Sounds of Blackness have long been hailed as a group known for their stellar contributions in the gospel music world, due in part to the ensemble’s hit song, “Optimistic,” released in 1991 and which some view as their signature piece.
And while they have won a host of awards including three Grammys and four Stellar Awards, specifically for gospel music, “Optimistic” actually peaked at number 3 on America’s R&B and hip hop charts.
The vocal and instrumental ensemble from Minneapolis/St. Paul, Minnesota, formed in 1969 by Russell Knighton before he passed the baton to one of the original members, Gary Hines, in 1972, recently celebrated their 50th anniversary. And yet despite their decades of success, some fans still occasionally engage in friendly debates over the best genre with which to label Sounds of Blackness – gospel, R&B, soul, jazz or something else.
However, if you’re anxious to know the “gospel truth,” it’s best to go to the source – the current musical director and producer for Sounds of Blackness, Gary Hines, who’s also the only original member still with the group.
Hines, reflecting on their founding in January 1971 on the campus of Macalester College in St. Paul, said they wanted to represent a cultural voice which spoke for Black America – something that hasn’t changed.
“Macalester is a predominantly white institution but the college’s EEO (Equal Employment Opportunity) program made the commitment in the late 60s to provide educational opportunities for students of color,” Hines said. “But we needed organizations that would represent our cultural background and support our needs which often differed from those of white students. So, a group of African-American students founded the Macalester College Black Voices in 1969.”
“During my sophomore year in 1971, Russell [Knighton] invited me to take over as the director and we soon decided to change our name to Sounds of Blackness. God gave me the vision to follow Duke Ellington’s musical journey during which he wrote and performed spirituals, the blues and every other sound of blackness. Our ensemble wanted to continue along Ellington’s path and they embraced my vision for us to perform the full range of Black music.”
“We’re often identified as a gospel group but we actually perform every sound of blackness. It’s more than music for us – it’s a cultural institution and a movement,” Hines said.
Many of the current members, 25 in total which includes 15 singers and 10 musicians, count as the children of original members who continue the tradition which their parents first embraced. They range in age from their early 20s to 70 – the age that Hines proudly embraced on his recent birthday on May 20.
Hines and Sounds of Blackness recently released a new single, “Juneteenth Celebration,” which he said came about after President Joe Biden signed the legislation for Juneteenth last year that made it a national holiday.
“We have been in anthem mode for as long as I can remember and we’ve addressed seminal moments in American culture that have had a significant impact on Black Americans,” he said. “We’ve supported the mission of the Black Lives Matter movement through our music, responding to Donald Trump about six years ago when we referred to Black youth as ‘thugs.’ In that instance, we released ‘Royalty’ which reminded our youth that they come from kings and queens and that they are still kings and queens.”
“When George Floyd was murdered just five blocks from the building in which we rehearse, we once again expressed our reaction through song. Like Fannie Lou Hamer, we joined the many thousands of Blacks who were sick and tired of being sick and tired. Floyd’s death was nothing new to Black people. The names may be different but the murdering of our people has been going in America for 500 years.”
“When the issue of reparations began to dominate conversations last year, we wrote ‘Time for Reparations’ which was blessed with an NAACP Image Award nomination.”
“Now, with ‘Juneteenth Celebration,’ we wanted to educate African Americans after we realized that there are still a lot of Black people who are unaware of the history behind Juneteenth. Sure, we wanted the song to be soulful, celebratory and fun but it also had to be an effective teaching tool. We want people to understand the importance of Juneteenth while they’re dancing to the song and celebrating the holiday.”
The Challenge of Bringing Truth to Power
Hines said staying true to the original mission of Sounds of Blackness has often brought the group challenges and hurdles to overcome.
“Some of our anthems, while receiving critical acclaim, haven’t gotten much air play,” he said. “I can cite many program directors who have apologized for not playing our songs. They said they loved us but they didn’t want to offend their advertisers – that meant their ‘white’ advertisers. They wanted more songs like ‘Optimistic.’ But our roots are in protest songs. ‘Juneteenth Celebration,’ for us, is more representative of our roots so it wasn’t an aberration for us to return to producing the kind of song whose lyrics reflect the reason that Sounds of Blackness was initially founded,” Hines said.
As for their new release, Sounds of Blackness have chosen to refer to it as a Juneteenth anthem and not just a song for the holiday.
“We really hope and truly believe that it’s the kind of song that should be played all year long,” Hines said. “It’s not like a Christmas song because its theme is more than a reflection of a particular season. Liberation is a 365-days-a-year issue and an ongoing struggle for African Americans. We hope our fans will agree and will ask the radio programmers in their communities to play the song throughout the year so Blacks can celebrate what Juneteenth means each and every day.”
For more information, go to www.soundsofblackness.org.