For eight decades, the Blind Boys of Alabama have solidified their status as icons of gospel music. The five-time Grammy Award-winning group, which has seen several incarnations, were pivotal in shaping the sounds of gospel during the civil rights movement and continue to have an impact today.
Fresh off their performance at UMass Amherst on September 16, Zydalis Bauer spoke with member Ricky McKinnie to discuss the group’s history and the importance of gospel music to the Black community and as an American Heritage artform.
Read the full transcription:
Zydalis Bauer: For eight decades now, the Blind Boys of Alabama have solidified their status as icons of gospel music. The five-time Grammy Award-winning group, which has seen several incarnations, were pivotal in shaping the sounds of gospel during the civil rights movement and continue to have an impact today.
Having performed locally at UMass Amherst, I spoke with member Ricky McKinnie to discuss the group’s history and the importance of gospel music to the Black community and as an American Heritage art form.
Ricky McKinnie: Well, gospel music has been important because it showed people that there’s hope. As long as you have hope, you can do anything.
And The Blind Boys were a group that were physically without sight, but they had insight. And they were a group — like me, they were a group of dreamers. And if you can dream the dream and do the work and keep the faith, things usually work out. So, the Blind Boys showed the world that no matter what your situation is, as long as you got hope. We wrote a song that took us to the White House one time that says, “We don’t need no dope as long as we got hope.”
And so, we — we let people know that disability doesn’t have to be a handicap. It’s not about what you can’t do. It’s about what you do that makes the difference.
Zydalis Bauer: And I know also, that you have had a really big, significant impact in pioneering the gospel genre into the 21st century and creating the sound that — that we hear today.
Why do you think gospel has continued to make an impact on the American culture, even beyond the Jim Crow Era South that you were — that you first were touring with?
Ricky McKinnie: Well, you know, I think the thing about gospel music is, that it’s — it’s all about faith. It’s all about the Bible says, “If I be lifted up, I draw on me.” We believe in God. We believe that God will make a way.
People today, everybody’s looking for something. And we try to make people feel good when they’re feeling bad. And a lot of times people come to us and they say, you know, “I’m not a big Christian, but the music that you bring to us, it puts something on my mind, make us feel good.”
And as long as people can get something from what you do — and what we try to do is make you feel good. And gospel music it’s real good music.
And we let people know we don’t come to preach to you, but we’re going to sing to you. We’re going to sing songs that reaches the heart. And what’s from the heart, reaches the heart. And so, we try to touch the soul. And that’s what makes it work, because everybody got a soul.
Blind Boys of Alabama: ♫ When you’re down and out. And your friends are gone. How can I help you? When the holidays are here… ♫
Zydalis Bauer: And I know that people love the collaborations that the Blind Boys of Alabama have been part of. You have worked with everybody from Stevie Wonder to Prince to Lou Reed. You’ve worked with people outside of the gospel genre.
What’s the value in that, with kind of reaching out and expanding to other genres to collab with?
Ricky McKinnie: I’m so happy that the Blind Boys had an opportunity to to work with all these different artists, and I had an opportunity to be right there with the Blind Boys.
But the thing is, my mama always said, and she says, working together works and people need people. And so, we show people that, hey, working together works, people need people. And we don’t mind reaching out and — and say, “Here we are.”\
And we don’t mind letting people know that it’s all about love. We show love to one another through our music.
Zydalis Bauer: So, you’ve been part of the group for 30 years now.
What has been the most memorable experience that you’ve been part of? What have you really enjoyed about playing with the Blind Boys?
Ricky McKinnie: Well, you know, I started out with The Blind Boys playing drums for the group. Now, I sing with the group.
And when the Blind Boys — I was there through all their major accomplishments — but when the Blind Boys were awarded a lifetime achievement award from the National Academy of Science and Arts, that let me know that somebody appreciates the music. And when a Black, blind artist can be awarded something like that in their lifetime, that’s something there. I was there. Jimmy Carter, who’s still here. Joy Williams, we were all there.
So, that was one of the main things that meant a lot to me.
Zydalis Bauer: The accomplishments that the Blind Boys have have acquired throughout the years are amazing. You’re speaking about the Lifetime Achievement Award. Also, five-time Grammy winners.
Throughout the eight decades that the Blind Boys have been together, the world has gone through so much change, but the one thing that has remained constant was this group. And so, what is the secret behind surviving and thriving and also persevering as a group for all of these years?
Ricky McKinnie: Well, the thing that has kept us going is that we love what we do. We’re happy that the people still can appreciate what we do. But we most of all are Christians, and we try to let people know that, you know, hey, we can all come together. We sing the same feel-good music.
And what keeps us going is, when your people keep coming out and keep letting us know that we appreciate it and our music still touches somebody that you.
Blind Boys of Alabama: ♫ I want to go to the place that’s the best, when they lay me down to die. Going up to the spirit in the sky. Going up to the spirit in the sky. That’s where I want to go when I die. ♫
Zydalis Bauer: Now, we touched on this briefly earlier, you all have really made a great impact on the disability community. And I know that Ricky, even you yourself have taught a master class in how to turn your — make your vision come to fruition.
And so, what message would you like to share with others within the community and also outside of that community?
Ricky McKinnie: I want to tell everybody this. This is the main thing I had to learn throughout life. And it’s not about having a disability, it’s about having the ability.
And I’ve learned that just because you have the ability doesn’t mean that you are the choice. So, when you go out and you have an interview or you trying to get with a group or whatever you’re doing, just know that…just because you have the ability, doesn’t mean you’re not the choice.
And many times in life, you’re going to go out and you’re going to try to do things and it might not turn out the way you want to. But just keep on pushing, because your day is coming.
It’s just like a man told me one time. He said, “Ricky, you know, I hear your name a lot of times and sometimes I hear your name and you don’t come up. You don’t be on the show,” or whatever he said. But it’s just like…it’s like a diamond. If you chip on it hard enough, long enough, it’s going to break.
So, just keep doing what you’re doing and realize that, hey, sometimes, you know, you don’t fail, but sometimes it does not go the way you want to. But remember, believe in yourself. As long as you believe in yourself, it’s going to be all right. Because you’re just not the choice.