Gladys Knight: A candid conversation

Special to the NNPA from The Chicago Defender

Motown Records was considered the number one most influential company to lead in setting a precedent for talent, style, good music, swag and success. The Detroit label was founded on the same business model of automotive companies that ruled the blue collar town during that time. Founder Berry Gordy believed in building a company that scouted and signed raw talent, polished them and carried them through an assembly line of artist development that is sadly missing in today’s music business.

Gladys Knight and the Pips were part of the ‘golden era’ of Motown Records. They contributed to its long illustrious line-up of catalog hits that included “Neither One of Us”, “I Heard It Through the Grapevine”, “If I Were Your Woman” among them. In 1976, the group left Motown and joined Buddah Records where they continued to create a string of classic hits like “Midnight Train to Georgia”. After much success Ms. Knight moved on to embark on a successful solo career with Columbia Records and MCA Records reuniting with the Pips in the 1980’s. The lead vocals on each song belonged to Gladys Knight and her smooth and timeless voice still rings strong today.

Chicago Defender had an opportunity to engage the seven-time Grammy awarded artist and Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee in candid conversation while in town for a concert at Ravinia and to promote her latest single “Just A Little”. The independent release of her single is available on September 25th and produced by Grammy award producer, S1. She’s no stranger to overseeing her own music company but this time it’s with the help of her husband and manager.

“I told my crew, please don’t sign me to another record label. You can give people chance, after chance, after chance but it hasn’t changed,” Knight said. “Why do you think there aren’t any record labels left? People got tired of not being paid while these mega companies are at the top with executives living in big houses, owning luxury cars and taking our money sending their kids to college. I have kids in college as well and I need my money.”

With her new company, comes new talent and she’s happy to bring on young and fresh ears to the camp. Rising singer and current vocal arranger, R&B singer Avehre has managed to capture Knight’s interest in becoming one of the premiere artists on her independent label.

“Avehre is an amazing, talented and respectful young man. My husband has taken him under his wing. They are in the studio right now,” Knight said. “This man can write, produce and do his own thing.”

As the business has changed over the years Knight has experienced challenges including the loss of her son James Newman who was also her manager, and her daughter and former manager who fell ill. She confesses that her spirituality and relationship with God has kept her going. As a mother, grandmother and great-grandmother, she’s noticed a cycle of social injustice that has continued to plague our community. Current day injustices have stirred past memories citing that the generational gap is not too different than when she was coming up in the Civil Rights movement.

“We were determined more than we were angry so we marched. We came together as a people. We held up our heads. Not only were we fighting for justice, we were fighting for respect,” Knight said there’s a difference between her generation’s approach and the following generation. “You can’t demand respect if you’re not respectable. In our homes, when we try to teach our kids about being respectable – they get so much pressure from outside of the homes. They just got tired so they don’t want to hear it, ‘I’m mad now!’ Growing up, they need what we’ve received on the spiritual side in order to keep them grounded,” said Knight. “The concept of God was taken away from us and everything and everybody along the way. That’s the primary reason why we are where we are today. We’re too busy being politically correct.”

Knight and her husband William McDowell of 15 years are happily married and reside in Canton, North Carolina. There they recently purchased the schoolhouse, where McDowell attended elementary school. The building has been abandoned for a number of decades and they are seeking to transforming it into a state-of-art performing arts facility for new students. It’s a labor of love. She is looking forward to reaching out to her industry friends for assistance in bringing more opportunities to the community.

As she wraps up, she recounts what makes Chicago so special every time she visits the Windy City, “It’s a team place. I’ve had friends here and I worked here all my young life. The theaters were something here. They were a learning place. It’s just a wonderful, aggressive place,” She said, “Being friends with the Staples, Jerry ‘Iceman’ Butler and other friends, I got to learn about the city and the clubs. That’s what I love about Chicago. I still get a good feeling when I come here.”

The colorism of race: Bill Duke

— Special to the NNPA from The Chicago Defender

Bill Duke is one of America’s most prolific actors and directors as he continues to capture the topics that challenge people to think consciously on social issues. His latest project, Light Girls, is a documentary film and book as a follow-up to his Dark Girls film based on the serious problem of skin color discrimination within certain ethnic cultures — specifically the African American community.

VIDEO: Light Girls

Having a distinguished and long career that has brought him from his hometown of Poughkeepsie, New York to studying drama at Boston University and continuing further instruction at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts and the American Film Institute, Duke launched his professional career on Broadway. Among some of his more notable roles were the imposing, conscious character Abdullah Mohammed Akbar in the movie Car Wash, as well prominent roles in Menace II Society, Exit Wounds, X Men: The Last Stand and Get Rich or Die Tryin‘. But it is his talents as a director that continue to keep him on speed dial with many production companies and film studios.

Duke is considered one of the most sought-after directors to capture and bring stories to life regardless of race, gender or cultural definitions; he is the actor’s director and the director’s director. His directorial work has spanned from the critically acclaimed television series Hill Street Blues and Miami Vice to feature films such as A Rage in Harlem, Hoodlum, Deep Cover, and Sister Act 2: Back in the Habit along with the PBS broadcast documentary Prince Among Slaves.

Duke was in Chicago to showcase his films Light Girls and Dark Girls along with participating in very in-depth panel discussions about the topics during the Black Women’s Expo last month.

CD: What was the motivation behind doing the films Light Girls and Dark Girls? It has been something that has been a taboo topic in the African American community. What made you feel it was necessary to tell this story?

BD: Based on my own experience as a young man coming up in Poughkeepsie, NY being dark complexioned and being tall, it was difficult. Luckily I had parents that re-enforced my worth to me. Early on, it was not easy for my sister, my mother and my niece. Some of the things they and other young girls went through from the community. Also, seeing the ‘colorism’ in our community today, it said to me, ‘This needs to be given a voice.’ As a result, I put together the two films and a book.

CD: Are you looking to do a third film as a follow up to Light Girls and Dark Girls?

BD: I’ve exhausted this territory. The next film is going to be called What is a Man? Is there a distinction between being born male and becoming a man? Many people feel there isn’t a distinction; you’re born male so you’re a man. In African tradition, that was not true. At 12 or 16 years old, you were given a spear and sent into the jungle. If you came back, there was a male ceremony with all other men who accepted you into the tribe. There’s a distinction between having a child, fathering a child and providing for that child. We want to examine that phenomenon. Is there such a thing called ‘manhood’? Are there manhood responsibilities? What are those responsibilities? Have they changed? Have they evolved? Also, what is the impact on those children of men that have several women who have borne their children?

CD: What motivates you to give back and mentor young people?

BD: It’s not our obligation, it’s our responsibility as Black men. The suffering of our young men due to lack of exposure to values and opportunities. The solution to that problem can’t be placed upon the shoulders of a system that has ignored them for many years.

We’re playing checkers in a chess game. Society is chess. We’re waiting for the chess players to come and teach us how to play chess. Those of us who learn how to play chess have to teach other people how to play chess. You can’t compete if you don’t have the information, knowledge and techniques for competition. So, it turns into complaints, violence and frustration. It’s a little frustrating and disturbing.

CD: Do young actors and filmmakers of color need to know how to play chess in order to compete and survive in Hollywood?

If you come to Hollywood and you are dreaming of having aspirations without understanding what is called ‘show business,’ you may get very, very lucky. That’s not what I see; I see the majority Black, Hispanic and Asians coming to Hollywood end up in positions that never lead them to their career. It’s an extremely competitive, rejection business. People hide the pain of rejection by dealing with the symptom which is usually through drugs, alcohol, partying or other activities that don’t deal with the root of the problem. Right now, the kids I see coming to Hollywood have no clue. They think we’re in the film and television business. We’re in the ‘media business.’

Duke immediately returns to the Windy City to begin filming, “Blaxicans” from mid-April to the end of May.

“It’s about a Mexican family and Black family where the young Black man falls in love with the Mexican girl. They get married and have a baby and she’s a “Blaxican.” The problem is that the father of the Black family hates Mexicans and the father of the Mexican family hates Black people. It’s a conflict between those two cultures while the wife, child and husband love each other and love their families. It’s how they resolve these issues; it’s a dramedy.”

It was just recently announced that Duke would be working on the biopic of the gospel legend Mahalia Jackson and filming in Chicago. Currently, the director is in discussions with potential investors to bring the gospel singer’s celebrated life to the big screen.

Duke reveals his admiration, “Not only was she close friends with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., but she encouraged him to do the “I Have a Dream” speech at the march. She was one of the first brilliant Black business women in this country. Although, it was a male dominated culture and society, she let no man tell her what to do. She stood up for women’s rights and her rights. Her story should be celebrated. It’s not a Black story. It’s a story of a woman — a human being — that grew up in the rural South with nothing. She believed in God enough that her faith brought her through circumstances that the average person could not survive. You can feel through her music.”

A Fight for Survival: Chicago rapper survives breast cancer

— If you’re not familiar with the Chicago Rap music scene you may not have heard of Twone Gabz. Known to family and friends as Antwone Muhammad, he has been in the music business for almost 15 years, featured on projects produced by Grammy award producer, No I.D., Kanye West, Terry Hunter, DJ Jazzy Jeff, Erick Sermon and collaborations with Chicago artists; Mikkey Halsted, GLC, Keith Murray and Rhymefest among others.

A trip to the emergency room changed the entire scope of his world when tests revealed he had breast cancer. While taking a break from the music business to work in healthcare management Antwone noticed fluid leaking from his left nipple. The leakage occurred off and on for a couple of years until his visit to the emergency room.

Male breast cancer is a rare condition, accounting for only about one percent of all breast cancers according to, but Antwone challenges this statistic. “They say it affects one percent of men, but those numbers are skewed because they are being updated based on census surveys. So, who’s really inviting a stranger into their house? Does the stranger ask you, “Does anybody in this household have cancer? My oncologist believes it to be like seven to 10 percent of men now,” he says.

To help fight depression and isolation, Antwone decided to share his ordeal on social media. “Some people really confide and open up,” he says. “It’s been great just to see people and how they’ve taken to it.”

Through the power of social media and online engagement, his open discussion has encouraged people to get mammograms and go to the doctor check-ups. In addition to talking with people on Facebook and Twitter, he has been documenting the process by filming his doctor visits. He’s also ending his five-year hiatus from the music business was by penning new lyrics for the music CD “The Tumor.”

Antwone says being in the music studio again helping him through his ordeal. “It’s been better than the actual treatment. As an artist, we can say certain things and put it in the words of a song, but when it comes to communicating with people it’s like the hardest thing for us.”

He continues, “When we make songs we become this person that we’re really not because we’re trying to seek acceptance from a lot of people. At some point, my music has to be therapeutic for me.”

One of his missions is to bring awareness to the African American community, particularly the Roseland community located on the far Southside of Chicago. “There’s more cancer in Roseland than anywhere in Chicago and if you look at Roseland Community Hospital, no one goes there. All of the factories, the dump sites, the dirty roads compelled me to discuss why the area has the highest cancer rate.” Inspired by what is going on in the community, Antwone is working with Roseland Community Hospital and releasing the first music video for the song, “Getting Through It.”