BET’s ambassador to gospel music
If gospel music had an ambassador it would be Bobby Jones — the host and executive producer of Bobby Jones Gospel, Black Entertainment Television’s first and most popular gospel music program.
Through his show, Jones has helped to launch many gospel careers including contemporary gospel artist Kirk Franklin who first appeared on “The Bobby Jones Gospel Hour” in the late 1990s, and whose gospel music album became the first to sell more than a million units. Yolanda Adams got her start on the Bobby Jones show too.
Jones has a knack for recognizing authentic gospel talent. Perhaps this is why Whittier Street Health Center asked him to host their Eighth Annual International Gospel Benefit Concert dedicated to “Saving the Health of the Community.”
The concert was an American Idol style competition with Jones selecting the top three winners to appear on his show. Some of the contestants included the Blessed Hope Tabernacle Praise and Worshippers, the three sisters of Refined 313, The Milton Academy Gospel Choir, and Oladunni and Olayeni Oladipo — two young girls from Providence.
Whittier also honored Rev. Hurman Hamilton Jr., of the Roxbury Presbyterian Church for his commitment and dedication to the Boston community.
“The concert serves as an opportunity for us to come together as a community and share in the talent and dedication of these gospel artists as well as celebrate the contributions Rev. Hamilton has made as one of our most inspirational spiritual leaders to Bostonians,” says Frederica Williams, president and CEO of Whittier Street Health Center.
Whittier Street Health Center is on its way to receiving a mega-blessing. In fact, the center recently broke ground to build a $35 million dollar facility that will reside along the Southwest Corridor in Lower Roxbury, just feet away from its present location.
Jones spoke to the Banner from his home in Tennessee, sharing his understanding of gospel music and his thoughts and prayers on the role of gospel and contemporary American society.
Can you define Gospel music and talk about its purpose in society today?
Well, gospel music was a music that was created, inspired and promoted in the early 1930s in the church and in the Christian atmosphere to bring some means for people to communicate effectively with one another from a spiritual perspective. Thomas Dorsey brought the sound of gospel into the church. They called him Blues Tom, because he came from the nightclubs with it, and it inspired and encouraged a lot of people, and it was accented by the African rhythms of our people.
With that definition, the church first ostracized it because it sounded too much like the blues and black music, so it took years for it to be considered a legitimate musical form. So what happened, as time went on, and as contemporary gospel became in the 1960s through Edwin Hawkins, it began to redevelop into a more accepted musical form.
But it wasn’t until the 1980s, when BET took gospel music and put it on its network television so people could see and hear and then start this revolution and kinship of the gospel music industry. It’s flourishing in a great way; it makes money, people come out to see it and I’m really proud of it.
One would think that gospel music has been around forever.
No, there were worship singers, which was not gospel; there were spirituals that were done, both on a professional level. Fisk University presented spirituals with the Jubilee Singers, and there were others, but they were hymns. There were three other musical forms that black people used in churches in those periods, but gospel didn’t come about until we heard the blues element brought into it by Thomas Dorsey.
You’ve been credited with taking gospel music to the mainstream. What were some of the challenges that you faced while accomplishing this task of bringing gospel music to the mainstream?
Well, gospel really was relegated basically to those fans who loved that musical style and it was only performed and presented in those churches and those places that would accept those styles. They were the only places that would accept that style, and that was a very small number of people, just like it was for country music.
But when we brought the sound along in the 1980s, it began to grow significantly and we began to listen to the real singers because most of your RandB singers came out of the churches anyway. The voices were there, but the mainstream was not accepting that, so until then, the radio airplay was very thin; there was practically no television, and you only had that one way to hear that sound. That’s where it was, and that’s where it stayed until the 1980s. And we want people to understand the impact that BET had on our industry and our music. The Yolanda Adams, Kirk Franklins, all those people didn’t just jump up and happen. There are a lot of people standing on a lot of people’s shoulders.
What were some of the challenges that you faced just getting it onto the airways?
Our challenges basically were finding the place to do it, to present it, getting the kind of funding that was necessary in order to get the quality that you would need to make it work. So you have the same challenges with any music: you have to have funding, the site, and you have to get the people there. So, in each of those three categories, the challenge was to try and make that happen, and we’re still working on that now.
I know it’s good to be modest, but would you mind telling me about some of the current gospel celebrities whose careers have been built on what you’ve done?
Well, the biggest one is Kirk Franklin. Well, he’s the most popular one. His career was launched through our show. And you get the ones — every one of them except for Donnie McClurkin and the Winans — that came through us. Plus we have some of the older groups like the Caravans, groups like those who were singing before. They were doing what they were doing, but on a different scale than what it is now with the Yolanda Adams, the Kirk Franklins and the Commissions.
You are like the gatekeeper! How does it feel?
Humbling, and I’m still doing some work, you know I have a new CD that features gospel music on a more intimate manner with The Word Television Network and Centric Television, and of course with BET.
Where is gospel music thriving the most in the United States?
Gospel music doesn’t thrive on a major level in Boston or other cities like that that tend to be more culturally divided or segregated. But in the South, you are not getting either what you think you could get from gospel because they think gospel thrives in the South — it doesn’t; country music does.
Gospel music tends to thrive in Middle America, Chicago, St Louis — those places are where your hubs are. The South was the very last area to accept gospel music, and they still don’t accept it much. It’s just black singing in churches, from hymns that were going on in the South, but it’s not “gospel.” Gospel has a very pronounced sound — it started with the piano, and it wasn’t for some years into the 1970s before you could bring drums into the churches here. And people forget that. No instrumentation, just voices. Drums and other instruments were stripped from the church because they thought they were satanic, so they didn’t do it.
Lots of churches are turning away from gospel and embracing praise music. What are your thoughts about that?
It’s a reflection of a change and of what is happening in America with our culture. Black people are now doing praise music in church because they feel that they no longer have the same situations that they had in the 1930s, ‘40s ‘50s and ‘60s. We really do, but instead of admitting to the problems we’re having, we’re now speaking in praise to God for his goodness and grace.
Is that a good thing, or a bad thing?
I think it’s a good thing. Things change; situations change. We’re different now than we were then. But it hasn’t totally changed; it’s still being introduced.
Do you have a church home? And where is it?
It’s in Nashville. I’m not an organized church person. I go to an organized church, but I don’t believe in all of the things that organized churches do. So I go there to worship because it’s convenient, and because I like the gathering. I think that any door that’s a Christian door, you can walk in it and do what you need to do with your relationship with God. I just feel that God’s going to be where anybody can go and give praises to him, and worship him, and First Baptist Church don’t belong to me. It doesn’t belong to anybody, it just belongs to God.
What’s your take on some of the highly publicized issues that have emerged in the church over the last decade, and your response to how the church has dealt with them?
If they don’t practice what they preach, it’s just a waste of time. Let somebody come out in the church or make a mistake. What the church does — this is generally speaking with what you get from the news and all — is they all go against instead of supporting the person or help them with whatever problem they’re trying to solve. They castigate them! You’re killing your own soldiers! And that’s never made any sense to me.
I know that God is the greatest inspiration that anyone can have, and so in addition to the Almighty, who were the people that have influenced your career?
Well, a lot of people. When you get as old as I am and you listen to various people speak on various topics on life and situations, we learn from each other. So I can’t say specifically; it depends on what is vibing out there; what the topics are about, and how I internalize them, and how I can apply them to my lifestyle. I’ve listened to Maya Angelou, I’ve listened to Louis Farrakhan who happens to be Muslim; I’ve listened to what Jesse Jackson’s had to say, what Al Sharpton’s had to say; I’ve listened to Dr. Martin Luther King and what he had to say. A lot of people have the spotlight — they’ve all had good things to say.
I thought it was interesting that you had Louis Farrakhan listed on your site as someone who was influential, and I wondered about his influence on you.
Well it wasn’t spiritually, but yet it was because I think we share the same creator, actually. So I don’t get hung up on things like that. I have my beliefs, he has his beliefs, and I respect what the Muslims do, and there’s no difference in who we are — I mean how can we criticize them? The only difference between them and me is that I choose what I choose, and they choose what they choose — and none of us have the answer.
If you had to pray for anything or anyone in the world at this moment, who or what would it be and what would be that prayer?
If I had to pray for anything in this world today, it would be that we would use our gifts to support one another and help us to live better on this planet in every aspect: socially, educationally, financially, religiously. These are the fine tenets of life that would help us contribute and live peacefully in this world.