05:36 PM CDT on Friday, August 24, 2007
By THOR CHRISTENSEN / Pop Music Critic
Singer Keite Young is an ordained minister with deep roots in gospel music. But most of all, he’s a free thinker.
“A lot of times, gospel music comes off as propaganda,” says Mr. Young, an ex-member of Kirk Franklin’s band.
“They’re always talking about ‘Try God.’ But what does that mean? God doesn’t mean the same thing to everybody.”
And don’t even get him started on organized religion.
“I love God, but more people are being killed over organized religion than anything else. Anything that tells you ‘This decision is the only right decision’ is inherently messed up.”
The 30-year-old Dallas-based singer pours his strong opinions into his debut CD, The Rise and Fall of Keite Young. It comes out Tuesday on Hidden Beach, the L.A.-based label that’s home to Jill Scott. But don’t file it in the “neo-soul” bin. It’s too bluesy and rock-edged for that.
Dallas-based singer Keite Young
Mr. Young grew up in Fort Worth in a musical brood. His grandfather played blues under the name “Big Daddy” Young, and his gospel-singing mom turned her son on to Parliament and Prince. Eventually, Keite (pronounced “keet”) found his own favorite bands.
“As a teenager I got heavily into the Beatles and Led Zeppelin,” he says. “I remember riding down the highway when ‘Black Dog’ came on and my mind was blown.”
But while he was grooving on Jimmy Page, he was still heavily involved in the church. By 15, Mr. Young was ordained a minister, and a few years later, he joined gospel star Kirk Franklin & the Family, a band that also included Mr. Young’s mom, Carrie Collins, and his stepdad, Dalon Collins.
Touring behind 1998’s multimillion-selling The Nu Nation Project, Mr. Franklin and the Family played to packed arenas and at the Grammys, where “Lean On Me” was nominated for song of the year.
“It was a mind-trip,” Mr. Young says. “I was signing autographs and running from women and crowds. Even on a gospel tour, there’s groupies.”
But the party ended in 2000, when Mr. Young’s parents and three other Family members sued Mr. Franklin and Gospo Centric Records, saying they weren’t properly paid for their work on The Nu Nation Project. Mr. Young wasn’t part of the lawsuit, but he eventually left Mr. Franklin’s group along with his parents.
“It made things complicated and awkward, but nevertheless, everybody still loves each other,” he says. “I saw Kirk in the studio a year ago, and we were like we always are.”
With his Family ties severed, he turned to another well-placed connection: Wayman Tisdale, the ex-NBA star and bass guitarist who also happens to be Mr. Young’s great-uncle.
“Every Thanksgiving and Christmas he’d come in the game room and hear what I’m doing and tell me ‘Kid, you’re a star! Give me a demo and picture and I’ll come back with a record deal.’ ”
It took a few years, but Mr. Young eventually signed to Hidden Beach, an independent label distributed through Universal. He finished recording The Rise and Fall … last year. In the meantime, he’s been building buzz, opening for the likes of the O’Jays and Robin Thicke and playing South by Southwest.
At SXSW, he turned in a kinetic set that included funked-up covers of the Police’s “Roxanne” and the Beatles’ “Come Together.” He’s been known to whip out a version of the Stones’ “Miss You.” And given the chance, he’ll bend your ear about his love of Nine Inch Nails.
“I’ve got so much music inside of me from everything I listened to growing up,” he says. “Gospel wasn’t enough for me.”
The lyrics on The Rise and Fall … are almost as wide-ranging as the music. “If We Were Alone” (featuring Dallas singer N’Dambi) is a straightforward love-and-lust song, but “Masks” is about a preacher who’s torn up over his own homosexuality.
“Being gay and believing in God shouldn’t be a conflict,” he says. “It’s about taking off the artificial vibe and letting other people know the real you.”
Equally powerful is “The Wash,” a song “about the plight of black America.”
“We’ve had 400 years of deprogramming and roughly 40 years of semi-freedom. We’ve been disenfranchised and miseducated, and we’re expected to come back from that,” he says. “It’s a sad song about the truth.”
The CD-opener, “My Change,” includes a nod to Sam Cooke’s civil rights anthem “A Change Is Gonna Come,” which had a huge impact on Mr. Young. He wonders why black artists aren’t writing songs like that today.
“It’s like, ‘What went wrong?’ And what went wrong is we got comfortable – we got sucked into the money and the cars, and we just started accepting the status quo,” he says. “I want to believe music is getting back to the point where musicians are town criers informing people of what’s going on – all great music is born out of conflict.”