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Artist of the Month: Sounds of Blackness

by Andrea Swensson

December 06, 2013

This year, we’ll be spotlighting a prominent Minnesota musician or band each month with our new Artist of the Month feature. You’ll be able to hear a variety of songs from throughout the artists’ career on both the Local Current stream and the Local Show, and you can read more about the artists’ history and their role in the community right here on the Local Current Blog. Our local artist of the month for December is Sounds of Blackness.

About Sounds of Blackness:

It’s been over 40 years since gospel supergroup Sounds of Blackness first formed, making them one of Minnesota's longest-running musical projects. The group was founded in St. Paul back in 1969 under the name Macalester College Black Voices. Their current director, Gary Hines, took the reigns just two years later in 1971, and they’ve been known as the Sounds of Blackness ever since.

"The Sounds of Blackness—it's the music of the African-American experience," Hines said, describing his group in a 2011 interview. "Jazz, blues, gospel, R&B, soul, hip-hop, reggae, rock, ragtime. Sounds of Blackness bring the music of the family of the African-American experience to people everywhere."

The performing troupe has packed a lot of acclaim and success into their 40-plus years together. With as many as 25 members in Sounds of Blackness at any given time, they have embraced and fostered the talent of stars like Cynthia Johnson, who sang on the famed Lipps, Inc. single "Funkytown," and Ann Nesby, who performed as lead vocalist in the group for years before splitting off to pursue a successful solo R&B career and co-star in the film The Fighting Temptations.

Though often referred to as a gospel group, Sounds of Blackness embrace many different influences; their most acclaimed album, 1991's The Evolution of Gospel, found them combining gospel with modern-day R&B to create songs that sounded right at home alongside other Minneapolis Sound releases of the era. Which was no surprise, really—The Evolution of Gospel was produced by famed duo Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, and helped push Sounds of Blackness into the national spotlight.

In 1992, The Evolution of Gospel was awarded the Grammy for Best Gospel Choir or Chorus Album, and soon the group was performing around the world. They performed at the White House a total of five times throughout Bill Clinton's presidency, performed at the 1996 Olympics, and picked up numerous other awards, including two more Grammys, four Stellar Awards, an Emmy nomination, and an International Time for Peace Award.

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A Sounds of Blackness sign that was displayed on Minneapolis buses in the 1970s (via MNHS)

At this point the group is practically an institution in Minnesota music, and has also become a family affair. Ann Nesby's daughters Shirley Marie Graham and Jamecia Bennett later sang lead in the group, and her granddaughter, Paris Bennett, found success performing on American Idol. Members of the acclaimed and talented Steele family have also performed in the group over the years, and Billy Steele is currently the assistant director of Sounds of Blackness.

Steele and Hines continue to tour Sounds Blackness internationally, and they've picked up another influential supporter in recent years: President Barack Obama, who called Hines shortly after taking office to tell him that he and First Lady Michelle Obama are longtime fans.

Why you should know them now:

This December marks another anniversary for Sounds of Blackness: it will be their 35th time performing their holiday show The Night Before Christmas – A Musical Fantasy at the Guthrie Theater. The one-of-a-kind holiday musical combines dance, storytelling, gospel, jazz, hip-hop, and R&B, and captures everything that’s special about this talented and long-running group.

The Sounds of Blackness Night Before Christmas special happens Monday, December 9, in the Guthrie's Wurtele Thrust theater. Details here.

Essential videos:


For more on Sounds of Blackness:

Listen to a special Sounds of Blackness in-studio and feature from 2009, courtesy of MPR News.

Previous Artists of the Month:

January 2013: Dan Wilson

February 2013: Low

March 2013: 12 Rods

April 2013: The Jayhawks

May 2013: The Hopefuls

June 2013: The Hang Ups

July 2013: The Soviettes

August 2013: The Suburbs

September 2013: The Replacements

October 2013: Charlie Parr

November 2013: Information Society


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This activity is made possible in part by the Minnesota Legacy Amendment’s Arts & Cultural Heritage Fund.