A.R.C. CHOIR / “Walk With Me”
The most powerful and moving a capella choir I’ve ever heard. Thirty-two voices strong, the Addicts Rehabilitation Center Choir is burning-with-faith gospel from Harlem. Every singer will tell you proudly that the Center pulled them up out of the gutter, out of the fires of hell. They sing to praise the Lord that they’ve lived to tell others. The Choir’s power will wrench your soul, get your feet moving and your hands clapping—and might just blow you off the sofa.
—From www.mapleshaderecords.comThe first time I heard the A.R.C. Choir’s “Walk With Me,” the record that inspired Kanye West’s “Jesus Walks,” I was dumbfounded. For me, the surprise wasn’t that Kanye had taken the A.R.C. Choir’s record and simply rapped over it; in truth, he didn’t. In terms of both production and texture, “Jesus Walks” is the more complex recording and significantly so. What did amaze me was that “Walk With Me”—an all acappella performance which was recorded live (meaning no overdubs, no samples, no post-production, etc.)—has all of the spirit, the fire and the unique energy of Kanye’s record, minus the distractions: the military chanting, the self-aggrandizement, the (intentionally?) ambiguous lyrics and so on. That was a few months ago. Then, just recently, I happened to hear an episode of NPR’s Fresh Air which featured the founder of the A.R.C. Choir, an 80-something year-old minister and former drug addict by the name of James Allen. Listening to Allen’s story, I was amazed all over again. When I first heard “Walk With Me,” I didn’t know what A.R.C. stood for. (Actually, I don’t think I knew the name of the choir at all.) I liked the song, but for whatever reason, I didn’t try to find out anything more about it. As Allen explained to Terry Gross (the host of Fresh Air), the full name of his choir is The Addicts Rehabilitation Center Gospel Choir, A.R.C. for short. The abbreviation isn’t an attempt to hide anything, it’s merely a convenience. After all, Allen said, people sometimes refer to his singers as ‘The Junkie Choir.’ When they do, he added, he doesn’t take offense. The truth is, no one in the choir has anything to hide. A bit of research turned up stories like that of choir member Frederick Parramore, who told the Daily News, “[When] people want to know how we beat drugs…I tell them about the days when my skin was full of ulcers and maggots, when I was addicted to alcohol, methadone, cocaine and heroin. I tell them about how the activity of singing keeps me away from drugs.” Or stories like that of another member who said that she joined the choir only to relapse into addiction and wind up back on the street. Two months later, she got clean and came back. For the singing, she said. She got cleaned up and came back because she wanted to sing. It’s that kind of life or death, all or nothing spirit that permeates not just “Walk With Me” but all of the A.R.C.’s mind- and soul-stirring music. And, I might add, the A.R.C. choir is just the tip of the James Allen and Co.’s proverbial iceberg. Since it’s inception in 1958 as a tiny, one-man operation, James Allen’s Addicts Rehabilitation Center has grown into one of the largest and most successful drug treatment centers in New York State. Today, it has an annual budget in the millions and serves upwards of 500 residents at any one time. As for the choir, they’ve performed in prisons and cathedrals, in hole-in-the-wall churches and in expansive concert halls. They’ve traveled the world (literally and figuratively), spreading their message of hope and praise. And, to this day, every member—yes, that’s right, every member, including the music director and Allen himself—is a former addict. The reality of where these singers have been versus where they find themselves today is surely one of the things that makes their music so powerful. In the end, I still think “Jesus Walks” is a good song. But it’s just that, a song. “Walk With Me,” on the other hand, is the sound of 37 Black souls reaching with everything they have for salvation. —Mtume ya Salaam Bonus track: “Shady Green Pastures.” Another stand-out track from the A.R.C.’s Walk With Me album. It begins with a lone voice but eventually builds into a virtual wall of sound, complete with syncopated percussion, dynamic multi-harmony and one hell of a bassline. (No pun intended.) And, as is their custom, the A.R.C.’s only instruments are their singing voices, clapping hands and stomping feet. Kanye, Kanye, Kanye “?!?” — WTF is this? What can you say except the boy got an eye for what will prove to be popular. He’s a legitimate bootlegger. Figured out how to sell other people’s stuff. Now I ain’t saying he’s a gold digger, but he sure know how to lift other folks issue. He gives them credit (sometimes) in small print, while he be making off with a mint. I’m sure he’s sharing, at least a lil' bit. He don’t care, long as he got a hit. Kanye got sticky fingers and a good eye for what to touch. Credit where credit is due: Kanye is a music marketing genius (emphasis on marketing). Very clever. Very, very clever, no doubt. But you know "render unto Ceasar..." and Jesus kicked the money changers out of the temple... and marketing is not synonymous with meaningful. Speaking of marketing, check this. The version of “Jesus Walk” included here is from an unofficial "official" mixtape and features Mase and Common (http://www.mixflavas.com). I like this mixtape better than either of Kanye’s two official albums. So now somebody's selling a bootleg of the bootlegger's hit. That's all I’ve got to say about “Jesus Walks”—y'all can connect the dots for yourselves and draw your own conclusions. As for the ARC Choir, they are deep in the tradition of Black music as salvation for souls under pressure. And again, just like Kanye's, this choir's music speaks for itself, loudly and clearly. I do have some comments in terms of contextualizing the music but you should go to the Cover section to read that; I'd prefer this beautiful music to stand on its own. —Kalamu ya Salaam
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