Gospel Diva Vicki Yohe On 'Sounding Black'

Vicki Yohe has blond hair, blue eyes, and the look of a country-western singer. But she's an urban gospel music star and most of her fans are black. Yohe talks with host Michel Martin about race, music, faith, and her latest album, I'm at Peace: A Praise and Worship Experience.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

My next guest has been making a joyful noise in the urban gospel scene with a soulful sound that takes her fans' spirits higher.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HIGHER")

VICKI YOHE: (Singing) Don't care what the people say, gonna get on my knees and pray. I lift him, lift him higher. I'm not here for the fame. I'm here in Jesus' name. Gonna lift him, gonna lift, gonna lift him. Baby, do the same. Higher. It's time to raise the roof up in the air. Come on, everybody. Higher.

MARTIN: That was "Higher" from Vicki Yohe's 10th and latest album, "I'm at Peace: A Praise and Worship Experience." And if you only know Vicki Yohe from her voice you might be surprised, as some radio programmers have been surprised, to see someone who looks more like a country western star from South Dakota, where she spent much of her childhood, than the big-voiced gospel diva she is.

We're going to talk more with her about that. She was nice enough to take time out of her busy schedule to join us for a special performance and conversation here in our Washington, D.C. studios. And Vicki Yohe, welcome. Thank you so much for joining us and Happy Holidays to you.

YOHE: I'm so excited to be here. Thank you.

MARTIN: Growing up in ministry you moved around a fair amount. Was there a particular congregation that you think had a particular impact on you?

YOHE: Exactly. My father pastored a church where it was 70 percent black. Can I say black?

MARTIN: Sure.

YOHE: African-American takes way too long.

MARTIN: OK.

YOHE: OK. But anyway, I remember at one point I was kind of singing kind of like high church kind of stuff. My mom just came - because my mom and dad and her sister had a trio that sang black gospel a capella. And I would listen to them but I didn't really feel like I had that. And she came to me, she said Vicki, you've got to sing from deep within. She says you're just singing, like, on the surface.

You need to really seek God's face and really - you know, so I thought, wow, I want to do that.

MARTIN: You have been quoted a number of times as saying that sometimes you are not as well - first of all, people are surprised that you are white.

YOHE: Right.

MARTIN: I can say white, can't I?

YOHE: Yeah.

MARTIN: OK. Thank you.

YOHE: Caucasian takes way too long, honey.

MARTIN: OK.

(LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: That people are still surprised that you're white and sing the way you do. And you've also said that some of the predominantly white congregations aren't as receptive to your style as you wished they were. It's interesting because on the one hand we say music is a universal language.

YOHE: Mm-hmm.

MARTIN: On the other hand, we still say that 11:00 Sunday morning is the most segregated hour of the week. How do those two things work together?

YOHE: Do you want my perspective on it?

MARTIN: Yes, I do. I sure do.

YOHE: Because white people want to come in and they want to sing the few songs, hear a sermon, and be out in 30, an hour, 90 minutes. Black people, we want to come in - look, we. See? You see white but I'm really black. OK. Black folks' songs, we're going to repeat a line about 40, 50 times. It's just kind of a cultural thing.

And a lot of the black churches nowadays, they are doing 90 minute services. It's a whole kind of different movement now. But I don't think they've gotten the memo that, you know, they don't stay till 4:00 in the afternoon. That's my perspective on it because I've been to white churches and black churches and I've just kind of compared the two. I don't really think it's when they say, you know, it's segregated, yeah, I know we have that but I think it's preference.

MARTIN: You think it's more of what people are used to hearing. Do you think that's changing at all? I mean, there have been - I know some people don't love this term but there has been a whole rise and success of so-called blue-eyed soul singers like Adele. Some people would say she's blue-eyed soul.

YOHE: Mm-hmm.

MARTIN: Or Eric Hutchinson, for example.

YOHE: Right, right.

MARTIN: Conversely, there are a number of African-American people with roots in gospel who've done very well across musical genres. Is it changing or is it still, do you find, in gospel that your audience is what it's going to be and you can predict, based on where you are and what you're singing where you're going to be singing? Is it still that way?

YOHE: I think it is. I don't like it. And on another level it's like I do 98 percent black churches and only two percent white. That kind of bothers me. I'm just being honest with you today. I don't know why that is. Up until 2003 when I signed with CeCe Wynans - I was her first artist - I did 98 percent white churches.

And then I went over, signed with her, and then, you know, all the radio announcers looked at this white person on the CD and wanted to know who CeCe Wynans signed. You know, I think they would've maybe just not listened to it. Their format is black gospel so they wouldn't have that type of music.

So I think that really helps they listened to that. But ever since 2003 it's completely changed and I think sometimes - I think about I would like to go back to some of those churches that I went to years ago. I'm still the same person. So that kind of bothers me. I'm just being honest.

MARTIN: Mm-hmm. We appreciate that. That's what we're here for.

YOHE: OK.

MARTIN: So.

YOHE: You'll find out sometimes I'm too honest.

(LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: Well, we'll see. Shall we play some music?

YOHE: Yeah.

MARTIN: Shall we hear something? I think - what about the title track "I'm at Peace"? Do you want to start there?

YOHE: I will start there. That song - actually, this new CD I co-wrote about five songs on it and that one was going through hell and when you go through hell you come out on fire and needing the peace of God about something. I've been hearing peace and storms my whole life. My father would preach about storms, passing over storms, passing under, passing through, passing by.

But I never heard a sermon or a song that said the storm has moved away. And so when I wrote this song I ended it with this storm has moved away.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I'M AT PEACE")

YOHE: (Singing) I'm at peace. Even though my heart is breaking. I'm at peace. I never thought I would be shaken but you came and laid your hands on me and now, oh, oh, oh, oh, lord, mm-hmm. Lord, you came and laid your hands on me and now I can see my storm has moved away.

(Singing) I'm at, I'm at peace. Even though sometimes I don't feel worthy. I'm at, I'm at peace even though I cannot see. Oh, lord. I remember the day, lord, I remember the moment, lord, you came and laid your hands on me. Now it'll be all over in the morning. You came and laid your hands on me and now - you came and laid your hands on me and now I can see my storm has moved away.

(Singing) Oh, oh. My, my, my, my, my, my, my, my storm has moved - I thank you, I thank you, I thank you, Jesus - the storm is over. The storm has moved away. The storm is over. The storm is over. The storm is over. My, my, my, my, my, my storm has moved. You came and laid your hands on me and now I can see my storm has moved away.

MARTIN: I'm sorry. I need a minute here.

YOHE: Yeah.

MARTIN: Oh, my God.

YOHE: I can hardly sing that song without crying.

MARTIN: Oh. Where does it come from? Where does it come from?

YOHE: I always talk about your life follows your word. You've got to speak life. You've got to speak I'm at peace. But how do you really know? And I began to see God as - I need peace about this situation. I've been going through hell for the last six, seven years and just going through some situations that I really can't share about right now.

YOHE: And I just need the peace of God. Let me tell you something. I went to my closet and I said God, I've got to have peace. Let me tell you, I felt he came - that's where the line came - he came and he laid his hands on me. And the storm moved away. And so I thank God for peace.

I always tell people, you know, a lot of people in your world don't want you to have peace. You've got to separate yourself from those people that want to torment you. I was telling them last year I changed my voicemail. I said hello, this is Vicki Yohe. It's January 1st, 2012. I'm making some changes in my life. If I don't return your phone call, you are one of the changes.

(LAUGHTER)

YOHE: Let me tell you something. I have had peace all year. And January 1st, 2012, I got to clean up some people out of my life. I'm doing it again.

MARTIN: OK.

YOHE: Because I'm at peace.

MARTIN: We're speaking with gospel singer Vicki Yohe. Her latest album is titled "I'm at Peace: A Praise and Worship Experience." In a moment we'll talk with her more about music and motherhood and she'll grace us with another song. Please stay with us on TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I'M AT PEACE")

MARTIN: I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We're back now with gospel diva Vicki Yohe. Before the break she was telling us about bringing a new attitude to the New Year. We're going to talk more with her in a moment but first she's going to sing another song and we are going to try to get through this one without crying. I don't know. Let's see how we do. Let's try "You Amaze Me."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "YOU AMAZE ME")

YOHE: (Singing) Your presence amazes me. Your glory surrounds me. When I walked in this room I felt your hands upon me. To think how great you are. Still you would touch someone like me. Your mercy and grace, you amaze me. Your presence amazes me. Oh, oh, lord. Mm-hmm. Your glory surrounds me. When I walked in this room I felt your hands upon me. To think how great you are, still you would touch someone like me.

(Singing) Your mercy and grace, you amaze me. I marvel at your greatness. Incredible, your faithfulness, to lead me in this awesome sacred place. Seems I could almost see you face to face. Your presence amazes me. Your glory surrounds me. When I walked in this room I felt your hands upon me. To think how great you are. Still you would touch someone like me. Your mercy and grace, you amaze me, lord.

(Singing) You amaze me, lord. You amaze me, lord. You amaze me. You amaze me. You amaze me. With your mercy and your grace, oh, amazing grace how sweet the sound. Saved a wretch like me. Saved a wretch like me. Saved a wretch like me. Yes, you did. Your mercy and your grace, oh, lord. Oh, lord, you amaze me, lord. Nobody greater. Nobody better. You amaze me, lord.

(Singing) Your mercy and your grace, you amaze me.

MARTIN: Well, thank you. You know, if it wasn't enough the traveling, the recording, you've got another important dimension to your life now. You are now a mom. Adopted two boys.

YOHE: Yep. Boys, seven. Adlee (ph) and Walker. They're both biracial and just joyous to my life. I wasn't able to have children and I pouted for nine years. Didn't get married until I was 30. It was like, OK, I mean, a virgin when I got married, I want to have a bunch of kids. Couldn't have them. Was upset.

But then I spoke out about that I was going to open an orphanage in Uganda in 2006. A week later my friend from Ohio, she has a home for unwed mothers, she said I've got a baby. He's going to be born in a week. And god spoke to me. He says, Vicki, go get your baby. I was waiting for you to get your eyes off of yourself. You saw the 1.7 million parentless children in Uganda. You're going there to open an orphanage. Go get your baby now. So that's a lesson to a lot of us. You know, when you get your eyes off of yourself it's amazing what happens and what God does in your life, so I have 42 children I have adopted over there, legally adopted. So I have 44 children.

MARTIN: Wow.

YOHE: Yeah.

MARTIN: And then the two here.

YOHE: The two here, so 42 there and two here. And I went over there - go ahead.

MARTIN: I'm just wondering how you're - this is a question that, you know, men are rarely asked but women often are.

YOHE: Yeah.

MARTIN: But I am going to ask it because people want to know.

YOHE: OK. Yeah.

MARTIN: How are you managing all that?

YOHE: I have a lot of help but I tried to go to Uganda at least once a year. I have a good staff over there taking care of my kids there. We email them, talk to them every day. Skype is great. You know, you just make it work. And I just know that God doesn't put on more than you can bear and he puts people in your life to help you. And I love what I do. I'm called to do what I do. I think you have to be called. And my kids have adjusted greatly with what I do. In fact, before they went to school, each of them has flown over probably 400 times. In the summertime they still come with me. We bring a nanny; they come with me, very much a part of their life.

MARTIN: You know, there's feelings sometimes though, about - forgive me again - white people...

YOHE: Yeah. It's OK.

MARTIN: ...adopting African-American kids or African kids. And, you know, recently this has been, you know, in the news because of, you know, a number of celebrities...

YOHE: Right.

MARTIN: ...like Angelina Jolie...

YOHE: Yeah.

MARTIN: ...and Madonna who have adopted kids overseas. And I just, you know, do you thoughts about that? Do you have any feelings about the...

YOHE: Well, for me...

MARTIN: Do you have any feelings about the feelings that other people have about it?

YOHE: Well, I just, I wasn't raised with the black-and-white thing, OK? My parents aspirins were black so I never - we were raised in South Dakota. We moved to Louisiana when I was 14. That's where racism hit me and I was like, my mom and dad had to sit me down because up in South Dakota it was - we had - our church was 70 percent black. It was Ellsworth Air Force Base out there, so I mean, we were, you know, so as far as the black-and-white thing, like for me she just told me I got your baby and he happen to be biracial. And then when I got to my second one, a friend of mine said my niece is, you know, she's going to have a baby but she wants to give it up for adoption. Are you interested? Biracial? So I had to get on the list saying OK I want. I would've taken a black child; I would've taken a white child.

I don't understand, I don't, I think people should just get over it. I think a lot of the celebrities - what happens is a lot of them, they go over there and, like, when I went to Uganda, I saw going through the village, I saw little huts with a seven-year-old boy raising his two-year-old sister, parents died a month ago. I didn't care if they were black, white, purple, green, I saw a need and I said I want to get those two kids. And we were able, the signed them over to me, I signed papers and I became their mother within 10 minutes.

The color to me, I think we got to get over it. It's just kids that are in need. And so, when we started going over there, we started like maybe six kids and I'd go back again and go to the village and get four more and then we get support, you know, because I wanted to make sure we had support for them, and then I'd go back. One time I went back, I got 10; I was so excited to get 10 more. And so now, since 2008, we've not added anymore. We have 42. Because the recession hit in 2008, I lost so many partners that helped me. So my vision is to have a campus to house 1,000. God said Vicki, go there, put them in a mansion. So we found a 10,000 square foot home that's just beautiful, and he said I want them to eat off of linen tablecloths. I wanted to wipe their faces with linen napkins. I want you to get two chefs and I want them to be served by chefs. I want them to go to the kitchen five times a day, three meals and two snacks. I want them to have plenty of food for leftovers and go to a private school. And so we've done that. They're staying there. We're going to raise them up there so then they can duplicate themselves and change Africa. So that's been the vision. And I love what I do but I'm hoping someday to live there six months and here six months.

MARTIN: Have you done what you set out to do, recognizing that your work continues?

YOHE: I feel like I have a lot more to do. I - I'm a worshiper. I'm a praise and worshiper. I love to lead people to the presence of God. And I, even the trees lift their branches to praise him. The flowers in the fields burst forth with blooming. The wind whispers he's alive. Ocean waters slap against the rocks to applaud him. Even fish leap from the sea to adore him and to praise him. But there's something about our praise, and I try to get that across to people as I travel around the world, 26 countries now, 120 dates a year. I love what I do. I want to emphasize that in really reiterate to people that the miracle that they need in their life is on the other side of their worship. Sometimes we come into his presence and we have a list of things we need. But if you knew what was on the other side, if you just lifting, finding the strength to lift that hand and lift that voice and give him praise and worship him, I think there'd be a lot more worshipers around knowing that, you don't worship him so he'll do something for you. But it's kind of like your children come and say mom, I love you, I love you, I love you, I love you, I love you I love you and then - 'cause they want you to do something, but when they come and say I love you and then they walk away, it's like whatever they want I'm going to do for them. You know what I'm saying? And that's how it is in worship. He just wants us to come say you know what, because of who you are I give you praise. And so that's kind of the message I want to get out to audiences. And I never call my concerts concerts anymore, I call them night of worship because I want people to come with that mentality to worship.

MARTIN: Well, Happy Holidays to you.

YOHE: Happy Holidays to you.

MARTIN: What song should we go out on? I know we're going to play something to take your leave.

YOHE: "Lord of All." It's kind of...

MARTIN: What is it?

YOHE: It's an up-tempo called "Lord of All." It's an up-tempo song.

MARTIN: "Lord of All." OK. We're going to hear "Lord of All." OK.

YOHE: You're awesome. Oh, I'm so glad I family got to meet you.

MARTIN: I know. Finally. Well, thank you. The admiration is mutual. Vicki Yohe is a singer and songwriter and spiritual leader. Her latest album is titled "I'm at Peace: A Praise and Worship Experience."

Vicki Yohe, thank you so much for joining us.

YOHE: It's been my pleasure. It's awesome to finally meet you.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LORD OF ALL")

YOHE: (Singing) You are Lord. You're Lord. Lord of all. And you deserve. And you alone deserve the glory and praise. We are lifting. We are lifting you higher. Declaring, declaring your power. Dear Lord, you are Lord of all. Yes you are, Lord. You are Lord of all. You're Lord. You are Lord, you Lord, Lord of all. And you deserve, and you alone deserve the glory and power. We are lifting. We are lifting you higher, declaring your power. For you are Lord of all. Oh yes you are, you are Lord of all.

(Singing) My lips will sing of your place forever. My heart will offer up praise, I will exalt. I will exalt and bless your name at all times, for you are Lord of all, Lord of all. You Lord. You are Lord. You're Lord. Lord of all. And you deserve. And you alone deserve the glory and praise. We are lifting. We are lifting you higher, declaring your power. For you are Lord of all. Yes you are, Lord. You are Lord of all.

(Singing) My lips will sing of your place forever. My heart will offer up praise, I will exalt. I will exalt and bless your name at all times, for you are Lord of all, Lord of all. My lips will sing of your place forever. My heart will offer up praise, I will exalt. I will exalt and bless your name at all times; you are Lord, for you are Lord of all, Lord of all. You Lord. You are Lord. Yes you are, Lord of all. And you deserve, and you alone deserve the glory and praise. We are lifting. We are lifting you higher; we're declaring your power. You are Lord of all. Yes you are, Lord. You are Lord of all.

(Singing) You Lord, you are Lord, Lord of all. And you are deserving, yes you. And you alone deserve the glory and praise. We're lifting you higher. We are lifting you higher, declaring your power. You are Lord of all. Nobody, nobody, nobody greater. You are Lord of all. There's nobody, nobody greater. You are Lord of all. Yes, you are, Lord. You are Lord of all. You are Lord of all. I got to tell you again, Lord, you are Lord of all. There's no other. You are Lord of all. Nobody, nobody, nobody greater. You are Lord of all.

MARTIN: You've been listening to Vicki Yohe. She's performing her song "Lord of All." It's from her latest album titled "I'm at Peace: A Praise and Worship Experience."

Vicki's story about finding peace in the new year, especially in difficult times made us laugh and made us think. And now we'd like to hear from you. We'd love to know about the big decisions you have made, especially at New Years, to bring peace to your life. Maybe it's letting go of old resentments. Maybe it's cutting up those credit cards once and for all, or even resolving to keep your junk drawer cleaned up. Whatever it is, we'd love for you to tell us more about it. Visit us online@npr.org/TELL ME MORE and select the link to contact us. You can also reach out to us on Twitter using hashtag, TMMpeace. We might just reach back to share your story in a future program.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: And that's our program for today. And remember, to tell us more, please go to npr.org and find us under the programs tab, you can find our podcast there. You can also follow us on Facebook and Twitter. The handle is @TELLME MORENPR. I'm Michel Martin, and you've been listening to TELL ME MORE, from NPR News and the African-American Public Radio Consortium. Let's talk more tomorrow.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

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