Who Is Adrianne Archie?
This may very well be the most sensual Christian album ever recorded. Adrianne Archie's music reminds me of being in love, of what that felt like. The CD radiates an unapologetic sensuality that translates into an unapologetic and uninhibited humanity—a full and complex humanity, not the plastic, “safe” humanity of most Gospel releases. Archie seems to live in the same world we do. As such, she seems to be able to speak to us with the authority of someone who's in the struggle with us. She earns our trust because she appears to be human in every dimension, not just the “safe” ones.
The words in her eMail fairly startled me, considering this was
someone I'd never met. It startled me all the more when I
stopped to consider just how long it’d been since I’d last heard
those words. Seriously. I sat back in my chair and counted. It’s
been years. Literally, years, since someone said they loved me.
Which doesn’t mean nobody does, but that we don’t actually
say it enough.
Everybody’s afraid to be vulnerable, afraid of being
misinterpreted or of inadvertently revealing too much of
themselves. None of which seems to much concern Adrianne Archie,
a bubbly wellspring of joy who gushes love and compassion as if
she were either unaware or unafraid of the risk involved in such
matters of the heart. She just charges in, her guard down, her
arms open, like nobody read her the rules.
This is a woman who makes her own rules.
We don’t cover the Gospel music industry much, here. As I’ve said way too many times, I have serious issues about the relative incongruity between most Gospel music and the Gospel itself, and with artists profiting off of the shed blood of an innocent Man. Many if not most Gospel artists will claim their careers are their ministry, but relatively few Gospel artists’ routine functions would qualify as ministry. Most function like a business, effectiveness measured in profit and cash flow rather than in lives transformed. Having worked in and around the music industry for quite awhile, I’ve been backstage enough times to have experienced some of this unfortunate truth; enough to validate my natural cynicism. I also tend to invariably connect the person singing with the message sung. If I know, from industry contacts, that an artist’s life doesn’t measure up to the message sung, I have a difficult time enjoying the music. Or, if the artist has some ridiculous pose, such as Kurt Carr’s “Angry Moose” arrogance on the cover of his recent One Church CD, it becomes a huge hurdle for me because that artist seems to no longer be projecting the love of Jesus Christ but the love of self; an “I’m The Joint!” arrogance that simply doesn’t belong within the household of faith. Carr, from all reasonable evidence, is actually a very personable guy. I’m not sure who talked him into that photo, but I beseech my brother: it’s not a good look. And I can’t help but wonder how many other Christians simply left it on the racks.
I never saw HTHAELHH on the racks. I’d never heard of Adrianne Archie. I was on iTunes looking for a song when the iTunes robot spat out some suggestions. Usually, I’m good at ignoring websites that start pushing content on me, but iTunes’ interface has been remarkable prescient; usually offering up stuff I actually do like. Based on my buying patterns, it kind of “reads” me and figures out what I might like. And up popped Adrianne Archie.
Adrianne Archie. The first thing I looked at was the cover art. No “Angry Moose.” More of a thoughtful, contemplative glamour look that radiates both beauty and intelligence. The choice of an off-the-shoulder pink and visible camisole strap might give church folk pause, but sex isn’t the message, here. The CD does radiate with a persistent sexuality, at one point jolting if only because of Archie’s satin vocals. “Use To Do” opens with the refrain, “He’s got His hands on me and I know it,” as the song opens to a super-charged riff from “California,” lead cut of Tonéx’s transcendent Oak Park. Archie’s ramp-up cadence, whether intended or not, evoked the dark themes threading through Tonéx’s brilliant and brave work (including drug abuse and molestation), which lent a more sinister subtext to “He’s got His hands on me and I know it.” That subtext is quickly dispelled in the proper context of the song’s theme—letting go of old habits in favor of a new life in Christ.
While not having much to say in the way of romance on this album, sexuality is nonetheless a live wire running through it. It is perhaps this element of the human condition that helps elevate HTHAELHH (He That Hath An Ear Let Him Hear) above the current urban Gospel crowd. Other than J. Moss’ “Livin’ 4,” which is kindly (and, likely, intentionally) derivative of Janet Jackson’s brilliant “I Get So Lonely,” there’s not been much to say about sex or sexuality in Gospel music. Most Gospel music—urban or otherwise—has been scrubbed and sanitized of this entire side of ourselves, which creates a kind of Stepford Religion wholly unappealing to most people who may suspect accepting Christ into our lives turns us into eunuchs or Pod People.
In that context, HTHAELHH may very well be the most sensual Christian album ever recorded. Finally something for Christian couples, who are normally forced towards Luther and Usher when the candles are lit. She reminds me of being in love, of what that felt like. Of the possibilities of youth, back when it was okay to fall in love every other week. Warm Winter, Archie’s 2006 Christmas album, is even more sensually evocative, creating ghosts of Christmas past. Holding hands in the snow. Long walks to nowhere. The fluidity of life. How much of this is a conscious effort on Archie’s part is unknown, but the CD radiates an unapologetic sensuality that translates into an unapologetic and uninhibited humanity—a full and complex human experience, not the plastic, “safe” humanity of most Gospel releases. Archie seems to live in the same world we do. As such, she seems to be able to speak to us with the authority of someone who's in the struggle with us. She earns our trust because she appears to be human in every dimension, not just the “safe” ones.
The retro-70’s feel of HTHAELHH’s CD cover, the song titles chalked onto a virtual green board behind Archie, along with the hoop earrings and Roberta Flack sunglasses, pretty much screams “Neo-Soul,” a genre of music designed specifically to make me feel old. Young people vibing off of sounds and concepts that were fresh way back when I was attempting to do what AD now does so well only serve to make me keenly aware of the passage of time. My music, the music I thrived on in my teens, is now the stuff of fond nostalgia. Our clothes, our language, our life, is now being recycled by people too young to have ever heard Martin Luther King, Jr. speak live. Who don’t remember the daily casualty reports from Vietnam. Who didn’t see Richard Nixon resign on live TV. Who have only a vague idea of who Ronald Reagan might have been. I guess I’m a little annoyed by this pilfering of our culture by people too young to actually remember it. At the same time, I’m grateful to see some of that culture preserved (though some of the clothes really could stay gone, thank you). I’m grateful to hear young people playing actual instruments (or, at least, in this case, masterfully emulating the sound of actual instruments as much of HTHAELHH was, apparently, done on a workstation).
I played “Welcome,” the first cut, and discovered a kind of rambling, freestyle jam; as if I’d just wandered into somebody’s rehearsal. The choice was so unexpected, so utterly disarming, that I started sampling other cuts, figuring I might grab a couple of them. By the time I’d added up the cuts I was planning to download, I realized this was an *album* I wanted.
I can’t tell you the last time I was actually excited about an entire *album* (wait, yes I can— it was exactly one year ago, when I ran a virtually identical blush over Tonéx's seminal work Oak Park). Oh, there have been plenty of songs, plenty of moments, but, other than Oak Park (and Out The Box before it), there’ve been fairly few *albums* that I was excited about blowing my hard-earned cash on.
HTHAELHH is not simply a good album or even a great album: it's an important album, a rare collusion of artistic integrity and spiritual purpose. A work that, like Oak Park, transcends such labels as "gospel" or "secular," "jazz" or "R&B." HTHAELHH stands on its own merits; it simply is. If I had to lodge a complaint at all about it, it would be that Archie's writing doesn't include any love songs or political songs or songs that take her outside of the Christian comfort zone. Something that would make the CD a little tougher for rackers to decide the section the CD belongs in. Christians get their hearts broken, too, and it is precisely this dimension of herself Archie seems to keep private, as if romantic love was not in the dominion of an omnipotent God. This is a perfectly acceptable artistic choice, but it does reinforce the phony idea that Christians are forbidden to sing about anything that isn't blatantly spiritual (as if there are or should be areas of our lives God is not welcome in), or that Christian musicians can't simply be artists in their own right; their work being accepted as art—not "Christian" art but art. Just one love song, one achy breaky heart song, might have irritated her Church Folk fan base, but would have blossomed this stellar work from being a stellar Christian work to being a more holistic statement about the human condition, elevating our faith in Christ from being a niche idea that fences us off from reality. One stroll down India.Arie's streets would have confirmed that having Christ in your life doesn't mean you must now exist only in the Gospel bin. Church folk ignorance would make such a move a risky one, and Archie would, I promise, be accused of selling out or trying to have it both ways. But I believe such notions are borne of an inbred fear and ignorance whose time has long since past. God created music. He created all of it—not just the James Cleveland songs. When I am hurting, when I am in love, when my woman leaves me, why do I have to turn to secular artists and secular thoughts to speak to those issues?
Conversely, India.Arie's brilliant "I Am Not My Hair" is a transcendently spiritual song, one I got beat up for recently when a church mother blasted me for running it on our Youth and Young Adult web site. Her objections made it clear she had not closely listened to the words, and was objecting to Arie simply on the basis of her being a "secular" artist. Which misses the entire point of lyrics like, "I am the soul that lives within." "Secular" artists can, apparently, never be allowed to be spiritual, either. If my church mother absolutely had to criticize Arie, she could have taken exception to Arie's reference to singer Melissa Etheridge, a cancer survivor and gay activist, as though Etheridge's sexual orientation should preclude her from overcoming a life-threatening disease.
This division between "Gospel" and "secular" music has no sound doctrinal basis. It is completely phony and artistically disingenuous. Defining art in terms of what is "Christian" and what is not is intellectual cowardice. Are football games "Christian" or "secular"? Do we burn the Mona Lisa? When birds sing, are they only tweeting out That Old Rugged Cross? Artistic expression must be judged in context and not picked apart for its individual idiosyncrasies. What makes Larry Norman's landmark album Only Visiting This Planet the stellar work that it is (Norman being considered the originator of Christian rock, and, by extension, contemporary Christian music; by further extrapolation, if there were no Norman, there might be no Archie), is the record is certainly a Christian work while not being a "gospel" album. The lead cut, "I've Got To Learn To Live Without You," is a rock and roll standard about a man who is abandoned by his lover, about their romance, about their life. It is only in context of the larger album, of the other songs, that we realize the cause of that separation— the Great Rapture. This is the artistic risk that's missing from HTHAELHH, something that might help the work further transcend the Church Folk comfort zone. In fact, the more irritated Church Folk become, the more they denounce the album, the hotter the album would be. Oak Park's parental warning label, its artistic inaccessibility and its sheer exclusivity has made it the Christian equivalent of Prince's legendary Black Album.
Which is, overall, a small complaint about a landmark recording. One crafted, as most landmark recordings are, in a seemingly un-self-conscious matter. I doubt Archie and producer Joel L. Goodwin proposed to make an "important" album. But this album is, indeed, important, if only for its effectively normalizing the Christian experience. Christian youth, Christian teens, can feel normal and at home with Archie and her friends. There's love, here. There's, well, fun, here. The CD is utterly un-self-conscious in its verve for life, in a way most other Christian artists cannot match. Most Christian music, contemporary or not, is terribly self-aware. Even the very best of it, the J. Mosses and Tye Tribbetts and Mary Marys, *sounds* like Christian music in a way that makes the listener, Christian youth, terribly self-conscious and further reinforces the artificial barrier between young people's Christian commitment and the lives they actually live. Most urban Christian youth keep their Christian lives at church. Everywhere else, they are struggling to fit in and find their way in the world. HTHAELHH joyously spans that gap in a way few Christian works have, retaining its artistic integrity while being unapologetically Christian.
I wrote this blog post and then never posted it, instead contacting Soul LinQ Productions, Archie’s production company. Once we started talking about an interview, I scrapped the blog post, preferring to focus all of our efforts on the interview. But, here’s what I wrote, the day I first heard the album:
Who on earth is Adrianne Archie and where on earth have I been for the three years this CD has been out? Have I been in a coma? Sleepwalking? In an alternate universe or dimension? How is it possible a CD of this power, of this ground-breaking, earth-shaking stature could exist and me—well—and Neil Brown not know about it? A self-confessed music junkie, Neil Knows Everything. This one flew completely beneath the radar [Editor's Note: at this writing, Neil has been driving around with HTHAELHH in his CD player for at least a month, blasting it everywhere he goes.He can't put the thing down.]. I’m groping for words to describe the beauty, the power of this album. You’ll have to excuse me for a bit while I try and collect my thoughts and rave about this thing. For now, please take my word for it: this is a powerful, effective tool for youth evangelism, particularly for urban teen girls. A Neosoul revelation, I’d say, “Imagine a Christian Lauryn Hill and roll her into a Christian India.Arie and then roll that into a Christian Jill Scott.” But that’s not quite it. Let’s just say this album is simply amazing, a revelation. And I’m a guy who doesn’t like a whole lot of music these days.
I’d have nominated Archie’s HTHAELHH (He That Hath An Ear Let Him Hear) as our 2004 Music Essentials artist of the year, except we only started the Music Essentials thing in 2005, and, I’ve never seen or heard of this CD. Available at iTunes and through her site, for the moment I’ll assume Archie is an independent artist for the moment unencumbered by the major labels, which likely explains the narrow distribution of this project. Which is a shame: this CD deserves wide, wide distribution. Youth leaders, particularly in urban areas, need to invest in this CD, which I would suggest as the ministerial equivalent of Tonéx’s landmark Oak Park (which she either samples or plays homage to on the joyfully off-kilter Used To Do) as a CD we should just buy tons of and simply give away, Tonéx’s Oak Park to the boys, Archie’s HTHAELHH to the girls.
This CD is a gift, such a gift to me. Just when I was about to
give up on gospel artists altogether, this fresh witness comes
along and renews (somewhat) my faith in the genre. I know a lot
of folks don’t feel like being bothered downloading stuff from
iTunes (we like to just buy the thing in shrink wrap. If I could
find it, that’s what I’d do). But it really doesn’t take that
long to download, and it’s only ten bucks. My broke friends can
download a song at a time, but with eighteen tracks, HTHAELHH
will cost you almost twenty bucks to creep at it. But if you
must get only a track or two, by all means grab up What A
Fellowship, It Is Well (oh man, oh *man*), and Who Jesus Is.
Then kick yourself because you’re going to want the whole album.
I promise you.
Stop wasting time and go buy this album now.
Adrianne, if you’re reading this: sorry we’re three years late. But we’ve found you, we welcome you, we thank you. Send us more!!
And, oh, Adrianne: I love you back.