"When my son turned 17 it hit me like a brick: my son was a candidate for catastrophe, and I could go through what other parents had gone through and experienced. I went back into the piano room and I wrote this song entitled 'Black Lives Matter.' And man, I wept." - Bebe Winans, Black Entertainers
Benjamin ("Bebe") Winans is an icon. This six-time Grammy award winner has sang for presidents, acted alongside Denzel Washington, worked closely with Oprah Winfrey on theatre and television productions and hosted his own radio show. His legendary songwriting and singing talents include timeless classics like I'll Take You There, Addictive Love and my personal favorite, If Anything Ever Happened to You. Whether singing in a duo with his beloved sister Priscilla ("Cece"), or with other highly-acclaimed talents like the Queen of Soul Aretha Franklin, or the late Whitney Houston and Luther Vandross, the profound ability of Bebe's gifts to strengthen, inspire and fortify the hearts of millions easily sets him apart from other artists. Even so, as a black man in America Bebe's talent and fame have not set him aside from the painful awareness that something as superficial as skin color makes the lives of black men, women and children in this country frighteningly susceptible to deadly consequences. I learned this and so much more during my recent talk with Bebe about the stage presentation of his new, autobiographical musical, Born for This: The Bebe Winans Story.
What distinguishes the work of Bebe, Cece and the entire Winans musical dynasty is their ability to unite lyric and melody in such a manner as to timely nourish the unique spiritual and emotional needs of each person who listens. It's as if the Universe has prepared them with the gift to anticipate what each listener will need to hear for sustenance and inspiration, and then given them the means to deliver those messages through song. For example, a couple months ago as I sat in the audience during the Alliance Theatre's premier run of Born for This in Atlanta, Georgia, I was especially moved by the song: Seventh Son. In this deeply authentic ballad, Bebe's mother petitions God to grant him (her seventh son) the distinct type of blessings and armor he will need to survive and thrive in this world. In listening to the song, it is apparent that Bebe's mother has discerned the persona of her seventh son is such that he will need an exceptional level of divine love, attention, tenderness and support to emerge successful and whole through life's challenges. Hanging on to every emotion in this mother's most heartening plea on her son's behalf, it occurred to me that her petition is the petition we all need to issue for our young black men today - for these men are our collective seventh sons. I was so taken with the song that I left the theatre that day in desperate search for the lyrics. This search led me directly to Bebe, who opened his heart to share more about the impact of this soon-to-be released song, his personal quest to proclaim that "Black Lives Matter", and his thoughts on Born for This.
"He's my seventh son. Oh, what a joy. And I'm so proud of my baby boy.
Although he's lost his way, please protect him Lord I pray.
Your will be done for my seventh son."
- from the song, Seventh Son, in Born for This: The Bebe Winans Story
According to Bebe, I was not alone in my affection for the song Seventh Son. Early in our talk he noted, "One of the things that was so moving for me when I was in Atlanta was that this song came up a lot in my talks with people after the show. I remember one woman telling me she only had two children, but her youngest was her 'seventh son'." He added, "In the world we live in, I think it's sometimes easier for our daughters than our sons. It's especially difficult for our sons because of how they are viewed in society. I've had to sit with my 17 year-old and tell him this is the reality. Our laws should protect our children, but sometimes those laws fall short and protect others instead of our sons. My baby boy is my seventh son."
In fact, it was Bebe's concerns about the racially hostile and violent world that would be awaiting his own 17 year-old that led him to pen the song, Black Lives Matter. "When it comes to the Black Lives Matter movement," Bebe noted, "I have to say 'yes, they do.' All lives matter, and divisions can only be brought down through love. It's so simple that love is the most powerful weapon we have. And when it comes to social justice, if I don't come to the table with love I'm just a lot of noise."
"It's the right to live we're after. Want to trade these tears for laughter.
In one moment dreams are shattered.
Our sons and daughters matter. Black lives matter."
- from the song, Black Lives Matter by Bebe Winans
Determined to be about it and not just talk about it, Bebe worked to bring love to the table through the Black Lives Matter song. He would go on to perform the song for the first time earlier this year with over 400 children of the Young People's Chorus of New York City at Lincoln Center. In what he describes as one of the most powerful experiences in his life he suggested, "Singing this song with these children helped them focus on what is going on in America. So I told them, 'we are all neighbors, and like family we are all connected. And even though you may not live in my neighborhood, you should be concerned about what's going on in my neighborhood because your neighborhood could be next'."
His concern for social justice and perceptiveness of the connectedness between human experiences is at the core of much of Bebe's work and popularity among Christian and non-Christian audiences. For instance, the production of his solo album Dream was based on Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech. And in a recent interview for Black Entertainers, he talked about how thoughts of Treyvon Martin and his own son were inspiration for the lyrics of his Black Lives Matter song. Although this song is not featured in the Musical, its lyrics parallel the Musical's themes of challenge, acceptance, respect and love - especially with regard to race and skin color.
Born for This is a coming of age story about young Bebe as he tries to locate his identity and purpose in a world where opportunity, talent, competition, cultural differences and race form the basis for conflict. For example, in this story we learn about many of the personal challenges Bebe and Cece faced as the first black additions to the Praise the Lord Club (PTL) television broadcast in the 1980s. And even though race is an undercurrent issue in his story, Bebe was quick to point out during our talk that his story differs from white America's standard "go to" narratives about black life. As an example, he proposed that unlike those all-too prevalent tales "where black children grow up without a father in the home or where they are led to a world of drugs, crime or prison until the white man (or woman) comes along to save him", his story makes it clear that black children are raised in good homes where mother and father instill solid values. He noted, "I was blessed to be raised in a family of ten children where my mother and father gave us the necessary foundation to withstand the wilds of the world. We were not perfect, but we were not swept away with every wind that blows."
Ultimately, the Musical is about a young man finding his way through a new life, a new culture and a new world. And while there are many life lessons that one might take away from the performance, I wondered what lessons Bebe wanted folks to walk away with from this very personal story. According to Bebe, the performance is "the perfect place for anyone seeking to understand the importance of learning his or her purpose in life. The take-away will be that no matter what you've been through or what state you're in, there is no need for shame or self-condemnation because God's love does not condemn."
In Bebe's view, this idea that we are each purposed to be here is crucial. In fact, he suggests, "It's important to find the reason why we're here. Sometimes we get lost in the craziness and don't really feel there's a reason for our lives. There's so much happening that's negative, and we wonder what we're here for." And then in typical Bebe fashion, he added a lyric: "In the midst of the rain when my heart was so full of pain, I found out what was good about my life in the middle of the bad." Today especially, given that the hearts of so many are indeed pained by the most recent deadly police violence against black men in America, I am reminded again of the gift for timeliness in Bebe's choice of lyrics. Add to that, I feel now more than ever the urgent need to petition God for the covering of young black men -- our collective seventh sons -- for they too, deserve the opportunity to live long, purposeful lives.
The Musical Born for This: The Bebe Winans Story is currently being performed through August 28, 2016 in Washington, DC at the Arena Theatre. For more information, visit: www.arenastage.org.
"Tomorrow hope to see you eyes
Looking back at me with your smile ..."
- from the song, Black Lives Matter by Bebe Winans