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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE, from NPR News. And now we're going to let you in on a little TELL ME MORE secret.

Just about every week when we finish our last program of the week, there is one song that we have to play, and this is it.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "OPTIMISTIC")

SOUNDS OF BLACKNESS: (Singing) You can win as long as you keep your head in the sky. If things around you crumble...

MARTIN: That is "Optimistic" by the three-time, Grammy-winning group called Sounds of Blackness. They've performed all over the country and around the world for fans from all walks of life who are attracted to their, well, optimistic, uplifting lyrics and style. And now the group is celebrating its 40th anniversary, and they are with us now.

Welcome. Thank you for joining us.

GARY HINES: Thank you so much.

JAMECIA BENNETT: Thank you.

HINES: Thank you for having us.

(SOUNDBITE OF APPLAUSE)

MARTIN: We're delighted to have with us the founder, director and producer, Gary Dennis Hines. Also with us, Jamecia Bennett. She is the daughter of former Sounds member, Ann Nesby. And they are also joined today by members of Howard University's Gospel Choir, as part of a partnership. Welcome to all of you. Thank you all so much for joining us.

(SOUNDBITE OF APPLAUSE)

MARTIN: So, Gary, how many members did the group originally have?

HINES: When we began at Macalester College in Minnesota, my alma mater, in 1971, there were 50 voices and three musicians. And currently, we have 30 total, 20 singers and a 10-piece orchestra.

MARTIN: How did the idea come about?

HINES: There was this group called the Macalester Black Voices in 196, and in '71, they asked me on as director. And the vision, really, that God gave me was, in the tradition of Duke Ellington and Quincy Jones, to sing the music of the experience, hence the name Sounds of Blackness - jazz, blues, gospel, spirituals, reggae, ragtime, rock and roll - with music and messages that are positive for people of all backgrounds everywhere.

MARTIN: Okay. And Jamecia, let me ask you this. How did you - well, you were kind of grandfathered in. Maybe we can put it in that way. But why did you want to become part of the group?

BENNETT: Well, I started in Sounds of Blackness when I was 17, and I'm 39 now. So I was the youngest member of Sounds of Blackness ever. My mother, of course, was the lead singer in Sounds of Blackness. My Aunt Marie was the young lady that sung "I'll Fly Away" on the "Sounds of Blackness" album. So she was one of the original members of Sounds of Blackness. And my cousin, Trenan(ph), was the drummer. And my Uncle Jimmy, which is the music director for Mo'Nique's show, so he was a keyboardist, along with Gary Hines. So...

MARTIN: So you didn't really have a choice, is what you're saying?

BENNETT: I was a cheerleader, and now I'm in the group with biochemists and lawyers. And I was, like, really? My mom was like, really.

HINES: Right, right.

MARTIN: But you did leave for a while, right? Do I have that? And...

BENNETT: Yes, I did.

MARTIN: And you came back. So what made you come back?

BENNETT: Actually, you never leave Sounds of Blackness. Once a member, always a member - like, I don't know if Gary will tell you, Alexander O'Neal was one of the Sounds of Blackness. I went to Mercury Records and I signed a solo deal with them, which I was blessed to do a number of soundtracks and work with so many other people, from Sting to Janet Jackson, to everybody.

And then I did - ventured off more into my writing with my mom, and then brought me back with Sounds of Blackness to write, which I wrote "Fly Again." So...

MARTIN: Okay. So it's like a magnetic force that pulls you in. You can't really leave.

HINES: Exactly.

MARTIN: You hear all that? You hear all that? Our studio is quite full today, so I was just saying, you hear all that? You all cannot really leave. So I hear you're going to play something or you're going to sing something for us from the new album.

BENNETT: Yeah.

MARTIN: It's "Fly Again."

HINES: It is "Fly Again." That's right. So, Queen Michel, it's time to put on the announcer's voice. From the Grammy Award-winning Sounds of Blackness' brand new CD, written by our featured vocalist, Jamecia Bennett, that song is called "Fly Again."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FLY AGAIN")

BLACKNESS: (Singing) Yeah, oh, you're going to fly. You're going to fly, fly. Oh, yes, you will. Feel like giving up. You say you can't take no more. Never been in this place in your life before. So you throw your hands in the air. You really want to give up now. Your family gone, money, too, and your friends are few. Said you're so confused. You don't know what to do. You're feeling all alone now. You're really on your own now. Spread your wings and fly.

Fly, happy, happy bird. Spread your wings and fly. Oh, sister. Oh, yeah. You've got to know that you will rise again. No matter if it's (unintelligible). No matter if it's (unintelligible). I got to (unintelligible) wherever you're going, brother. Fly again. Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah. Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah. Oh, brother, you've got to know that you will rise again. No, no, baby, no. Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. Oh. The weight is on my shoulders. You're going to fly again. I've got to check these happy birds. You're going to be all right.

(SOUNDBITE OF APPLAUSE)

MARTIN: Why you trying to hurt us, Jamecia? Come on, now.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: We got to go back to work after this. Come on, now.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE, from NPR News.

We're having a special in-studio performance with the Grammy-winning group Sounds of Blackness. The group is celebrating its 40th anniversary this year and there's a new CD, self-titled CD. We have founder, director, and producer Gary Dennis Hines with us along with singer Jamecia Bennett and Howard University Gospel Choir. So, Gary, you know, 1971 is a long time to keep a group together. How do you think you've managed that?

HINES: Well, I haven't. That's only by the grace of God, you know, and by the dedication of a lot of extraordinarily talented people like Jamecia. Our new CD, our first self-titled CD, "The Sounds of Blackness" features our band. And I bring them up, Michel, because many times when you think of Sounds of Blackness we only think of vocals. But we have an amazing band as well.

MARTIN: Well, how do you though, I mean, juggle all these people's schedules and all the different commitments that people want to, you know, fulfill. You know, people like Jamecia who's going to go out on her own and do other things. How do you juggle all that?

HINES: Well, it's just a matter of coordination and cooperation. We stay in close touch with one another. So, it's actually relatively simple. Not easy, but simple. And the key factor, the key component, Michel, is, like I say, communication and coordination. Our management is great. Our new record label Maleco helps with that and our marketing team. So there's a lot of entities that helps to coordinate it all. But the main thing it starts with the right attitude and spirit to cooperate together.

MARTIN: Jamecia, talk about the new album, you know, if you would. There's always this, you know, all artists want to grow and they want to be in touch with what is new. But the group also wants to honor tradition and heritage. Tell me about how - what is the new album meant to do? Is it meant to be an evolution? Is it meant to be something completely different? How do you see it?

BENNETT: Well, I always say with Sounds of Blackness, even stemming all the way back to the optimistic days, I think this album is definitely for this new generation of things that are happening right now, being able to tie all of it in it. There's a lot of people that don't go to church. And I think what Sounds of Blackness is capable of doing is reaching the people that don't go to church, but still being able to inspire them. I mean, from old to young. And we have a variety album that can reach everybody at any age and any denomination.

MARTIN: So, Gary, what about that? You know, sometimes there has been this tension between, you know, the secular tradition and the gospel tradition to the point where some artists - musical artists - whose parents even allow them to listen to secular music.

HINES: Right. Mm-hmm.

MARTIN: Right. And then there are other people who, you know, maybe they come from a gospel tradition but they're worried that people won't see them as relevant. And I'm interested on your take on how you balance that.

HINES: Well, by acknowledging, first of all, that this is a family of music, the music of the black experience - jazz, blues, gospel, spirituals, hip hop, rock and roll, R and B - all have mother Africa as their origin. And, you know, we tell the people who are gospel-oriented only that you can't fully appreciate the glory hallelujah of the gospel without the pain of the blues and the history of the spirituals and the complexity of jazz. You've got to acknowledge the totality of all the members together. And that's what Sounds of Blackness does. We like to say that our name says it all.

MARTIN: Well, also your singing and your music.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: That too. That says it all too. What about - I think you're going to play another song.

HINES: I believe that we are going to do "Hold On, Change is Coming," one of the Sounds of Blackness classics and that Gary's going to kick it with them.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG "HOLD ON, CHANGE IS COMING")

BLACKNESS: Yeah. Come on, everybody. You can clap your hands if you want to. Once a sound, always a sound.

(Singing) Yeah. Oh. Oh, yeah. Come on, Gary.

(Singing) Oh, yeah. Yesterday a man step to me. He said how can you smile when your world is crumbling down? I said, here's my secret. When I wanna cry, I take a look around and I see that I'm getting by. And I hold on. Hold on. Change is coming. Change is coming. Hold on. Hold on. Everything, don't worry about a thing. Hold on. Hold on. You can make it. You can make it. Hold on. Hold on. Everything will be all right.

(Singing) Some people like to worry. Some people like to hide. Some people like to run away from the pain inside. Now that's your business, do whatever you wanna do. But if don't work out, Lord, here's what you gotta do. Hold on. Hold on. Change is coming. Change is coming. You don't have to cry. Hold on. Don't worry about a thing. Don't worry. Hold on. Don't you worry no more. You can make it.

(Singing) I promise you, I've got the peace. You're gonna be all right. Everything's all right. Hold on. Hold on. Hold on. You can make it. Change is coming. Hold on. Hold on. Don't you worry about a thing. Oh, yeah. Hold on. Hold on.

(SOUNDBITE OF APPLAUSE)

MARTIN: Whew. Well, I feel better.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: I'm sure a lot of people need to hear that right now.

HINES: As you know, Queen Michel, right now, war, economic downturn, poverty, layoff, foreclosure, bankruptcy - people need to hear and know that if they keep the faith through all of that and hold on, that they can and will fly again. And we thought what better way to whenever - especially Jamecia and I go from city to city to connect with our historically black colleges and universities and broaden that message of "Fly Again."

So, we reached out to Howard University Gospel Choir and they were more than willing to do that. We are eternally grateful for them. We're ecstatic and honored to work with them. They're just fantastic.

MARTIN: All right. And thank you all for coming. And so, you do workshops with various groups on campuses as well?

HINES: We do, whenever we can. In fact, we kind of did a mini one today, earlier kind of thing. Did Sounds of Blackness style warm-ups and vowels and consonants and we'll do the same with, you know, Morris Brown, Clark, Spelman, Morehouse kind of thing as well. And at "Soul Train" as well.

MARTIN: You know, we mentioned that you've performed for heads of state and heads of government around the world as well as for in prisons. You know, whoever, you know, spreading that message. Is there some mountain left to climb for you? Is there something that you want to do that you have not yet done?

HINES: This record features guests all the way from India, as well as groups from Tokyo and Osaka, Japan. So to answer your question, we're trying to do more of the same, just always increasingly on a broader level, more soundtracks. And all those things are great. But you know what? The greatest thing is when a perfect stranger comes up and tells us that our music has somehow blessed their life.

We've had people who told us that they were contemplating suicide, you know, and heard our music and it helped to save or turn their life around. So the Grammy's and all that, and the travel, that's great. We're thankful for it. But nothing beats that.

MARTIN: All right. Well, thank you. Can we ask you for a special indulgence for our special song as we thank you for coming and say good-bye for today?

HINES: Howard, let's tell Michel. Say mo' better.

HOWARD UNIVERSITY GOSPEL CHOIR: Mo' better.

HINES: Here's "Mo' Better."

CHOIR: Here's "Mo Better."

HINES: And it's mo' better with Howard if you're optimistic.

MARTIN: Gary Dennis Hines is the founder, director, and producer of Sounds of Blackness. Jamecia Bennett is one of the group's very talented soloists. Sounds of Blackness is celebrating their 40th anniversary with a new self-titled CD.

And the Howard University Gospel Choir was kind enough to join them here today. And if you want to learn more, please visit our website. Go to npr.org, click on the Programs tab, then on TELL ME MORE. And here it is. Sounds of Blackness.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "OPTIMISTIC")

BLACKNESS: (Singing) When in the midst of sorrow, you can't see up when looking down. A brighter day tomorrow will bring. Oh. 'Cause you hear the voice of reason telling you this can never be done. No matter how hard reality seems, just hold on to your dreams. Yeah. Don't give up and don't give in. Although it seems you'll never win. Oh, no. You will always pass the test. As long as you keep your head to the sky. You can win. You can win, yeah. As long as you keep your head to the sky. Oh, oh.

MARTIN: And you've been listening to the Grammy Award-winning group Sounds of Blackness. They joined us in our studios in Washington, D.C. for a special performance chat along with the Howard University Gospel Choir. And that's our program for today.

(SOUNDBITE OF CREDITS)

MARTIN: 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.

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