Vocal powerhouse Jennifer Holliday has struggled with depression, heartache and multiple sclerosis. Yet she's traveled her personal road with courage, conviction and the will to lift her spirit through the power of song
by Randy Shulman
May 26, 2011
MW:You mentioned that you’ve lived with multiple sclerosis for 15 years. How is your health now?
HOLLIDAY: I’m doing very well. In my earlier years when I first got it, it was very difficult not being able to walk or coordinate. MS is incurable – it attacks the neurological system. I have managed my MS through developing a less stressful attitude toward things and problems and situations. I exercise, I eat well, and spend a great deal of time on balancing my life.
MW:Your newest album – Goodness & Mercy – features the Rev. Raphael G. Warnock, including a 20-minute sermon midway through. Was it recorded live?
HOLLIDAY: It was not recorded live, but it has that kind of effect.
MW: It feels like you’re at a church service.
HOLLIDAY: Right. That was what I wanted to do. When I started working on this project, we were right kind of in the midst of the recession and a lot of people were being displaced, losing their jobs, disheartened, feeling hopeless. I wanted to give them some comfort, to find a unique way of introducing the word of God that would be something that would sustain them. With this, which is one of the first of its kind, it’s sermon and song together. So many people were just feeling hopeless and I wanted to give them something uplifting.
MW: Is Rev. Warnock a friend of yours?
HOLLIDAY: He is the pastor of Ebeneezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, which is the spiritual home of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. I approached him and asked him about using his words. He never had to go to a studio or anything. I took all of that work from the actual sermons from the church.
MW:You’re a devout Christian. You are also very, very friendly with the gay community. There are a lot of Christians who find conflict between their religious teachings and homosexuality. Have you ever had to reconcile your acceptance with your religious beliefs?
HOLLIDAY: I never had to. I don’t know the whole rules of church and all of that, but I know one thing – God loved me enough to make sure I was taken care of. It would be hypocritical of God to allow the gay community to feed me, take care of me, give me a livelihood and then turn around and crucify them. I know God loves me and he loved me enough to send me people to love me and support me. He wouldn’t do that and let me get well and then say, ”Okay, all of you who took care of me, you’re going to hell.” I just think God is not a hypocritical God. I just feel like I can support and sing of an unconditional love, that I feel that God loves all of us.
MW:This weekend is the 21st annual Black Gay Pride Festival in D.C. The black gay community has come a long way in the 15 years I’ve been covering it, but there are still many closeted gay black men who just simply cannot find the courage to come out. What kind of inspirational advice would you give them?
HOLLIDAY: That’s a difficult one. So many people are living double lives in the sense that they were raised in church, with some sense that they will go to hell. And it’s not so much that they’re scared of going to hell, but they still have parents, so it’s ”How do I tell my mother? I can’t tell my father because he will disown me.” Even in our day and age, I don’t know how that’s going to change. If you’re a black man and you are on the down low and you’re afraid to come out and you don’t have courage, I would say this: You’re living a lie and you’re saying that you’re not going to be able to make it. And I think that that’s not the truth. I think that if you’re loved – genuinely loved – then you should have the courage to step out on love and the rest will follow.
I feel strongly that God loves everyone. That person will have to believe that. That person will have to be able to know from their own families, their own inner-circles. When you know in your heart that [you’re living a lie], you end up just dying each day on the inside. And you end up hurting a lot more people by not coming out. The Bible itself says, ”The truth shall set you free.”
But it’s difficult. Until the church can actually embrace [gays], and until they could get past their own secrets – and the church has so many secrets – then it’s gonna be difficult.
MW:What is the best thing about being Jennifer Holliday at this point in time?
HOLLIDAY: The fact that my name is synonymous with winning now gives me a great pride, because I have not won everything in my life. In fact, I’ve had a whole life of losing. But at 50 years old, I have a new lease on life and this time I am going to win. I don’t know what I can win at this particular point, but the world is still open and available to me. I can still pick myself up with every mistake I’ve made, every heartache I’ve had, every setback I’ve had, every disappointment I had – and I can still win. I had no idea that in this 21st century, a little 7- or 8-year-old would know my name, look at a video on YouTube, and smile at me, knowing that if they can sing that song, they have a better chance of winning than somebody who doesn’t sing a Jennifer Holliday song. All I can say is, ”Wow.”
Jennifer Holliday appeared with the Gay Men’s Chorus of Washington for “And I Am Telling You,” the group’s annual Pride concert, Saturday, June 4, 2011 at 8 p.m. and Sunday, June 5 at 3 p.m. at Lisner Auditorium on the campus of the George Washington University. For info visit gmcw.org.
Also, watch Jennifer Holliday perform live at Pride 2011, a full, powerful version of ”And I Am Telling You,” plus her dance floor hit, ”Magic.”
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