Awesome God

Interview with Shawn Brown
Co-Directing the Vision

It is said that there is unity in diversity and that the sum of the whole is greater than its parts.

Such is the case with the dual directorship of Youthful Praise. Shawn Brown and JJ Hairston have distinctly different personalities, styles and approaches to nearly everything they put a hand to. Working together, they demonstrate the power of their combined strengths.

With the rising popularity of their debut Awesome God (see album review) now sweeping across the country, Shawn Brown of Youthful Praisethat characteristic brightly shone through as Gospelflava.com spoke with Shawn Brown at length about the unique situation that he, Hairston and Youthful Praise find themselves in.

Can you tell us a little about the journey that Youthful Praise finds itself on?

"First of all, I believe that our name speaks for itself. We call ourselves Youthful Praise for reasons that really have nothing to do with our ages. It has to do with our coming through trial and tribulation, much like a child who trusts his parent."

"In other words, no matter what adversity, no matter what the circumstance, we do and we will still praise God, knowing that the outcome will be victory for us."

"So in that way, it's like a 'youthful praise' that we offer up unto Him. The Bible speaks of widom coming from the mouth of babes and sucklings. God has perfected, or ordained the praise so that we are able to steal the victory out of the hand of the enemy. I think that's our whole theme. No matter Youthful Praise goes through, praise is what brings us out."

What have you found to be the most challenging part about the journey?

"Youthful Praise is a church choir, so our number has fluctuated a great deal over the years. Sometimes we've been as many as 50 people, other times we've been as few as 20.

The most challenging thing for me has been to get everybody to see the vision, the final outcome of the choir. Not that this vision is necessarily a recording, or even traveling around the world as a professional choir. The vision is the ministry of the choir, that we will be before people and that God will heal and deliver the people through the music that He has given us.

Youthful Praise
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To keep the choir focused on that vision all these years has been the hardest thing. Young people like to ask, 'Ok, so what are going to do next?', 'Where are we going to go?' and 'When are we going to do something?' JJ and I have always believed that there was a greater picture ahead of us, but how can you get people to believe that over a period of ten years. Even now, I still believe that this is still the beginning, and it's very exciting.

It's obvious that JJ and you are very much in synch, not only when you perform, but also in your perspective. He's got his energy, but you hold your own down in a different way.

"JJ is more of an urban contemporary type of guy, his style attracts the younger people. Whereas I'm a very traditional, Sunday morning church kind of guy. So the music that I write is very than the music JJ writes. Together we make a good team because we play off of each other's strengths."

We were in Atlanta in January (2002) to perform at the Stellar Awards [on the televised taping, backing up Shirley Caesar and Michelle Williams on the song "Steal Away"], and I was telling people that the interesting thing about Youthful Praise is that both the young and the old enjoy us. And that's not a common thing with choirs. Usually it's either the youth like a particular choir, or the older crowd likes them.

Do you and JJ collaborate much when you write your songs?

No, mostly we do our own writing, since we each have such different styles. Sometimes we'll give each other a little input, maybe suggest a phrase or a word here or there, or maybe a note or two. But collaborating in songwriting, no we really don't do that.

What about your song "Awesome God". There must be a story behind the writing of that song.

"Oh, I was hoping you wouldn't ask that question! I wrote "Awesome God" with no intention of anything, really. I put that song together when was in the middle of my living room, stomping on the floor, bopping around, make drum machine noises in my head —that's what I do when I write. My only reason for writing the song was because the next Sunday, for rehearsal, I wanted to teach a new song to the choir. That was maybe three or four years ago. I never thought that it would take off to where it is now. It's actually kind of an old song!

Interview With JJ Hairston
Click for review Co-director JJ Hairston joins with Shawn Brown up front with Youthful Praise, and also joins in songwriting duties. Check out the interview with the other half the choir's dynamic duo.....Interview

So what's that like then. You have an 'old song', and suddenly everyone wants to hear you sing it. Does that bring in any special challenges for the choir?

"At first, it was hard for the choir to continue to keep on singing the song. But now it's easy. Whenever we go to a new city, I just tell the choir that "Awesome God" is a new song for those who are listening, so you have to make it just as fresh as the first time you ever sung it.

To step back a little, from the depth of your writing, it would be an easy to assume that you're not a rookie at songwriting.

Well, I started writing before I came to Turner's Faith Temple. I was about 16 years old and I was in a group by the name of New Love, there were six of us, and we only sang originals. Our writer (and piano player) left church, and because we didn't want to let go of who we were, I started to write what I call 'little jingles'. That's what they were.

But when I came to Bridgeport, Connecticut —when I came to Turner's Faith Temple —it was a whole different ball game, because this whole city is full of writers. That was different for me, because when I was living in Newark, I didn't really know anyone who wrote music.

At first, when Youthful Praise started, we only sang other peoples songs. Then one day, Sister Gloria White —our pastor's wife — she told us that we're a good 'advertisement choir', because all we do is sing other people's material.

As the lead singer for the Institutional Radio Choir, her background was one of only singing original material. She said, "You guys are great at singing other people's songs, but why don't you write your own?".

Shawn Brown of Youthful PraiseThat really got me charged up and going. So every since that day, we've been singing originals. Her comment was a challenge for me, and a push at the same time. One of the things I really want to be in life is a writer, and a great one at that.

As a writer then, who do you look up to in the industry?

I love Thomas Whitfield, but as for writers who are living today, it would have to be V. Michael McKay and Richard Smallwood.

McKay always says that words tell a story, and so you want to tell a good story. I admire him for his lyrics. Songs like "The Potter's House" and "When The Music Stops", these are songs that just make you really sit and think.

As for Thomas Whitfield, well what isn't it about him. Lyrics, his sound…he was a master of what he wanted to hear. It's one thing to write or be a director. It's another to be able to capture what you hear . Understand that as a writer, you hear in your mind exactly what you want to acheive, where you want the sound, when you want it. And if you can get the choir to sound the way you have it in your mind, then that's a good director.

I grew up in a house that listened to Gospel music all the time. So we were very familiar with the music from people the caliber of a Hawkins, of a Bishop J.C. White...and that's been one of the most rewarding thing lately for us, for Youthful Praise. When people that you have looked up to for so long suddenly reach out to call you, or maybe shake your hand, it's like...YOU are enjoying listening to ME?? That is a great feeling.

There are so many people that JJ and I and the choir have met over the past several months, people that we have grown up on in listening to their albums. It's so amazing. And then they recognize our faces and they recognize our music. All I can say is, "God, I thank You".

You have people like Lorraine Stancil, Lecresia Campbell and Melonie Daniels on your project. You also had Jonathan Dubose Jr. involved.

Click for reviewJonathan Dubose, he's like the best lead guitar player in the world and he was brought up in Bridgeport. We wanted him to be part of the album, and he was glad to be a part. I mean glad. I think I even wrote in the credits that Jonathan Dubose deposited into us.

He's been so involved with some of the best choirs and directors and preachers and he's been on some great albums. Not only did he play on the album, he would also talk to us [about the musicality of what we were doing.] Most of the time when he would speak, we'd be sitting there with our mouths open, taking it all in.

The knowledge of his experience helped us a great deal. He also was helpful in the studio, he was there with JJ and I when we did the original production. He was like a mentor.

Things are certainly not keeping still for Shawn Brown, JJ Hairston and Youthful Praise. Aside from a busy touring schedule, they are getting ready to be involved with the live recording of Kervy Brown's solo project from Evidence Gospel in Spring of 2002.

interview by Stan North

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