A few weeks ago, when some gospel industry associates realized that I would be in Atlanta for the taping of Sunday Best 4, I was invited to the 42nd Annual GMA Dove Awards, which were being taped during my time there, at a venue that was extremely close to my hotel. Typically I wouldn’t be invited to or care to attend the show, because as you may or may not know, historically this event hasn’t been known to cater to the gospel community. When I say the gospel community, I’m referring to the genre and cultural style of music known as gospel, not the message, as there is a difference. The Dove Awards typically focuses more on CCM (contemporary Christian music), Southern gospel, bluegrass and praise & worship music, etc. GMA (the association that puts on the Dove Awards) stands for “GOSPEL Music Association,” so obviously we’re all in agreement in what we’re singing about, although the way we do it may differ.
However, this year there was an obvious attempt by the Dove Awards to try and include “us” this year in their show. The show moved from its usual home of Nashville to Atlanta (a Black mecca). Sherri Shepherd of The View was the host. Matthew Knowles had recently been added to the GMA’s board of directors. Mary Mary, Kirk Franklin, Deitrick Haddon, Smokie Norful, Bishop Paul Morton, Bishop Darrell Hines, Marvin Sapp and Lecrae were a part of the performance lineup. Many Black artists were also nominated; even some that normally don’t get a second look from the GMA (i.e. names that don’t end with Winans or Houghton) were nominated in multiple categories. Artists like Brian Courtney Wilson, Karen Clark Sheard, Vashawn Mitchell, Shirley Caesar, Smokie Norful, Tamela Mann and Wess Morgan (he’s one of us…) were up for multiple awards.
So it was apparent that there was some deliberate intent to reach out and try to include Black gospel music in a way that hadn’t been done in the past. I know we try and pretend that it’s not a Black or white thing, it’s a Jesus thing. But being that we’re not “of the world” but “in it,” I think it’s safe to say that if you live in this real world and not a fantasy one, it’s obvious that race and culture have played a major role in the separation between CCM and gospel, between the Dove Awards and the Stellar Awards, etc. So since I had been invited and it seemed things were a little more “inclusive” this year, I figured I’d go, even though I was suspicious of this abrupt and seemingly random olive branch that was being extended.
As much as it breaks my heart to say this, it seems my suspicions may have been correct. Where do I begin? I guess the beginning works…
After having been invited by a member of the gospel music industry who represents quite a few artists that I count as friends or at least am friendly with, and who had a major hand in producing this year’s Dove Awards and was obviously responsible for the “color” that was being included, I thought, “Yeah, I’m gonna go.” When I followed up on my ticket with a member of his staff, I was told that I could either sit in the press room or PURCHASE a discounted ticket, but that there were no complimentary tickets available. Now although I’m a fan and supporter of this music (for example, although I get music for free and many times months before release, I still go out eventually and purchase copies out of principle), I don’t typically have to pay to attend events that I’m asked to cover. And although it’s standard procedure to have a room designated for the press to conduct interviews, etc., I generally don’t like them because they tend to be loud and difficult places to actually enjoy the show. Since I knew that I wouldn’t be able to bring my normal camera crew, lights, etc., to conduct interviews, there would be no reason for me to sit in there and essentially miss most of the show , which would be playing on mute or low volume on a set of monitors that I would barely be able to see or hear over the large crowd. So, after getting this news, I opted out of attending the show.
But, since a group I was friends with was nominated for two awards, I decided I’d attend the pre-show (where one of their categories would be announced) and main show with them, as a show of support and to maybe still cover the show even though I wasn’t given a seat. Well, as soon as I entered the pre-show I ran into the gospel industry figure and producer of the show who invited me, who asked if I would be able to cover the show one last time. I told him why I might not be able to, and he and his publicity director managed to find me a ticket. Guess there were free tickets after all. I was appreciative.
Once we realized that my friends didn’t win in their category (we didn’t expect them to), we followed the procedure that had been given to them to pick up their tickets for the main show. We were instructed to go to the box office. Please keep in mind that many of the performers on the show congratulated them on the fact that when they had come to the theater to rehearse their performances they had seen the group's name and photographs on their seats. Generally, at major awards shows, seats that are on camera and/or reserved for celebrities and nominees are marked with a name and photo so that the camera crew and production staff know who will be seated where. It’s a real-life seating chart similar to what you might use to arrange seating at a reception or dinner party. A representative of my friend’s label went to the box office while we were in the pre-show to try and pick up the tickets for the group but they wouldn’t allow her. They told her they would have to pick them up themselves. (This isn’t standard by the way; imagine if Jay-z, Beyonce and Kanye West all had to come before the show to get their tickets to the Grammys.) So we all went together to get them with the artist. The artist presented their ID, and the box office attendant left for a while and returned to tell us that my friend would have to pick up their tickets around the corner near the stage door. So although we had followed the directions of the Dove Awards staff, obviously there was a communication gap. But things happen, so we marched to the stage door around the corner, only to be told by the representative there that nominee tickets were at the box office and that she only had tickets for performers on the show. We explained that we had been to the box office already and they had actually sent us to her. With a mix of frustration and slight helpfulness, she tried to locate someone to help figure out where these tickets were, but she was pretty much unsuccessful. Every time she got on her radio headset to locate someone to explain the situation, it was obvious she was getting no response, although at one point I questioned to myself whether she was actually pressing the button on the walkie to be heard or simply trying to appease us and pretend to be helping—but I’m going to try and be optimistic here.
Needless to say, they never found the tickets or even knew where to locate them, but they did let us know that if we went to will call, there were some extra tickets they could give my friend so they could see the rest of the show. (After 40 minutes of waiting by the stage door, the show had gone into full swing.) God forbid they would have actually won in their second nominated category and had to be on camera and make their way to the stage to accept the award. So, although I had a formerly unavailable ticket that had magically been made available to me during the pre-show, the proverbial straw had already broken the camel’s back for me and I was no longer interested in attending.
What “straws” am I referring to? Well, it was also brought to my attention that a prominent Black gospel artist who was actually performing on the show also suddenly had no tickets to the show. I guess they just wanted him to sing and leave? And I can’t fail to mention that this same artist earlier witnessed his and his fellow performers’ rehearsal canceled while they were already in the venue, after having waited three hours. My grandmother used to say, “Don’t respect me, but please respect my time.” But either way, it just seems odd that a group of people who’ve never performed together were scheduled to perform but not given a chance to rehearse, especially after having them wait for hours.
This piece is already too long, so I’m going to try my best to not express the questionable results of some categories. When Smokie Norful and the Victory Cathedral Choir, Shirley Caesar and Tamela Mann all lose in the category of Traditional Gospel Recorded Song to Jason Crabb (an artist I’m a HUGE FAN of by the way), something isn’t quite right.
So although I tried my best, with sincere intentions, to give the Dove Awards a chance, since they appeared to be giving us one, I’m not so sure it worked. It kind of reminds me of the Grammy outrage that many have felt over the years. Let this be a cautionary tale to Black gospel artists, especially to those who have expressed an interest in changing their music to an often-times unnatural-for-them CCM sound in hopes of getting embraced by a community that doesn’t seem to genuinely want them. They’ll let us perform to make your show hot, but that’s it. Proper treatment, an award or two, and even a seat are too much to ask for, I guess. Welcome to 2011. I’m not a proponent of segregation or division, and I wish it weren’t this way and that maybe one day it won’t be, but I’ve always been taught to go where I’m celebrated and not simply tolerated. Thanks, but no thanks! See you at the Stellar Awards.
(Photo: JUAN CARLOS ULATE/Reuters /Landov)