Stephanie Renee on the significance of historically Black colleges and universities on gospel and contemporary music

Rachel IshikawaBlog, Home Row 1

Stephanie Renee doesn’t need a microphone. After years of vocal training, she knows how to project her voice at any range. Stephanie’s musical education started at the Galbraith AME choir in Washington DC where she grew up, and by high school she began singing as a soloist. At the University of Pennsylvania, her alma mater, Stephanie sang in the gospel choir and eventually ventured into the world of musical theater.

While Stephanie’s spirituality has shifted over the years, she still traces her roots to the church. She currently makes club-ready spiritual gospel music and runs Soul Sanctuary, a nonprofit media and education organization. She was also a radio host and Program Director for six years at WURD, Pennsylvania’s only black-owner radio station.

Gospel Roots of Rock and Soul Producer, Rachel Ishikawa, spoke with Stephanie Renee about gospel music and the role of Historically Black Universities in contemporary music on December 11, 2018. This transcript has been edited for clarity.

Rachel Ishikawa: What’s your own relationship with gospel music like? When did you first started listening to it and how does it influence your singing practice?

Stephanie Renee: I always say that I was really kind of born into music because my mother and father met singing together in a gospel group. So the you know origins of my exposure to the music and kind of indoctrination if you will in some of the historical ramifications and its impact on our community were heavily influenced by their relationship and the fact that I grew up in DC. So, you know being in the nation’s capital but also being in a place that was lovingly referred to as “Chocolate City.” There was so much black history that surrounded me each and every day.

Interestingly enough my mother and father didn’t attend the same church. My father attended and was eventually minister of Music at Galbraith AME. So there was very much a leaning toward the more classical arrangements of Spirituals and and some disdain at my church for gospel because gospel was considered little too worldly, you know, unrefined in some ways. So I wasn’t encouraged to sing gospel as a young person.

RI: Could you name a couple of songs that you that come to mind from your upbringing?

SR: The two that stand out in particular are “The Storm Is Passing Over.” There was a stomp, there was a march, there was an energy to that particular arrangement that always I think of when I think about my roots and gospel. And then a beautiful choral arrangement of “When We All Get to Heaven” and that was the first time I understood what a contralto was. I will forever hear the arrangement both vocally and musically in my head, you know, because it made such an impression on me as a young child.

RI: You make music today, you identify a singer-songwriter and I know that you also are involved in theater in what ways do you think gospel music is like an influence and all of your artistic endeavors today?

SR: When I was younger, I just wanted to be a part of it. So I wasn’t really concerned about being a soloist. I wasn’t concerned about standing out in any way. I wanted to be a part of these beautiful harmonies that I had heard in my house from my parents in their choirs my whole life and when I got to high school is when I finally had a choir director who said you’ve got so much more in your gut. You got to let it out. And trained me to start singing louder to start pushing through finding my range. In musical theater of course, even though you have lavalier mics tucked away in your hair, you are constantly reminded of the need to project. And so the idea of gospel of really singing from the gut of singing with feeling and translating that to an audience that’s been invaluable in the productions I’ve done.

RI: When you think of someone like Sister Rosetta Tharpe, people would say, “Oh she knew how to project.” She didn’t need a microphone because she was trained. I love that that’s still a tradition.

SR: It is. Absolutely. You know, one of the other people that have been incredibly influential on my life is Dr. Bernice Johnson Reagon, one of the founding members of Sweet Honey in the Rock. She talks about growing up in Southwest Georgia in a very rural church environment. They didn’t have big pipe organ. They didn’t have a lot of people to even contribute to the musical presentation as a part of the service. So people would stand up and they would begin to sing Spirituals or begin to sing devotional songs as a part of the service. The idea was to fill [the room] up with the sound of your voice. The way that she wails, the way that she moans, the way that she projects her voice into a space is very purposeful. It is intended to fill up.

RI: Can you tell me a little bit more about her influence on on you.

SR: Oh, yeah. We’ll see. I’m from DC. So, you know immediately I remember  where I first heard Sweet Honey in the Rock and everything about them for me as a little kid fascinated me. So to see these women who individually were singing things that were completely different, but it all blended together into this beautiful heart moving music was really, really powerful. I didn’t get a chance to see them again until I think my sophomore year in college. We got student tickets while I was at Penn to go see them at the Academy of Music. We’re up in the rafters, but it didn’t make a difference Academy of music’s an opera house. I’m leaning kind of over the balcony listening to them the entire time and not believing that six women could create all that sound in a building that big. It makes you strive harder to think about how you share your gift.  

RI: Something that I’m really fascinated about that group is that they straddle different worlds in a really elegant way. I think of them as a political group. Did that sentiment translate to your own work as well, like having that social conviction?

SR: [Dr. Ysaye Barnwell’s] written most of the songs for Sweet Honey in the Rock that I love. The ones that I listen to over and over again: “No mirrors in my nana’s house.” “We you know me.” Just these beautiful anthems that talk about self-empowerment that talk about our connection to a larger universe. You know that that kind of spiritual theme is incredibly potent and important and so the idea of how impactful they’ve been for so many different reasons: all-female group, all women of color, the way that they present themselves with their Garb, with the ASL. And then expanding for me the idea of spirituality in music because it doesn’t always have to sing about Jesus every line. it’s more of a, there is a Spirit dwelling in you that is powerful and connected to everything and you’re going to have to draw on that and some very difficult times in order to get through this moment for yourself. But also to join together with other people who recognize injustice and other things that are wrong in the world and make it better. And so, you know for all the things that gospel being translated to Good News this idea that you’re not helpless in a struggle that there are other people who will recognize the injustice that were recognized the inequity and work together with you and you may not pray to the same person, but that’s okay. You know it expanded the idea of what gospel meant to me.

RI: I want to make a connection between contemporary music that we’re listening to and then going back to the roots. And to do this I would love to talk to you about HBCUs. What’s the role of Fisk University and the Fisk Jubilee singers?

SR: So the role of Fisk and other HBCUs formalized the presentation of spiritual music which is incredibly important as we talked about developing into contemporary gospel and even creating substantial commercial lane for gospel to dwell in in the in the contemporary music industry. There were so many people who sang these songs, who memorized these songs and sang it for their individual edification under the harshness of enslavement and then would share and they talked about the invisible praise houses. So the idea that you couldn’t formally attend church in many spaces, but you had Church in a field. You had Church where groups were gathered in order to keep one another encourage through this horrible experience. With the establishment of historically black colleges and universities now you had an opportunity to reach back to that history and develop concerts, develop a formal arrangement style approach to continuing to share that music that brought more hope. And so being able to share this music in concert form in this new choral approach to it that is thoughtful with the arrangements and the presentation shows that we are developing a new relationship with this music that wasn’t strictly born out of that horrific experience. Now, we can really listen and re-engage with the music in a way. That’s more hopeful that is pushing us to greater success and prosperity and peace in our own lives and that to me is is invaluable. If you’re going to talk about gospel being Good News, then what is better news than enslavement is over and now we are building our lives in a new way. Now, we are fighting for rights and for justice in a way that we haven’t been allowed to before.

RI: I think that a perspective that I’ve heard a lot which is maybe a little bit less hopeful I think is that Spirituals evolved in these invisible churches and then were institutionalized and as a result were Europeanized. I think that it is very valuable to then also reframe that idea. It’s not a perspective that I’ve heard and I wonder I wonder why.

SR: There are struggles particularly in the gospel community about what level of expression is accepted. For a long time as gospel began to really become crossover there were all kinds of debates among the learned and really respected directors and the arrangers in the gospel world about how many times you should proclaim “Jesus” in order for it to be a legitimate song. And if people were prompted to dance to it, is that really the way that we want gospel to be presented to the world? So the idea of almost putting bookends on it to say what is Gospel and what is not I think it was relatively well-intentioned, but I think it’s born out of still a sense of trying to be accepted, trying to fit into something that garners respect without rocking the boat  I can understand why some people would say that the choral arrangements having a more European style and everything else were detrimental. If that was all gospel ever became then I would fully agree with that. But it’s not.

There are people who learned in that tradition and then said, Oh, but there was something really significant about the field hollers about the mournful wail that I’m going to figure out a way to bring back into this music. Or the same way that we praise the rhyme of a preacher delivering a sermon, I’m going to find a way to make it musical and I’m going to rhyme them very similarly. And yes, you know other people calling this hip-hop, but I’m going to do it with a spiritual bent. Why is this different from the preacher delivering a sermon? So we debate the our aesthetic of it very often.

At least every 10 to 15 years as the next kind of wave of innovation happens within the industry. There’s lots of debate about what good is it doing. Now we have gospel trap. If you’re spreading Good News, then I would think you want to embrace that, but some people are slow, you know to the uptake.

RI: That really helps my framework of understanding where Spirituals play a role in in the history of gospel music.

SR: Well and you know and like I say growing up in DC I can say that I was couched between some two of the most storied HBCU music programs in the country: Howard University and Morgan State University in Baltimore. People may consider these programs to be relatively traditional. So again, if we talk about the European model for vocal arranging and what have you then that’s there, but I think there are directors of these programs that are really trying to put that in context for people. And encourage them to take the breath of their training and elevate it into whatever their form of expression is that will continue the conversation. So out of Howard University’s music program came the acapella group Afro Blue. Morgan State University has Navasha Daya, who is the former lead singer of the group Fertile Ground. She’s now touring with Sweet Honey in the Rock. It’s all rooted in the backbone of that training that included those Spirituals and that gospel music that comes from an HBCU program.

RI: Institutions always take a little longer to catch up.

SR: Yes they do.

RI: And if you think about the history of music in HBCUs, you know, you have African American Spirituals at the offset, and a while after gospel choirs were even introduced into the institutions. My interpretation is that it took so long partially because there is a delineation between high art and and more colloquial art.

SR: I think [these institutions] do not see themselves enduring if they give up some fairly rigid standards for how things are done presented explained to the rest of the world. You know, it’s just the the fight for existence I think dictates that a lot. And so, you know, there’s been quite a bit of debate as we become a much more multicultural world about the relevance of HBCUs. What does it mean to be historically black and present anything in a contemporary context? So I think that is part of the ethos that makes it difficult sometimes for HBCUs to embrace the more contemporary ideas whether it’s something as simple as an aesthetic.

Hampton University offended the former editor-in-chief of Essence magazine, and she canceled an appearance because they weren’t letting their business students wear braids because they said it wouldn’t be accepted in a corporate environment. Well, Susan Taylor has been wearing her hair braided and beaded and all kinds of you know, traditionally African kinds of hairstyles for as long as she’s been a public figure and she says, “Why do you want me to come speak to your children if you won’t even allow them to groom themselves like me?” And it started this big debate about what is tradition? What is historically black? What are we holding onto or what are we developing that is going to serve us as we continue to move forward?

And so the music is very much the same way. A lot of what I record these days is considered to be spiritual house music. I’m trying to draw from some of those faith traditions in the way that I present the music lyrically, even though it is intended to make you dance and transcend in many ways some of the things that bother you about daily life. So I have a song called “Can’t Steal My Joy” that is really the idea that the spirit of denial or telling you you’re less than. It’s something that you can’t allow to take root in your life. And so you have to proclaim, “You can’t steal my joy.”

This interview was produced for WXPN’S GOSPEL ROOTS OF ROCK AND SOUL. GOSPEL ROOTS OF ROCK AND SOUL has been supported by The Pew Center for Arts & Heritage.