Workshop of America, contributed a few quotes about Preston’s upbringing to the documentary, but declined to comment on her brother’s sexuality. But friends and loved ones close to Preston were far from silent on their friend’s sexuality and the constant struggle he had to endure with the faith community. As revealed, Preston was sexually molested as a youth.
“Billy was gay,” said Preston’s friend Sylvia Smith. “He didn’t wear it on his sleeve. How could he? He was a black man that came from the church. The church would have destroyed him. [But] he wasn’t ashamed of who he was.”
Another friend, recording artist Will Porter also chimed in on the subject. “One time he said something funny,” Porter remarked. “He said, Choirs? Oh, that’s the gay/straight alliance. The church choir. He said that’s the gayest place in America.”
In 2010, Anthony Williams, III, best known to the body of gospel music consumers as Tonex’, stepped out from hiding and revealed that he would no longer identify himself as being “straight.” He came out from hiding on the religious-baited cable talk show The Lexi Show. Weeks later, The New Yorker picked up on Tonex’s boldness to come out of the closet in an expose highlighting the singer’s milestone – becoming the first black gospel artist to come out of the closet (Contemporary Christian acts like Jennifer Knapp, American Idol star-turned-former Christian singer R.J. Helton and Dove Award-winning Ray Boltz and some of the most recent white artists to come out as gay).
The New Yorker piece included a talking point from Bishop Yvette Flunder, renowned gospel singer who participated and worked with gospel great Walter Hawkins, that suggested that “gospel music is gay music, with vanishingly few exceptions; she estimates that the proportion of gospel performers who are, or have been, same-gender-loving might be as high as ninety percent.” (Feb 8 2010, Sanneh)
Little did the New Yorker know that Tonex would later drop his ambitions as a gospel star to pursue a different career in the mainstream as B. Slade – a David Bowie knock-off of Ziggy Stardust that seemed more liberated working as an independent free agent bouncing mixtapes and free downloads unto iTunes. Since then, Williams’ glory has started to shed a few pounds. No longer is he the posterchild of gospel, but a recluse to his own past. His work ethic remains high and his creative muse still bubbles with the eccentric execution of Bilal Oliver, but Williams – who once preached fiery condemnation of gays on his double-disc, gold-certified Out the Box album, obviously a brick-wall intolerance towards an act he secretly participated in – can no longer use his “out the closet” event, his Ricky Martin moment to help the disenfranchised same-gender-loving victims of the church. He’s in a different place and now appears to be one with the big dogs, or something like that. Williams’ present-day audience, albeit extremely smaller than Lady Gaga and Adam Lambert, may be former or present-day church goers, but he can no longer reach his former audience dressed as a cross-dressing crossover act.
An influx of gospel performers like Darwin Hobbs, Donnie McClurkin and cinema titan Tyler Perry, have admitting publicly to being sexually abused by men. From those painful experiences, they have all taking a very bitterly narrow approach to discuss the sensitive subject involving men who struggle with their sexual identities. All of the aforementioned preach a powerful message that focuses on rehabilitation and deliverance, whatever that is. What is so ironic about their present-day victories is their miraculous explanation to becoming “straight” men. Actually, they don’t even talk about their sexuality, which actually explains why musicians gravitate to gospel music as a career profession. In gospel, they don’t have to endure with the on-going, constant questioning of their sexuality. They don’t have to sing to a specific gender while looking outrageously uncomfortable in their staged performance. They don’t have to go through the endless “is he/she or isn’t he/she” trivia that forever battered the careers of Luther Vandross, Freddie Jackson or Queen Latifah. They don’t have to worry about the tabloids getting into their privacy and digging into their personal affairs. It’s probably the only musical genre that comes with its own sworn package of secrecy. In gospel, men who are practicing church musicians and choir directors – old professions that have endured a certain tease of being typecast as being “gay” – can comfortably hide behind the choir robes as if their audience doesn’t know or care about what they do behind closed doors.
Still, whether the closeted choir director knows it or not, the congregation and the choir continues to whisper amongst themselves. And as the communication in our high-tech society becomes more and more sophisticated and complex, the closeted choir director will have to eventually face the music that’s being sung on the MediaTakeOut’s, the networking websites and on personal YouTube videos. And if there’s one thing that the African-American church, has failed to do, it is failing to being transparent enough, which is the polar opposite of what they preach and proclaim to their throng of followers every Sunday morning.
J MATTHEW COBB
May 30, 2012