In a recent conversation with Gary Hines, longtime producer and director of the three-time, Grammywinning group Sounds of Blackness, I mentioned I can still remember where I was the first time I heard their infectious, booming, positively-charged anthem, “Optimistic.” A happy, young Temple University student traipsing along 52nd Street, West Philadelphia’s famous strip fondly remembered for its then bustling cluster of Black-owned businesses that lit that commercial corridor with “everything Black” from fashion to food to music. Out on that street at a jewelry table purchasing a pair of dangling, electric blue, beaded earrings from a Black street vendor, my ears were accosted by the Sounds of Blackness, and their Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis “Optimistic” collaboration. Oh, that pulsating intro: “The Blackness/Keep, keep on/Never say die!”
That first “flavor in your ear” encounter with Sounds of Blackness occurred decades ago, but the trendsetting, pro-Black genius of the Stellar and NAACP awarded Minneapolis-based vocal and instrumental group continues.
Hines says the group formed fifty years ago “as the Macalester College Black Voices.” Handed the reins of the heralded group, he had a vision to lead his newly named Sounds of Blackness group under the inspiration of music legend Duke Ellington.
“A lot of people don’t know that Duke—we hear his name and think of jazz, as we should—wrote and recorded spirituals, blues, gospel, African music, and every sound of Blackness,” began Hines. “We’re often mislabeled as a gospel group.” And while the mislabeling is common, the group actually performs a wide range of music encompassing the legacy, esteem, and experience of Black culture, Africa, and “the ancestors.” Hines credits these as integral influences for Black music that makes Black Music Month “necessary for everybody,” not just Black people, because of its impact on music and culture worldwide. Hines intertwines his perspective on the ubiquity of Black music, its accessibility, and the knowledge of it for all cultures, with the current push to teach Black history in classrooms. “Black music, history, and culture are still not a significant part of most school curriculums. The deleterious effects of this are catastrophic,” said Hines. “It’s impossible to view African Americans as equals without knowing the full extent of our contributions to world history and culture. We must always remember that history equals humanity.”
As June commemorates the authentic artistry of Black music and now Juneteenth, America’s second Independence Day celebrating the abolition of slavery in Texas and the end of the Civil War, Sounds of Blackness debuts their new “Woke” and “Juneteenth Celebration” anthem releases. Hines says President Biden’s signage of the Juneteenth National Independence Day Act inspired “Juneteenth Celebration,” the group’s latest song; and he believes the new songs are divinely inspired.
“God gave Sounds of Blackness “WOKE” and “Juneteenth Celebration” because both experiences needed an anthem,” Hines began. “Uplifting songs that would represent, explain, and be an inspiration to and for these movements and everyone who is involved therein!”
Sounds of Blackness’ impact on American history and culture doesn’t end there. The group has more legacy to fulfill. “We’re going to continue and expand our music, mission, and message internationally with Sounds of Blackness chapters across the United States and around the world to further establish our functions as a cultural institution with Sounds of Blackness community centers, schools, and workshops that focus on youth and our communities,” Hines revealed.
Sounds of Blackness seemingly has no plans to slow down, I say it sounds like, “The Blackness/Never say die/Optimistic.”