Kierra Sheard, the newest judge on BET’s “Sunday Best” which debuted last night famously quipped
“Where is the oil?”
I ask that question to two of the judges: Donnie McClurkin and Kim Burrell.
Now let me help out of some of my non-Pentecostal friends and give some context to the question “Where is the oil?” that Kierra “KiKi” Sheard asked. “Oil” has somewhat become a euphemism for the ephemeral concept of one being anointed; another way of asking the question is “where is the anointing?” or “where is the power [behind your singing]” as Kierra was noting that contestants were just singing, but no one was feeling it.
First, watching singing contestant shows, as we all know from “American Idol” can be a bit of a side-show attraction. At this point, most Americans know at least one person in their wide circle of friends who went for an audition for one of these shows and we know that they can sing–at least sing better than some of the people we’ve seen featured. Most of us quickly found out that these shows weren’t so much interested in promoting good singing, inasmuch as going for that all important ratings.
I get it. I really do, but if we take a step back and remove the entertainment factor, I have some serious issues.
First of all, this entire panel is stacked: all four of the judges have deep roots in the Pentecostal denomination Church of God in Christ. It’s no secret that as a denomination, COGIC does lead the black denominations with having a progressive music department; half of the major gospel recording artists out now have roots in COGIC or at least have passed through somebody’s COGIC church. Not to mention, gospel musicians nationwide watch for COGIC conventions just to see what’s going to be the next praise break riff to take over for the next six months. Beyond that, the neo-Pentecostal wave has spread beyond COGIC and almost all of the gospel music industry qualifies as neo-Pentecostal.
That being said, this competition is slanted toward neo-Pentecostal waves of understanding music and the subjectivity that that produces. While many might not even have understood that as a lens through which we are seeing and understanding this, I took umbrage with some of the subjectivity that I saw last night.
Frankly, the only person I saw with some “oil” was Demarca (didn’t get her last name), and what I thought was interesting was the fact that Kierra made a comment about a contestant who was more focused on runs than they were about singing with “oil,” which in turn prompted the “Where is the oil” comment.
Secondly, keeping in mind this panel is Pentecostally stacked, they’re really not looking for a diversity of music or offerings which makes them Gospel Music Gatekeepers. We all have our gatekeeping moments in our various professions and organizations, but when we intentionally do so we eventually age ourselves out–the church is a perfect example. How many individual churches have literally
died aged out because they were more focused on being gatekeepers of tradition than engendering a new generation? What I can say about Kierra is that she certainly brings some youthful wisdom to the table–something that Donnie McClurkin and Kim Burrell didn’t seem to exude last night.
Granted, Dennis Brigham seemed to be a character waiting for a camera, Kim Burrell was rude to him and was rude to other contestants. So here is where the intersection of entertainment and ministry produces a messy mash-up: Kim went from being rude, and by the end of the show she was prophesying to a lady who walked in with a portable oxygen pump and was telling her to be healed in Jesus name. It’s in these moments that I begin to question what are we really doing here!
Penultimately, Yolanda Adams and Kierra Sheard I think provided a level-headed coolness and right blend of generational wisdom. Kierra, thankfully, didn’t mind speaking her mind when it came to a few of the contestants that the seasoned saints of Kim and Donnie didn’t want to pass through. Which made the subjective nature of this all the more appalling–some people Kim said she wanted to work with, meanwhile others who had the same caliber of vocal skills, she passed on because of the look. I can’t remember the names, but one brother showed up with Jordans on, and Kim and Donnie flat out said he didn’t have the look, in the next city Kim wanted to work with someone–I guess he had the look.
Perhaps the show should be entitled “Where is the oil” because Kim and Donnie seemed to be more focused on one’s spiritual intent rather than vocal abilities which is what Yolanda and Kierra focused more of their criticism. I don’t want to level the “churchiness” of Kim and Donnie at their denominational feet, but I am holding the criticism at their Pentecostal background–they really know any other way. This isn’t inherently a bad thing at all, but it does make me question the point of the show. Perhaps this is my own lens through which I look at gospel music competitions though.
I remember back in 2008 getting tickets to the Phillips Arena and getting to see a live taping of “How Sweet the Sound” choir competition and it was problematic on a number of levels: I was NEVER clear what the judging criteria was. I juxtapose this to my band competitions in high school. There was a pre-selected set of songs from which a band had to learn for competition, and when it came… …time for the sight reading selection, there was a pre-selected song as well; this made the comparisons easy across the board. So sitting in the choir competition and seeing every choir do a completely different song boggled my mind. A choir from New York that did the chorale arrangement of “Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory” compared to the choir that won off of a praise break version of “Tis So Sweet” was not even worth comparison. Not to mention that Gabrielle Union was a “judge.” She admitted she grew up Roman Catholic and that this was different for her to listen to gospel music.
I write this as a musician who’s sung in chorales and has sung in gospel choirs, that teaches gospel music and plays both keyboard and Hammond B3, having been in musical settings where there’s a pipe organ and don’t have a problem going into a praise break either.
But, what are we competing for?
I know that’s bad grammar, but I’m at a lost for what’s the purpose of these gospel music competitions. Are they meeting for sheer musicality or are the meeting to be real life Holy Ghost Enforcers; frankly, you could replace Kim and Donnie with Mother Turner and Mother Teresa and we wouldn’t know the difference. Am I holding Donnie and Kim to a slightly higher standard? Maybe. Both of them have had actual pastoral experience, more than just as singers in the ministry and I wonder if they are sending out a mixed message. While I’m clear about what I believe and I understand the flawed humanity that exists in these moments, with them as ministers over a congregation, I truly question what is the goal of them being so doggone rude to some contestants–particularly the ones who are obviously trying (I’m totally excusing Kierra’s comment about doing a “farm revival” because it was clear she wasn’t serious about the competition).
This show does not show the best of the judges, period point blank. I’m a bit disappointed that because of an entertainment factor the likes of Donnie and Kim are forced to be painted as rude or the “Simon Cowells” of the show. But, to use the working metaphor, I question the viscosity (does it flow well) and the purity of the “oil” that Donnie and Kim are working under if you can go from sheer rudeness, laughing at a contestant who obviously is taking this relatively serious, to praying and prophesying over another one–mind you, we have no idea if that prayer had any “oil” since we never heard her sing.
My suggestion is to change the show’s title to “Where Is the Oil?” Kierra was probably being more prophetic than she thought. At least then the show’s purpose will be clear, because right now, I’m lost.