Gary Hines and Sounds of Blackness stay on mission for more than 50 years

Hines says the group has embraced its calling to be more than just a band

A man speaks into a microphone.
Music producer Gary Hines delivers a keynote speech Jun 19, 2020 during the Juneteenth celebration held in the Lake Street parking lot located across from the 3rd Precinct in Minneapolis.
Christine T. Nguyen | MPR News 2020

Sounds of Blackness is more than a band, it's a cultural institution. That, says the group's longtime director Gary Hines, was the mission given to them by a mentor at Macalester College in St. Paul, where the group was founded more than 50 years ago. 

American Public Media special correspondent Lee Hawkins recently spoke with Hines about the early days of Sounds of Blackness and its role in the larger Black consciousness movement. 

Hines talked about how Sounds of Blackness has stuck to its mission, which has at times put it at odds with music industry leaders. A native of Yonkers, N.Y., Hines also describes what it was like for him to move to Minneapolis in the mid-60s and he spoke about his relationships with some of the other pioneers of the “Minneapolis Sound.”

The following are transcriptions of selected segments from the interview, edited for clarity. Click the audio player above to listen to the full conversation.

Gary Hines reflects on attending the same school as Prince and musical talent in schools

Hines: I was blessed to go to the same junior high and senior high — not at the same time — but as Prince did, Jam and Lewis. All of us are products of the Minneapolis Public School System. Nothing private. Nothing suburban, but even at the time, brother Lee — and a shout out to my beloved, mighty Minneapolis Central High School. At the time that inner city urban school — you know, they love to put those labels on us — we had jazz band, stage band, orchestra, marching band, pep band and everybody took music. I mean, it wasn't a question of if you're going to take music, it was which one. And some of us in several.

So now that that's gone, we go into some of the schools, and the very two things are children need the most: physical education, and the musical stimulation are often the first things to be cut. That evidence is itself in the deterioration of musicianship.

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Hawkins: From people who I've spoken with, who went to school with Prince, they talked about how he was a band nerd. That he was a person who would like a band rat, who would hang out in that area and just pick up different instruments and take a little bit of time to figure out how to play.

Hines: I'm a personal witness to the fact brother Lee that that is not a fairy tale. That is a definitely true story. And I'll tell you how I know. When I was a senior at at Minneapolis Central, and Central High School and Bryant Junior High School, which is now Sabathani Community Center. There was a lot of interaction between the junior high and the high school, both athletically, scholastically and musically. And I remember my senior year, I started hearing rumors about this dude down at Bryan Junior High that was a beast on every instrument. And you know, one guess who that was? Okay.

So yeah, that's an absolute true story. And brother Jimmy Hamilton — rest his soul, a great pianist, and he accompanied my mom many times. They work together — actually was Prince’s music teacher at Minneapolis Central. I’m going to say this, I love my north side and Prince love the north side. But a lot of times he's mislabeled. He spent a lot of time over north, he loved the north side, he loved Minneapolis. But Prince was a south-sider. Prince lived over south. Prince went to Bryan Junior High School and then went to Minneapolis… in fact the other thing, and I’ll stop… for those that don’t know … because I remember the routine on Saturday Night Live and a lot of people thought it was a gag. But no, he was an all-city basketball player despite his height.

On leading Macalester College’s Sound of Blackness

Hines: It was this 50-voice choir called the Macalester College Black Voices, of course, under the direction of my dear friend and brother Russell Knighton. Long story short, in 1971, Russ was you know, preparing to graduate and asked me on as director. And I was honored to do that, because, you know, they were excellent back then. To end the answer, brother Lee. The reason we changed the name from Macalester College, Black Voices to Sounds of Blackness. The vision God gave me was to follow the mold of Duke Ellington.

Now I say that — and it surprises a lot of people frequently — because we're often mislabeled as a gospel group. But we mean Sounds of Blackness, every sound of Blackness: jazz, blues, reggae, rock and roll — yes, rock and roll is Black music — hip hop, R&B. And so a lot of people don't know that Duke… we hear his name, and we think of jazz as we should. But Duke wrote and recorded spirituals, blues, gospel anthems, African music, every sound of Blackness, so we can't take credit for that template.

Hawkins: I think of the group is more of a Black consciousness.

Hines: Yes, absolutely.

Hawkins: Then a gospel group that you're really proficient with all of it. But I think that when I think back to that, I got to think that the consciousness movement and all of the energy all of these Black students converging on Macalester in an instant, right? What was that like?

Hines: It was amazing. It really was, because we created and nurtured, we supported each other. And got good support from the college as well. There was a Black House, which you may remember that was the center of our activity there. Black House, you know, like one of the other campus I was like, you know, French house or that kind of they did from culture and language houses. So we had Black House and that was our fortress of solitude. Gotta think so. We studied there professor Mahmoud El Kati. We were blessed to have him on campus. And he also mentored us and told Sound of Blackness from day one to be more than just a band, but to be a cultural institution to pass on to generations. And by the grace of God, we've been blessed to do that, because a number of our members now … are actually offspring of original members.

So we had professor Mahmoud and many others … many others that mentored us. And it was really a great time. Struggles, of course, you know, to keep the program going and all of that, but a great experience.

On the combination of music and social activism

Hawkins: This was at a time when Marvin Gaye was on the radio with “mercy, mercy me” and “What’s going on...”

Hines: Yes

Hawkins: And Dr. King had been assassinated.

Hines: Yes.

Hawkins: And the Vietnam War. We're most of the students in this group activist, not just through music, but also outside of that?

Hines: I love your questions. And the answer is absolutely yes. And, let me tie that in two things about that, brother Lee. One: social consciousness and activity as students and particularly as Black students was such the norm, that it was never a question of if you are part of the movement, the only question might be, “which part of the movement or how many parts of the movement were you in? Because like you say, there was, you know, the Black Power movement, and civil rights, human rights, the women's movement, Vietnam, the ecology, all of that was there. And so we were all part of it.

And the other reason I'm so glad you asked that question is, and I'm gonna fast forward to the murder of George Floyd. When Sounds of Blackness came out with “Sick and Tired: the words of Fannie Lou Hamer” … and Black radio was looking for us at that time because I was told by a lot program directors across the country, they wanted Sound of Blackness to come out with another optimistic, a happy song. That's just not how God led us. There was too much righteous indignation and anger that needed to be expressed. That's why we came out with “Sick and Tired” and for them, those radio stations and I get it they thought it was an aberration for Sounds of Blackness to do protest and social justice music. But we let them know “no, no, that's our roots and foundation week began in conscious music. And so it was just a continuation of that for us.”

Hawkins: That's really powerful because I can remember having a conversation with you online where you talked about the song “Reparation.” And there was some initial work a long protracted kind of resistance towards that from Black radio.

Hines: Yeah.

Hawkins: And radio stations were intimidated by the concept and not wanting to upset white owners.

Hines: Right, right.

Hawkins: Let's just put it out there. I remember that's what you said. And it really was profound to me. And here's why. When you look at the things that radio stations do play that are not considered controversial, right? The n-word, the denigration of our women, right?

Hines: Women, Yes.

Hawkins: In all kinds of things like that, that are not considered to be fighting words, that a discussion about reparations would be fighting words.

Hines: The irony is just staggering.

Hawkins: Of course, this is a business, this is your life’s work. And this is the kind of music you want to do. What does that mean for you as a musician?

Hines: What it means for us Brother Lee, Sounds of Blackness is to continue again, with the admonition of brother Mahmoud El Kati. To be an institute, a cultural institution, musical speaking voice of and for a Black America. And we bring Black music to all people, but unapologetically from our frame of reference.

And so I tell new and younger artists all the time, to not only to yourself be true but to be clear about who you are and what you're about. Because the industry will invariably try to change that if you let them. And that's just never the case with talented Black because we are who we are and again, proudly and unapologetically.

Click the audio player above to listen to the full conversation.

North Star Journey was made possible in part with funds from the Legacy Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund.