Yolanda Adams’ rise to gospel music iconism distinguished her on BET’s Soul Train Awards stage Sunday night (November 17).
But well before this honor, Adams’ industry emergence and longstanding Christian faith originated from the pulpits of her hometown. The Texas-bred vocalist spent her early gospel days as a standout voice of Houston's Southeast Inspirational Choir. Accessing a new world of urban contemporary gospel opportunities, she later signed with Sound of Gospel in 1987, and the Ben Tankard-backed Tribute Records in 1990. Adams’ Elektra Records signage, however, spurred her quantum leap to mainstream recognition with her 1999 opus, Mountain High...Valley Low.
The gospel and soul laureate has since cultivated a renowned presence as one of the world’s most anointed, reverent and powerful voices of faith. Adams’ luminous spirit attracted legendary writers and producers such as Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, James Wright and Warren Campbell. Her loyalty to ministry elevated her sound to global acclaim, with nearly 10 million records sold worldwide. Her nonpareil influence marked her a four-time Grammy Award-winning soloist. Well-deserved in 2019, her all-encompassing, universal éclat establishes her as our Lady of Soul.
BET spoke with last night’s honoree about her latest title, hip-hop’s integration of gospel music, the state of the genre and more.
BET: Throughout your career, you’ve been afforded many honorable titles— Queen of Contemporary Gospel Music, First Lady of Modern Gospel, Reigning Queen of Urban Gospel—What does the title “Lady of Soul” mean to you?
Yolanda: It embodies more than just gospel. It’s a global title. Soul means it comes from the spirit. For this title, you have to connect to soul, so for me, it’s a global connotation that the music has reached more than just my target audience.
How instrumental were your church roots in kick-starting your gospel career?
Growing up in the church was paramount for me. That’s where I got the vocal training, I was able to be near folks with powerful voices and folks with melodic voices. I got a chance to see how they delivered their songs, because there’s a difference. You wouldn’t deliver “The Star-Spangled Banner” the way you would “Amazing Grace,” right? So you learn those things. This is why I tell young people who are in the church that it’s best they started there. First of all, it is the greatest way to start your life—because you have a faith base—and to also start your vocal training. There is no other place more magnificent when it comes to vocal training than the church.
What changes have you observed in gospel since you began?
I think music in general has evolved—the sound has evolved, the electronics have evolved, technology has evolved. So, we’re just like everyone else and have evolved with the times. I think some people believe that in their era gospel music just became a phenomenon. But gospel music back in the day was seen as another phenomenal genre. When you have Mahalia Jackson singing at the Montreux Jazz Festival or the Newport Jazz Festival back then, you know that people saw gospel as a necessary genre. So, it’s not like at any point in time we just came up. Everything evolves, and hopefully we are the leaders in those changing times and remain the sound people can relate to.
Are there any genres outside of gospel right now that you’ve been paying any special attention to?
I’ve always listened to music outside of gospel. I grew up listening to a plethora of genres in my house. My mom and dad played everything from blues to bluegrass to box [music]. We heard everything. So, I pay attention to what’s going on in R&B, and since my daughter is a teenager—a young lady—I pay attention to what’s going on in hip-hop. I am learning to decipher what they’re talking about in the “mumble rap” [laughs]. Pray for this old lady. But I love to hear Mary J [Blige’s] passion, I love to hear Monica’s [voice], I love to hear Brandy’s diction and her runs. I love Chris Brown’s voice, too. I think he has an amazing voice. There’s so many genres [that I admire], especially jazz and symphony, pop and rock. I really grew up on all those things. Thank God I was not one of those kids who had to sneak out to listen to that music [laughs]. It was right there in my house.
Right now, hip-hop’s integration of gospel music is a major conversation with many conflicting opinions. Specifically regarding Kanye West, who some feel skeptical about given his controversial history. Should we be embracing that change?
Well, here’s the thing about Kanye and anybody who’s doing anything—two years ago we were having this same conversation about Snoop [Dogg]. Let’s give people a chance to express their faith. It would be really crazy to say, ‘Nah, he shouldn’t be doing that.’ I want everybody to express what their faith is. I just believe we need to give the young man a chance. If he wants to fall off the world telling people that Jesus is king, that’s perfect. But my admonishment to people saying they’re just waiting for him to fall: watch what you say about somebody else because that can come back around to bite you.
Can you speak about some of the career challenges that God has brought you through as a woman of faith?
One thing that I’ve always talked about is being a solo female artist in this business, which was an extremely male-dominated field at the time when I started. Now, you have Tasha Page-Lockhart, you have Le’Andria, you have Jekalyn, you have Anita Wilson—you have these wonderful young women doing amazing things. For me, having to go at it alone as a solo artist with the backing of my management, my team and my minister of music was just phenomenal. It could have been more challenging had I not known who I was and had I not had an extremely strong family background because I could always call them and [get advice]. Faith always played a huge role in everything that I’ve ever done in my life, too, and I never make a decision without counting up the costs. Everything I do not only affects me and my child, but it affects hundreds of people. From my managers and attorneys to the people who are on the road with me, to the people who listen to the music, and [everyone] else. As an artist, you realize not to be selfish.
(Photo: Leon Bennett/Getty Images for BET)