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Seeking a New Following

Yolanda Adams wants to take gospel music to mainstream while debunking old misconceptions: 'It's not all choir robes and folks shouting,' she says.

November 23, 2000|MARC WEINGARTEN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

For gospel artists with crossover dreams, visions of mainstream success are often accompanied by a nagging sense of dread. How does one stay true to one's faith while attempting to attract an audience that's accustomed to the cheap thrills of secular pop?

For Yolanda Adams, such questions are best left to the radio programmers. At 38, she's too old to think about currying favor with Britney loyalists and too wise to compromise her music in order to fatten her bottom line. Still, with an incandescent live act and albums such as "Mountain High . . . Valley Low," Adams hopes to do for gospel what Shania Twain and Faith Hill have done for country: dissolve the boundaries just enough for listeners to stop thinking about them.

"Country music used to be isolated, and now you hear folks criticizing Shania Twain and the Dixie Chicks for having pop success," says Adams, who performs tonight at Universal Amphitheatre in a gospel show titled "Sisters in the Spirit" with Shirley Caesar, Angella Christie and Mary Mary.

"They think their music isn't real country, but artists like Hank Williams appeared on mainstream TV shows and appealed to mainstream taste. People who call themselves purists don't know what pure is."

Adams certainly knows the difference, but she doesn't see any conflict with trying to proselytize, say, Shania fans at the same time she maintains a toehold in the gospel community. "You can sell beyond the gospel community without alienating that gospel audience," says Adams. "You just have to have the right song. For artists that are involved in gospel, the whole point is to encourage people to make their lives better, to lift them up. How better to do that than to sing to someone?"

Adams' mission is to debunk an age-old misconception about gospel--that it's strictly for the church. "It's not all choir robes and folks shouting," she says. "Whenever you see gospel music in movies, you usually have a tambourine lady who's about 300 pounds with a lot of makeup and hair up to the sky. Then there's the lady in the second row who's fainting. If you visit a church on Sunday morning, it's actually more of a teaching atmosphere. People want something they can take home with them so they can live from week to week."

No. 1 on the Gospel Chart

Adams' brand of gospel is rooted in contemporary R&B. "Mountain High . . . Valley Low" was produced by Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, the Minnesota duo whose credits include Janet Jackson's biggest hits, and the album's single "Open My Heart" was an R&B radio hit. The album has sold more than 800,000 copies and has been No. 1 on the Billboard magazine gospel chart for more than five months.

"Every homeboy or club girl knows gospel, even though you don't hear it on the hip-hop stations," says Adams. "You can't separate black people from their spirituality, 'cause of the struggles we've had. Everyone on Earth has a God space, but they just try to fill it with everything other than God."

Educating listeners about the history and meaning of gospel is something Adams takes to heart. Since July, she has been the host of "Inside the Music," a gospel showcase on the cable-TV Odyssey Network that features contemporary acts, legends and a healthy dollop of history. "Inside the Music" periodically uses clips from the Library of Congress archives to bring gospel's rich back story to vivid life for the show's viewers.

"We're doing shows that show the diversity of gospel," says Adams. "A lot of folks don't know the wealth of history behind gospel, and it's my goal to make sure that viewers who are oblivious to it will find it more palatable."

Adams has been singing in choirs since she was a child.

She studied to be an educator like her parents and taught elementary school in a tough inner- city neighborhood in her native Houston for seven years.

"Teaching was a wonderful experience," she says. "I tried to make my classroom a haven for my kids. You have to take into account each child's individuality and let each of them know they're special, and they'll grow up thinking that."

Adams made her first solo album in 1987, thinking that it would sell just enough to allow her to continue singing part time. But it did better than that, and Adams gradually drifted into performing full time. "The album did so well that I had to choose," she says.

Such are the choices upon which thriving careers are made. "In 1969, Edwin Hawkins had a hit with 'Oh, Happy Day,' so gospel has enjoyed commercial success in the past," says Adams. "It didn't just start with Kirk Franklin. What I'm doing is just passing on the legacy."

* Yolanda Adams, with Shirley Caesar, Angella Christie and Mary Mary, today at Universal Amphitheatre, 100 Universal City Plaza, Universal City, 7:15 p.m. $29.50 to $45. (818) 622-4440.

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