God’s Property and the Rise of Urban Contemporary Gospel

Background, God’s Property:

God’s Property, founded in 1992 in Dallas, Texas, was developed by Linda Ray Hall-Searight, a public-school music teacher, and her son, Robert Sput Searight, who has since gone on to become a world-class drummer and Grammy Award Winner. The original ensemble included more than fifty singers and a band of approximately twenty musicians, recruited mostly from Booker T. Washington High School for the Performing and Visual Arts High School (where other notable alumni such as Erykah Badu, Willie Hutch, and Roy Anthony Hargrove also attended[1].)

In 1993 the choir collaborated with Kirt Franklin, providing backup vocals for his 1995 album Whatcha Lookin’ 4. In turn, Franklin appeared on and helped produce the group’s debut album, God’s Property from Kirk Franklin’s Nu Nation, released May 27, 1997. The album won the NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Gospel Artist, the NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Music Video, the Soul Train Music Award for Best Gospel Album, and the Grammy Award for Best Gospel Choir or Chorus Album in 1998. The album was #1 on the R&B Albums chart for 5 weeks, #3 on Pop Charts, and would go on to be certified triple platinum with over 3 million copies sold across the United States[2]. The lead single “Stomp”, featuring Cheryl “Salt” James (of Salt-N-Pepa), made it onto Hot 100 Airplay, Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Airplay, Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Recurrent Airplay, Rhythmic Top 40, The Billboard Hot 100, and Top 40 Mainstream[3].

Interview with L. Nyrobi N. Moss:

CECILY: Hello, this is Cecily McMillan of writing for Professor Scott Heath’s course: Archiving the Black 90’s. I am attempting a new way at archiving the black nineties by speaking to a Ms. L. Nyrobi N. Moss, who was a foundational and central member to the musical group, the musical phenomena: God’s property, that pretty much developed the genre of Urban Contemporary Gospel. In which way did you find a path to participate in the arts and the music of the nineties?

NYROBI: So, I went to performing arts high school, I also went to performing arts junior high school as well, but my interest in the entertainment industry came via arts magnet, which was a breeding ground for a lot of major artists, but a lot of creative expression in Dallas and, essentially, spreading to the world. So, in addition to attending arts magnet, I also was one of the original founding members of the choir called God’s Property Ensemble and God’s Property was of course released under Kirk Franklin’s label in 1997. However, before that release, we already had a really huge following in the Dallas, Houston, L.A., and a lot of different markets as far as Gospel groups were concerned, and that also kind of led us to work with other artists and playing with different background vocals and singing on other people’s tracks. But we were also signed by B-Rite, a division of Interscope, so Tupac Shakur was one of my label mates. So that is my introduction to the nineties in music.

CECILY: You said that album popped off, like, the group was signed by the label in ’97?

NYROBI: No, we were assigned before 97. The album got released in 97. So, the first full album was God’s Property with Kirk Franklin’s The Nu Nation. However, I want to note that we were God’s Property before Kirk Franklin was Kirk Franklin, and I know because I sang on his first album. But, either way, you know, it was the terminology of who gets picked up first in the industry versus who releases whom. So, at the time he had the platform and he did a lot of producing on our first album when we worked with him.

CECILY: OK. So, 1997. You’re in high school?

NYROBI: No, I was way out of high school. But God’s Property started when I was [at Booker T. Washington] high school. We first formed God’s property, I want to say in ’93-’94.

CECILY: Booker T. Washington, was it a racially diverse high school?

NYROBI: Booker T. Washington for the Performing and Visual Arts was racially diverse. It was culturally diverse, religiously diverse. Some of my best friends were, you know, satanists and had shaved heads, and we all were just these artists that lacked on things, but we didn’t have a problem just crossing over and figuring out who was what. You know, at Booker T. you could see all these different genres in silos and nobody really was kind of singled out. It was just like, you got your group of those who are visual artists and those are the vocals. And those were the hip-hop kids and, so, the music tied us all together.

CECILY: So, I’m thinking about the form of music that you’re talking about. And obviously there are songs, especially in the nineties, I mean the first one that comes to mind for me obviously as Madonna, Like a Prayer. But the incorporation of Gospel into songs, especially ballads, is a super powerful mechanism. Did that become popular in the ’90s?

NYROBI: I want to be clear: It wasn’t about incorporating Gospel. Gospel is pretty much the root. If you find any artist, especially black artists, they’re going to tell you their group got started in Gospel. The reason why God’s Property was so pivotal was because we were young, and we were fun and we were hip and we used to bring, you know, rap melodies [into the music]. Like when I was in junior high school, I played classical piano and I hated every minute of it, which is why I switched over to theater, musical theater, because it was boring. So, God’s Property was the first time that I knew that music could be fun and that it could be interesting, and it could have a great high energy. And Gospel, in turn, like we used to bring down houses and churches. Our biggest criticism was the fact that, you know, that we were singing devil songs and we were jamming to Gospel music. And we were doing that in church, and we brought such high energy to it, and, you know, we were too radical. So, people couldn’t tell the difference between what our music was and what Gospel was and that was a problem. Now it’s old hat. Now, you can find you all these different Gospel artists and they all hip-hop, and this and that and the third. But that wasn’t done then, you know. We used to get a lot of flack for that.

CECILY: Yeah, I could see that on the church side. But also, thinking about myself as a teenager, it seems totally incomprehensible that I would get together with a group of my friends and want to do something Gospel inspired. So, I’m clearly missing a link here. How did this emerge?

NYROBI: They’re all linked. The interesting thing is that R&B, hip-hop, they all have roots in Gospel. If you ask any artist where they came up, where they got their musical influences, then they’re gonna say in the church. So, the thing about that is that church, especially in the black community, always influences where we are socially, where we are politically, you know, how we build movements, what that looks like. So, I will say that it wasn’t far removed from us because we used to be in a church doing jam sessions. And even jazz, which is one of the greatest art forms ever because it has these different musicians that’s riffing, that’s doing all this other kind of improvisational stuff. All those things were not removed from us. They were all part of who you were. And so, therefore, we were young. We lived, we loved, we lived hip-hop. We lived where hip-hop started, what it was all about, know what I’m saying? In the nineties, we had your 2 Live Crews and different artists… when hip-hop was kind of risqué. But where we were and where we sat was in this place where it was all creation, it was all music for us. We blended all this together and they weren’t separate for us.

Cecily McMillan

Works Cited

[1] Wikipedia – Booker T. Washington High School for the Performing and Visual Arts

[2] Enacademic – Kirk Franklin

[3] Billboard Music Charts

Afrocentricity: A Commentary

In our discussion of 90s Black experiences and cultural expressions, the concept of Sankofa is important to consider for both reflection and analysis. Sankofa is a Twi term from the Akan peoples of mainly Ghana and Cote d’Ivoire, West Africa. The word is a verb meaning “to go back and fetch:” to retrieve important items previously lost, forgotten or stolen. In the context of one’s culture, the idea of Sankofa requires one to both re-learn and adapt crucial skills, collective understandings and overall lessons from his or her ancestors. From this process, it is understood that the person who does the “fetching” receives the power from those “items” of knowledge. The ultimate goal of this retrieval is for one to then project themselves and their descendants into the future, working from informed positions of self-reflection, self-knowledge and self-determination.

For African Americans, in-depth studies of both our historical and current experiences in this country reveal ongoing, consistent reenactments of this Sankofa concept. Documentation of developments in our music, education, fashion, social arenas, family practices – and more – prove our active revitalization and reincorporation of the ways of our ancestors: in Africa, the United States, the Caribbean, South America…wherever people of African descent landed globally, by force or by choice.  Our cultural expressions reveal the agency exhibited in sampling, remixing or reinventing what we have learned for practical application in modern times.

From this position, I wanted to tackle the concept of Afrocentricity – which as a term became prominent in the 1980s and 90s. There are many conflicting interpretations of this term, and its often conflated with Afrocentrism, African-centered thought, “Afro-“ vs. “Afri-”, and so on. This happens to the point where the idea of someone being “Afrocentric” entails a host of stereotypical tropes, caricaturing and misunderstandings. This is particularly evident in popular media of this time, as well as public reaction in many Black communities. 90s film characters like “Ahmal” in Sister Act 2, Damon Wayans’ “Conscious Brother” in “In Living Color” episodes, the dreadlocked player on A Different World, and many other examples would depict a kufi-and/or-dashiki-wearing individual spouting random historic statements about “The Pyramids”, ”the white man” or “Shaka Zulu.” Dressed in kente, mismatched colors and military-like gear, this type character would often act in arrogant, misinformed behaviors, which would ultimately isolate them from the larger Black community.

These tropes are a testament to the simplified nature of discussions and expressions relating to what are considered Afrocentric theories and praxis. For some it’s wearing traditional African clothing, for others it’s adopting African names – or also re-identifying with an African ethnic group or spiritual system. For many, its academic scholarship: focusing on prioritized pre-colonial African historical periods deemed “classical” or “enlightened” – above any other cultural expressions or achievements of any other group of people in the world. Conversely, many researchers of African and African Diasporic value systems, knowledge bases and cultures have sought to identify common threads amongst these intricate systems, in an attempt to create blueprints for strategic unification, productive cultural alliances, and community building for liberation and ultimate sovereignty. All of the actions mentioned in this paragraph are interlinked, and are products of individuals making either informed or uninformed choices to change their lives in a way that reconnects them to a cultural source. At the same time, we need to continuously reevaluate our ideas, and challenge ourselves to avoid recreating limiting, dogmatic or one-dimensional systems of cultural expression – where one organization deems themselves “more African” or “more Afrocentric” than the next, based on attire, ideology, spiritual practices, how many visits to Africa they made or how many books they’ve read on Black history.

In looking at the long history of our people in this country, and in the African Diaspora, we have infinite examples of resistance to oppression, reapplication of cultural expressions and innovative methods of growth and renewal. Viewing them all as equally important to consider keeps us from developing an essentialist trait of prioritizing some experiences over others: resulting in an Afrocentric definition that may confine, stereotype and simplify. In the United States, the respect-based process of learning about our families, communities and their solution-building strategies has helped us to overcome all obstacles to survive and go forward. This empowers us to progress with the informed appreciation and application of our African retentions, forms of knowledge and practices. Kweku Vassall

RANT WARNING! lol: <I would also like to challenge this idea of one being “conscious,” a popular phrase in Black communities in relation to African-centered or Afrocentric thought. Conscious is often said as if all that needs to be learned has been learned – or that there’s this class of enlightened people who know-what-they-don’t-know-their-neighbor-also-knows, because one is so busy being “more informed”. Not to negate people coming to important realizations, BUT knowledge of oneself also deals with positive relationships with others, implementing practical solutions to problems, adapting in various environments and creating new knowledge to fit one’s current situation – all things Black people of all walks of life and ideologies have accomplished. This idea that a few are “awake” and the majority are “asleep” works within this larger misconception that up until recent years Black people were ignorant, chitlin-eatin (non-vegetarian) slaves who couldn’t observe their environments enough to notice oppression, or were disconnected from their ancestors and relatives to point where they had no appreciation for the family values and principles for survival passed down for their benefit. Our grandmothers and grandfathers may have experienced hell (in various class statuses and locations, obvious and hidden torments included), but at the same time, honoring our African ancestors teaches us that the experiences of our most recent African American relatives are valid and worthy or respect, honor and consideration. We should see them as active participants, not passive bystanders, in our history and cultural development. This is true especially considering the marginalization and oppression they faced, how they either thrived or psychologically crumbled as a result, and the sacrifices they all made for us to both be here AND have the privilege to operate in learning spaces to obtain further knowledge that was often hidden from them. It would behoove us to look back to the important information they knew, which can help us even more to face our current reality.>

Culture Wars

In education, conflict over prioritized subject matter taught in schools illuminated larger societal issues of race, legitimacy of cultural expressions and forms of knowledge in America. With the close of the 20th century, several questions continued to emerge: What constituted being an “American”? What does a true American look like, act like, talk like? How does history, and one’s ethnic/cultural background inform one’s place in American society? These questions were (and are) ultimately decided in the schools our children attend – spaces which may operate to reinforce societal norms, options and access to resources.

In the 1990s, an interesting series of debates occurred on this subject which were dubbed the “Culture Wars.” These “battles” took place in educational arenas: from classrooms, parent-teacher conferences and staff meetings to school board assemblies, and standardized testing planning sessions. With recognition and attempted incorporation of “minorities,” these debates centered on the question of how school systems educate in ways that relate to students of different cultural backgrounds. One could argue that these conversations were abruptly introduced, ignored and revisited continuously since the legal integration of American public schools in the closing years of the Civil Rights Movement. News articles, academic journal publications, books and even popular TV specials highlighted this phenomenon – in an attempt to answer the aforementioned questions.

This idea of “Culture Wars” is often followed up by the question, “who’s winning?” In a democracy, we all should. Yet these Culture Wars embrace less equality and inclusiveness with more combative and superiority complexes. With Culture Wars at the foundation of our children’s scholarship, this shows just how divided how nation truly is.

Eric Bain-Selbo asserts that these “Culture Wars” originally stemmed from the crucial question: How do we educate our children and young adults? (Bain-Selbo, 2003) The “we” alludes to the entirety of American society, which often is documented to operate under the assumption that citizens of the United States constitute and contribute to one uniform and united culture. This particular culture is cited to stem from America’s inception, and the popular ideals of its founders: life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness, going from rags to riches, equal opportunity, etc.

Henry Louis Gates addresses this assumption by highlighting what is known as the “Great Western Tradition.” This tradition includes patriotic standards, understandings and cultural guidelines in alignment with both the political and socio-economic agendas of the ruling classes in this country (Gates, 1993). This tradition reifies ideas of rationalized manifest destiny, free market capitalism and moral purity of property owners (mainly including White, often Protestant males) – in a prioritized historical narrative deemed heroic and necessary to teach in state public and private schools. From this narrative, all subjects taught are meant to prepare students in their attempts to realize the American Dream. This Dream consists of ultimate access to resources, and the power to make decisions (legislation, voting) that affect everyone moving forward.

In reality, this American Dream did not apply to the majority of peoples of color in this nation. Various ethnic groups, historically and strategically classified as races, struggled to survive and thrive in a society which placed them at odds with those of the wealthiest classes – and each other. These cultural experiences have influenced what could be considered “American” practices and expressions – holding equal weight and importance in contributions to economics, sciences, historical developments, achievements, literature, the arts, etc.

To put it simply, conservatives argued for school curricula to stay as it was, for “Great Western Traditions” to remain the standard. Students from all groups were charged to conform to this ideology, expressed in class lectures, assignments, reading materials and overall subject matter. Gates notes that these conservative public and academic figures considered multiculturalism to be “ethnic chauvinism” (Gates, pg. 174, 1993) These figures clearly contradicted themselves in accusing representatives of other ethnicities of “over-promoting” false histories, to make themselves feel “great” or “worthy of recognition:” especially since presentations of American history often completely omitted the contributions and stories of non-White males.

Those considered to “the right” countered with the multiculturalist argument: the implementation of culturally-relevant pedagogical practices. For educators and researchers of this position, it was important to create learning environments where all children saw themselves reflected in what they were being taught: their families, neighborhoods, histories, languages and forms of knowledge. From this understanding, students could be empowered to draw from these strengths to navigate American society, being productive and able to thrive in all spaces.

Pedagogical theorist, educator and author Gloria-Ladson Billings introduced the 90s to The Dream-Keepers: Successful Teachers of African American Children. She tackles this idea of reversion, and the possibility of African American students needed separate spaces for education, noting that public schools are seemingly already segregated; Non-inclusiveness curriculum vs. African American children.

Furthermore, educators and its administration need to come to a point where they they can stop denying absence of color. “I don’t see race,” is no longer acceptable. You have to see race and culture in order to understand what it is that individual students need. To acknowledge race is a simple means of acknowledging the social, racial, and political hurdles to which one is subjected, and should be only regarded as such, never to use against one. To tackle these Culture Wars, we need cultural acceptance and cultural literacy. Independent of religion or spirituality, (as they are intensely controversial) the simple inclusion of African American history, life, and expression would be a great start in ending the culture wars we witness in education. The public school system needs to create as less dissonance as possible for its minority and unassimilated students.

Ultimately, these “wars” are still waged and fought today. Observations in public school (and even higher academic) environments still reveal the need for greater cultural resources that reflect students’ various experiences. Many educators are still forced to strictly “teach from The Curriculum:” the items mandated by both state and educational officials, preoccupied with standardized testing results. At the same time, a greater number of educators (including many who started these debates in the late 80s/early 90s) have provided solutions. These solutions have manifested in program development strategies, new textbooks, grassroots organizational efforts, and teachers simply “sneaking cultural knowledge in” for their students.

My initial investigations about this make me want to read further on this topic, and draw potential connections to educational practices today.

Kweku Vassall & Revisited by Tysheira Scribner 

Works Cited

Bain-Selbo, Eric. (2003). Mediating the Culture Wars. Cresskill, NJ: Hampton Press.

Binder, A. J. (2000). Why Do Some Curricular Challenges Work While Others Do Not? The Case of Three Afrocentric Challenges. Sociology of Education, 73(2), 69-91.
(PDF for viewing in our OMEKA entry for this article – very informative)

Gates, Henry Louis. (1993). Loose Canons: Notes on the Culture Wars. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Graff, Gerald. (1992). Beyond the Culture Wars: How Teaching the Conflicts Can Revitalize American Education. New York, NY: W. W. Norton.

Ladson-Billings, Gloria. (1994). The dreamkeepers : successful teachers of African American children. San Francisco :Jossey-Bass Publishers,