Donnie McClurkin's Perfecting Music Conference as reviewed in The Phantom TollboothI've never felt nothing but welcome in my 20-plus years of attending such concerts.

Donnie McClurkin's Perfecting Music Conference
Christian Faith Fellowship Church
Milwaukee, WI
20 May 2011
I've been to the church hosting it for concerts in the past, but I got a reminder of just how different the ecclesial/cultural divide between majority Eurmerican and mostly Afrimerican churches can be not long after I got to a lengthy day spent at singersongwriter/pastor Donnie McClurkin's Perfecting Music Conference on a sunny, slightly chilly spring Friday. 
A couple of ebullient young ladies asked me how I was doing. My usual reply of "Decent" was met when I reciprocated with concern for their welfare by "Blessed and highly favored." Though the gal was right about me that way positionally as well, need I say that I was the white one within that exchange of niceties?
My relationship with the popular black Christian church, the kind of congregations and church practice from which commercial soul gospel music springs, might be peculiar. Primarily, there's my pigmentation, paler than the vast majority of the congregants and musical practitioners involved in the scene (among the currently popular names in the latter designation, Wess Morgan and Martha Munizzi are notable exceptions). However, I've never felt nothing but welcome in my 20-plus years of attending such concerts. Heck, Shirley Caesar even touched me on the shoulder when I was in the front row of one her shows where she asked a question-exactly what it was escapes my memory-to which I answered near the top of my lungs, "Jesus!" Then there's the time John P. Kee wanted to give a $50 bill-not the only one that night-to the "white brother in the back," and when, at a performance by hit-making '80s-'90s choir The Thompson Community Singers, I  was announced as a special guest, albeit under the name "Jamie Radke." I didn't stand up for that, but still pretty swift, yes?
No, the peculiarities became apparent as I grew in my Christianity. The genre that proffered the first "Christian" music I really liked (thanks to listening to it on an AM r&b station a cousin in Milwaukee hepped me to, though she's not nearly the black music fan I am) and its attendant church and media culture seemed at odds with my understanding of the faith. I understand that James Cleveland did much for the growth and evolution of the music, but doesn't his having died of AIDS due to homosexual activity for which he was seemingly never publically repentant merit a degree of distance from his influence, never mind the ongoing issues of effeminate mannerisms among many male gospel folks? And is it me, or do the great majority of nationally renowned Afrimerican pasofrs have some connection or another with word-faith heterodoxy, modalism/Oneness Pentecostalism and/or Marxist black liberation theology? Thanks to the publicity given President Obama's former pastor and black lib' adherent, Jeremiah Wright, I could finally understand how Harry Allen, associate of militant rap group Public Enemy and self-professed Christian, could make the asine declaration that black people in the U.S. categorically can't be racist upon seeing him and PE's Chuck D on a college speaking tour date in the early '90s. Would it be fair to assume such race-baiting luminaries as Al Sharpton might agree with that assertion? Uh, thanks, Barrack? Speaking of whom and those who would agree with him, I certainly don't comprehend the blind spot many in the Afrimerican church community have toward Democrats' support of Klanned Barrenhood-sorry, Planned Parenthood-and abortion generally, thus perpetuating an ongoing genocide that disproportionately affects babies closer to Sharpton's color than mine. Uh, thanks again, Barry? Yet, I still like the music enough to listen to Bobby Jones' gospel radio countdown most every Sunday and other gospel programming throughout the week, even if it's been through the of the sometimes "What the...?" antics and pronouncements  heard on Yolanda Adams' syndicated radio show.   
That was a long backstory to precede how I happened upon the ad for McClurkin's Pefecting Music Conference on the website of an FM r&b station. I called MClurkin's publicist that night to arrange guest list for at least one day of the event. I enjoyed his performance at a charity concert several years ago and got a good vibe from him when I saw him speak backstage elsewhere. So, his past support of some of the aforementioned pastoral trends and Obama's candidacy, I was looking forward to seeing him and what he would present for a conference dealing with musical matters in urban (a useful descriptor, though not one I necessarily like; people of all ethnicities live in cities, right?) church.
McClurkin gave gave a right solid sermon for the Morning Glory service. Using 1 Chronicles 15 as a main text, he emphasized that the conference was being held to teach songleaders and other interested laity order operating under pastoral authority. Yay to all that. 

My first session of the day tackled issues within the use of praise&worship music in majority-black churches. With a couple of female cohorts from her Church Of God In Christ denomination, Judith McAllister, a pioneer in introducing p&w choruses and the kind of songleading derived from their structure, led the panel. As she was once the songleader in her church, McAllister spoke from firsthand experience when she brought up issues of anointing unto musical ministry, spiritual agreement among musicians&singers and clergy, the progression from thanksgiving to praise and there unto worship, and the connection between obedience to the Lord and ministerial effectiveness. No matter how much songleaders or church musicians may pray, fast, practice or otherwise prepare, however, McAllister spoke salient wisdom when she concluded, "Every song on the radio doesn't belong in church." An appropriate observation per CCM made by folks complicated more at my end of the pigmentation spectrum than La Judith's, too, that.

Whereas McAllister came to her gospel scene notoriety from a church background, Kerry Douglas moved from car sales to founding one of the gene's most successful independent labels, Blacksmoke Music. In part as a promotional vehicle for his New Deal Entertainment University program for fledgling recording artists, Douglas provided a workbook/notebook for attendees of his seminar on how to develop one's own label. If that seems pretty generous advice for a big fish such as Douglas in a relatively small musical pond, Douglas is not above maintaining his hustle to help others. He is, after all, also the founder of Gospel Truth Magazine, a periodical that had come with samplers CD's of up&coming acts who'd paid for the privilege of reaching its readership. Douglas is the kind of entrepreneur, then, who understands that competition is good for business, perhaps especially if it involves Kingdom business. He's savvy enough, to understand the parallels between '80s gangsta rap and today's soul gospel indieground (that is, making an end run around radio to create demand from that meduim) and to realize that going to church music ministers to push performances of their work is a marketing maneuver not open to Easy-E and Schoolly-D didn't have back in their day. Thank God for as much, hey? In his own case, Douglas emulates Motown Record's Berry Gordy, Jr. in his willingness to have his label's act on his label's roster record the same song in the hope that a hit can be had on a recording other than the original. Even so, one hopes Douglas keeps McAllister's byword of not everything right for the airwaves be suitable for the sanctuary, too.


Ah, lunch! My press credentials hadn't come through yet, but I did get to grab some grub from the generous, fairly healthy spread set up for us conference attendees. Turkey breast, pasta, jumbo flowerets of crispy broccoli prepared with what tasted like a Miracle Whip-based marinade and pork and fruit salad was all filling enough, but a sub sandwich segment staved off hunger long enough until I could hop to my nearby go-to soul food joint in the city (The Bungalow, a former Green Bay Packers caterer, where a side dish plate of boiled okra, sweet potatoes, black eyed peas and green with cornbread makes for my usual) before the evening concert/service.

My option après the midday feed was to see McAllister again lead a seminar on worship arts and the pastorate. In saying that praise is cultural, and worship is spiritual, she made a succinct and sincere case for the congregational use of contemporary music. To her credit, she also forwarded her belief that praise&worship is the key to ending racism. Following through on her earlier session on p&w music generally, she noted that two different visions, one from the pastor and another from the worship leader, can only lead to division. McClurkin sat in on the session and toward its end, he patted me on the back in passing. Biblically literate and approachable guy, huh?

After that for me was a seminar on commercial radio playby the city's top-rated gospel announcer on commercial radio, Melvin Hood at WKKV-FM/V100. He tends to major on the kind of gospel that sounds a couple steps removed from lite fusion jazz to my ears, therefore not up my aesthetic alley often as I might like, but I like and have known him for years as a concert- and convention-going acquaintance for years. He admits to not being fomd of traditional quartets and favoring contemporary sounds, and he has the audience to prove his tastes prove that his programming apparently resonates with more listener than and DJ in the city playing the music. This in a city with a full-time AM gospel signal as well. Anyway, Hood made plenty sense as he educated those in his thrall about how music had better be professionally recorded and presented in order to get on a show with the kind of reach his has. He went on to explain some as to how the time of day and other factors can influence when and how often a song is played, while encouraging aspirant gospeleers to be proficient in branding and studying the industry on which they hope to make their mark. Several attendees among me nodded their hsads or verbally affirmed Hood's  encouragements, possibly since they might have already attended any of the music business seminars that seem to hit the city at least once a year.

Lastly, McClurkin, alongside a bishop and superintendent from the church he leads, gave a class on evangelism. It was good to not only hear that theirs isn't an insular bless-me club, but an active body seeking to add to their flock by way of one of the means the Lord intends. Using verses from 2nd Timothy, Proverbs, Acts and 2nd Corinthians, McClurkin and his accomplices emphasized that all believers are called to evangelize unit not all hold the office of evangelist. Utilizing an agricultural analogy to describe evangelism, McClurkin stressed that planting the spiritual seed, not harvesting it, is the most important step in the process. On a matter of practicality, the pastor also talked of how it's best to go out witnessing in pairs lest a saint get mugged in the process, as happened to one lady who went out on her own as part of an outreach McClurkin led.        

After that scrumptious supper at The Bungalow, where my waiter engaged me in conversation about the conference and his aspiration to create an online guide to soul food and other aspects of Afrimeican culture in Milwaukee after he saw my press lanyard, it was time for the evening concert. Or service, from what I experienced of it. Following three p&w choruses of ample groove and few lyrics, Christian Faith Fellowship's senior pastor, Darrell Hines, Since I've long enjoyed his speaking voice never got his latest CD to review for the paper in Milwaukee where I write, I was glad to hear him sing a couple of songs before McClurkin came to the platform. Hines' last album was nominated in categories for traditional gospel at the last Stellar Awards ceremony, insofar as his sound's more trad than much of what's charting these days, that’s fitting enough. McClurkin came out reprising the end of Hines' second song efore sliding into a medley of modern worship affirmation "Here I Am To Worship" and public domain hymn "At The Cross" As if to minimize his own gospel stardom, he went  from that two-fer to the even older "Alas and Did My Savior Bleed." That was before, however, a lengthy sermon/testimony hybrid wherein he confessed to rampant hetero- and homosexual promiscuity before deliverance from it and, as a briefer aside, how he became a millionaire by tithing. That he cited Hines to be even wealthier further struck me as indicative of a bit of the word-faith  talk that had to this point been explicitly absent from the official proceedings. But it was a relatively minor point in a day that, ecclesially speaking, in a day's worth of intake that seemed mostly on the level biblically. 

A couple more songs and vamps from McClurkin, and I was done for the night. Much as I'd have loved to have heard McClurkin's sister, Andrea, sing, too, an hour's drive home and an early Saturday morning awaited. Though 1)not as well attended as I'm sure McClurkin and Hines might have liked (maybe the preceding day's job fair and the Saturday sessions saw greater traffic?) and, 2)my concerns for the music and churches I enjoy aren't completely quelled (I could send you blog links!...). I was heartened to see so much right in the genre I continue to enjoy and the congregations that propagate it.

-Jamie Lee Rake