Sounds of Blackness

Posted in Music on Jan 08, 2010

Grammy-winning music group

grammysThough they have won 3 Grammys for their Gospel music, it’s not accurate to call Sounds of Blackness a gospel group.  What Sounds of Blackness does is sing music that represents – as their website states – “sounds of blackness: Jazz, Blues, Rock and Roll, Rhythm and Blues, Gospel, Reggae, Ragtime, Spirtuals, Work songs and Field Hollers.”

Their R&B work has earned them gold records, positions on the R&B charts and a Soul Train Award.  Their songs have been featured in numerous soundtracks and they sang at the White House 5 times for President Clinton.  Not to be overlooked, President Obama called Gary Hines (musical director of Sounds of Blackness) to let him know he and Michelle are big fans. Another big fan is Janet Jackson, who helped launch them into their first big record deal back in 1989 with Terry Lewis and Jimmy Jam (who’ve produced everyone from Prince to Sting, Mariah to Janet.) And despite all this success, Gary comes across as humble and just honored to be able to deliver music to the world.

Sounds of Blackness has accomplished so many things, including using their music to heal.  Sound of Blackness’ commitment to social causes includes a partnership with domestic violence agencies. Their song “She is Love” has been used in domestic violence training and presentations nationally and, as Gary says, the song is as much a tribute to mothers and women as it is a statement against domestic violence.  Listen to it HERE or view it below.

Maybe you were one of the billion who saw Sounds of Blackness perform at the 1996 Summer Olympics or have seen them on tour around the country or heard one of their former members sing to you as an “American Idol” contestant (see the q&a for more on this), but if not, welcome them into your listening repertoire. If you’re in New York, the group will do a free Martin Luther King Day concert at Brooklyn College. If you can’t make that, their latest album, The 3rd Gift, will give your day a boost.

Their music is sung from the heart, their voices mesh together in gorgeous harmony — it’s pure melodic peace in your busy day.  Sounds of Blackness’ inspiring music and message of unity is a perfect way to start 2010.


you can read this q&a with a soundtrack! listen to “Optimistic or “Harambee” from The 3rd Gift

(in this interview, Sounds of Blackness is represented by Gary Hines, Sounds of Blackness musical director since 1971)

Gary, as a college student you became musical director of Sounds of Blackness in 1971.  What was the group’s mission and did you ever imagine that the group would be so successful and last for so long?

gary hines

gary hines

The mission of Sounds of Blackness in 1971 is the same as today in 2010, and that is to inspire and unite people of all backgrounds through African-American Music.  And we actually did, even back then as students, envision ourselves performing world-wide, winning Grammy’s and earning recognition.

Anything memorable from your first gig with the group back in 1971? Did you go through any tough times where you thought you might have to throw in the towel — and if so, what actions did you take that turned things around?

My 1st performance with Sounds of Blackness was at our birthplace, and my alma mater, Macalester College.  We performed in the Janet Wallace Fine Arts Center for Black History Month and we had a great concert and a full house.  There have always been tough times, there still are, and no doubt there will always be tough times, but that’s when we persevere by faith.

How many people were in the group in 1971 and how many now?
Sounds of Blackness’ membership in 1971 consisted of 40 singers and three musicians.  Our current membership total is 25: 15 singers and 10 musicians.  Our Tour Group has 15: 8 singers and 7 musicians.

sounds of blackness today

sounds of blackness today

With so many people in the group, I’d imagine the dynamics are like a family…lots of love and lots of personalities meshing together.  Any tips on keeping the peace?

Yes, Sounds of Blackness have always been and still are a family.  The keys to keeping the peace are having members whose heart equals their talent, lots of prayer and consistent communication.

Sounds of Blackness sings “Respect” with Jordin Sparks at the NAACP Awards

Sounds of Blackness tours nationally and internationally — what are some of the most fun, interesting experiences and people you’ve encountered?

Certainly our tours with Stevie Wonder to Africa and South America and Luther Vandross in the US for 5 months. Other stand outs include touring to the Historically Black Colleges, our Christmas Show Tour, and our many tours of Japan and the UK.

Sounds of Blackness perform “Hold On” at the Vibe Awards

Sounds of Blackness has won 3 Grammy’s, been honored with Emmy nominations and NAACP Image Award nominations, earned platinum and gold albums — is there any award that is especially significant for you and the group?

The International Time For Peace Award is particularly significant because the world acknowledged, recognized and rewarded our music and message of love and peace for people all over this planet.

You’ve performed at the White House 5 times — which presidents did you meet and who left the biggest impression?

All five of our White House Appearances were at the behest and under the auspices of President Bill Clinton. I have had the honor of speaking to President Barack Obama via telephone and he told me that he and Michelle are long-time, huge Sounds of Blackness fans! I was impressed by President Clinton’s memory and President Obama’s vision.

I’ve heard you say that Duke Ellington is a mentor for Sounds of Blackness.  Which of today’s artists do you listen to and draw inspiration from?

Today’s artists who inspire us include Take 6, Alicia Keys, Common and Mint Condition.

Former American Idol Paris Bennett was once a singer for Sounds of Blackness. As someone who has built the success of Sounds of Blackness over nearly 4 decades, what do you think of reality competition shows that make their contestants stars overnight?

Paris Bennett grew up around Sounds of Blackness and we have appeared and recorded with her. However, it was her mother Jamecia Bennett, grandmother Ann Nesby and aunt Shirley Marie Graham who sang some of our leads.

As for competition shows and overnight stardom, that is actually not a new reality at all.  Going back to shows like “The Ted Mack Amateur Hour” and “The Arthur Godfrey Show” (which my mother Doris Hines won and it launched her career as an international jazz singer), shows like these were forerunners of American Idol.  Frequently, the winners and other contestants have actually been at their craft   for several years, like Paris Bennett and others.  The music industry positions and aligns such vehicles and opportunities deliberately.

(check out Idol’s Randy Jackson in awe of Ann Nesby at Paris’ audition, then stay for Paris’ amazing pipes and the part at the end when you’ll need a tissue)

As a producer, can you give advice to parents about how to determine if your child has talent…how can you tell if someone should stick to school chorus rather than audition for the big time?

As a producer, the ultimate determinants are the level of the child’s talent, their work ethic and desire to perform (or not), as well as the level of the talent pool that the child will encounter. If the child’s level of talent does not stand out locally, it will not stand out regionally, nationally or internationally. If their talent does stand out to that degree and the desire is there, then it’s about advanced, diligent, daily training, grooming and preparation, including voice and instrument lessons, practice, and regular performances.

  • One response to "Sounds of Blackness"

  • Mary Stahl
    8th January 2010 at 8:19

    In 1991 when I was living in DC, my roommate and I would listen to Sounds of Blackness while dancing around our one room apartment. We were both looking for jobs but raising our hands and belting out the words to Optimistic made the journey (and memory) fantastic. Thanks for showcasing them Lenore.