Gospel has rarely seen massive crossover success, although many soul artists began their careers singing in the church. Starting in the 1970s with the Staple Singers, gospel has slowly crept into the R&B and pop charts. Years later, BeBe and CeCe Winans scored hits with their breakthrough album, 1988's Heaven; tracks such as the title song, "Lost without You," and "Celebrate New Life" (with guest vocalist Whitney Houston) earned frequent urban radio airplay. Almost ten years later, Kirk Franklin released "Stomp," a jubilant collaboration with the choir God's Property and Salt-N-Pepa's Cheryl "Salt" James. More contemporary artists such as Yolanda Adams and Mary Mary have fused soul and hip hop even further, creating the urban contemporary gospel genre. Along with BeBe and CeCe Winans, one of the early pioneers of this movement is the group the Sounds of Blackness, a 40-person choir and ten-piece orchestra led by musical director Gary Hines. With a little help from ex-Time members Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, the group experienced great success back in 1991 with "Optimistic," a perfect blend of gospel and current R&B.
Originating in Minneapolis, Hines and his group intended to, as AllMusic's Stephen Thomas Erlewine writes, "embrace all manners of African-American music and create rich, diverse music to celebrate God and the human spirit, as well as to make social statements." Beginning in 1971, they developed a strong local following, but experienced little mainstream success until 1989. That year Jam and Lewis escorted their frequent collaborator, Janet Jackson, to a Sounds of Blackness concert in Minneapolis. Jackson reportedly loved the group, reinforcing Jam and Terry's decision to sign the artists to the Perspective/A&M label. Their early brand of New Jack Swing, combined with the Sounds of Blackness' joyful harmonies and spirit, led to their hit album The Evolution of Gospel. The 1991 disc, propelled by "Optimistic," "The Pressure," and "Testify," peaked at number four on the R&B charts; "Optimistic" reached number three on the R&B singles charts.
What makes "Optimistic" so memorable and inspiring? Start with a stomping beat and a funky bass line; add the choir's powerful harmonies shouting the lyric "You can win as long as you keep your head to the sky"; and top off the track with two strong female vocalists. No one can resist a soulful singer delivering such a powerful message: "If things around you crumble/ No, you don’t have to stumble and fall/ Keep pushing on and don’t you look back." "Be optimistic!" the choir answers her. While the lyrics never overtly mention religion, they exude a subtle spirituality that encourages self-esteem and achieving a greater purpose: "Just think ahead and you'll be inspired/ To reach higher and higher."
While not a traditional gospel song, "Optimistic" retains the essential elements of spiritual music: an uplifting message, a powerful choir, and passionate singers. The thumping beat and deep bass ground the song in a more contemporary sound, attracting R&B and dance fans as well as gospel enthusiasts. One does not have to be religious to enjoy the song and absorb its positivity. Using that formula, the Sounds of Blackness have continued recording, touring, and attracting new audiences with such contemporary gospel classics as "I Believe" and their 1992 holiday album The Night Before Christmas (A Musical Fantasy). A heartfelt singer, a rocking choir, uplifting lyrics, and a throbbing beat: soul doesn't get much better than this.