When "Fall Down," the first single from Tramaine Hawkins' "The Search Is Over," began zipping up the dance charts, no one was more surprised than Hawkins herself. It wasn't that she was amazed at how fast it rose, or that she had expected another song from the album to do better. Rather, what took her aback was that the single was on the dance charts at all.
"We had no idea that the record was going to be on the dance charts," she says, "or that people in that particular field would even like the record. We just put the record out."
That's not false modesty, either; Hawkins, who will be performing at DAR Constitution Hall tonight, is proud enough of her achievements as a recording artist. But because her work had heretofore been relegated to the gospel music market, whether performed on her own or with her husband Edwin Hawkins, such secular success comes as something of a surprise.
Hawkins was, of course, hoping to expand her audience with the record, her first for a nongospel label. "I think all artists would like to appeal better to the masses," she says. "It doesn't bother me if someone who listens to pop music listens to my music. In fact, I want to reach the masses. We should be trying to reach the world."
Still, that's different from intentionally attempting to cross over onto a new chart. In fact, Hawkins doesn't even like the term "cross over." Instead, she says, "We tried to mainstream it. My producer, Robert Wright, came up with the idea for the songs 'Fall Down' and 'In the Morning Time.' But the main thrust of trying a different producer or trying a different direction was to mainstream gospel."
It may be a new idea, but it's hardly unique to Tramaine Hawkins. For example, the Winans, a male gospel quartet, had a substantial hit recently with "Let My People Go," and the Clark Sisters scored big a few years back with "You Brought the Sunshine." Says Hawkins, "I don't think that my music, or the Clark Sisters, or the Winans, or any of the contemporary sounds of gospel music today should be heard only on gospel stations.
"The philosophy of Jesus Christ was that we go out into the highways and hedges, and compel men to come. If they're able to hear the gospel music in every walk of life, that's what He was trying to get over to us. I think that gospel music now is competitive enough to be heard on all different stations, and we haven't been given the chance."
A certain amount of the resistance has been coming, not from the secular side, but from within the Christian community itself.
"I think some of us have been afraid to really step out," she says, "because of the criticism. Because of people misunderstanding what we're trying to do, and thinking just because we infuse a more progressive sound into gospel music, we're going to be misinterpreted, thought of as selling out because we haven't chosen to go the traditional way.
"People have done me like that. They've thought that just because I've put my voice on a song that was not a traditional gospel song, that automatically I'm not a Christian, and that automatically I'm a secular artist now. Just because I'm signed on a major record company, I'm no longer saved."
That kind of hostility hurts, but it's nothing she hasn't heard before. To begin with, the very style considered "traditional" today was itself castigated and reviled when Thomas A. Dorsey began to introduce it in the '30s. But Hawkins need look no farther than her own husband for an example of how popularity can turn the gospel audience against an artist.
"The same thing happened to Edwin," she says, shrugging. "He went through the same kind of criticism, the same kind of ridicule. 'Oh Happy Day!' was one of the biggest records in the country, and there was no way that you didn't understand the lyrics on that song: 'Oh happy day, when Jesus washed my sins away.' But it didn't matter, and it's not surprising to me, because they did the same thing to Christ."
Which is one reason Tramaine Hawkins isn't worried about what certain segments of the gospel audience might think. She says she has no intention of abandoning her own principles.
"I have a commitment to the kind of message I want to stick with," she says. "If a song doesn't move me spiritually, I won't do it. If I had decided to move out of gospel and move into pop, I wouldn't have waited until now."