Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings + Naomi Shelton and the Gospel Queens

The Nokia Theater on 44th and Broadway was just shy of capacity with a Valentine’s Day crowd. As the chandelier’s warm glow dimmed, men wearing top hats helped women with red roses in their hair rise to their feet for the occasion. Tonight, we had gathered together to take part in a royal praising session with Naomi Shelton and the Gospel Queens opening for the headlining Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings. This kind of old school gospel and soul music is currently absent from most radio stations across our country. When we tune in, we often hear mainstream pop, country or rap. I don’t mean to sound too harsh. All music is good music because it fulfills people’s need to sing or shout or tap their toes to the beat. But some music is great. Music that reaches out of itself in un-manufactured trust. Music that believes in its power to moan through our heartache and struggle and lift us toward the collective conviction that we will make it through our adversities together. This was the message delivered by the evening’s performers. Naomi Shelton, backed by the Gospel Queens, sang as the voice of conscience with three-inch heels and a powerful shoulder shrug. She was there, she told us, to do what she does. And what she does is call on God to show her the way while she calls on us to do the best we can: Smile, hold hands, and keep on. As she delivered her lines like a prophet, she reached out to the audience with a hand. Her music made us sway together, but it also questioned our actions, asking, “brother, what have you done?” These words, reckoning our souls with our maker, left weight on our shoulders. But as Shelton smiled and thanked us for our attention, there was a sense of honor in the air from being asked to help her carry the load. As gospel praises God’s grace, soul glorifies man’s condition. Our condition is a living, breathing body that is eager to touch others and tell its story. While Sharon Jones stands side stage asking God to anoint her voice and take away her pain, the Dap Kings, 10 classy men with white collared shirts and thin black ties, open with a song dedicated to street walkers, all of the women who have to make a living using their bodies. Someone on the dance floor lights up a joint as Ms. Jones, in a crushed velvet fuchsia gown, reaches the microphone. When she pounds her heels against the floor, we know the funk is on. Together with the band, she bellows out her stories. They speak of the turmoil inside of the gray space between dedication and addiction to another human being. She sings about her need for his touch so bad all day it’s all she can think about. But she also lays down the law — she will remain strong, telling us she’s “not gonna cry baby, no tears gonna fall from my eyes.” Her voice is fluid and honest like she is standing alone singing her desire and pain to the sky. And when she crouches down to her hands and knees, nearly pounding her microphone on the floor, the audience is overwhelmed with the sense that she is speaking her truth like she has been told to be silent before. Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings’ music is not remarkable because it is out of the ordinary or new. It is remarkable because it reaches into our country’s history, tugs on the thread of our common experience and leads us back to ourselves. Where are we? Well, if we trust Ms. Jones like she trusts God’s gift of her voice, we are a country to which change has already come. As she put it, “hope, love and understanding are here right now. Let’s make it work, ya’ll.”