By 6:30 Tuesday night, the line of those waiting to see contemporary gospel artist Yolanda Adams stretched so far outside the doors of Circuit City in Largo, folks could almost get some drive-through at the neighboring Chick-fil-A. Even with storm clouds threatening and the prospects of an hours-long wait, most were upbeat. Blessed, in fact, as in "be blessed / don't live life in distress," as one woman put it, breaking into a song from Adams's new CD.
If the mood outside was upbeat, inside the store it was positively joyous. As the Grammy-winning Adams began signing copies of "Day by Day," her first studio album in four years, a woman toward the front of the line started shouting "hallelujah!" Waiting their turns were old women and young women, grandfathers and men in baggy pants, schoolkids in uniform and people in wheelchairs. While the statuesque soprano with waist-length braids put Sharpie to CDs, sometimes one or two, sometimes 15 at a time, her most eager fans reached out to her. They slipped her scraps of paper to sign and they passed her notes. They touched her arm and leaned across the table for a hug. Damon Rogers, who teaches sixth grade in Prince George's County, knelt down to talk more intimately.
"That's for my mama. She's battling depression. She's a strong woman but for some reason she's backslid. I think it started after her mama passed away. . . . I just want you to keep her in your prayer circle," he said.
"I will," Adams murmured, looking into his eyes and squeezing his hand. "God bless."
Rogers stood up. And he felt lifted.
He'd never stood in line to have an artist sign a CD before, he said, but "something told me to come out and I'd get a chance to get in the front. I've been listening to Yolanda Adams for a long time, and she's definitely somebody who's brought me over. That helps you remember you're human and you can make it."
He had no doubts that Adams would be praying for his mama. "She said she will, and she's a woman of integrity and the Lord."
In some ways, joy and tears and the devotion of an eager crowd clamoring for a favorite artist is typical. But to many, Adams's appearance in Prince George's County on Tuesday night felt like something more. Maybe it's because Adams used to teach second and third grade in her native Houston, doing gospel shows on the weekends before releasing her debut album in 1987, that she seems more accessible. Maybe it's because she helped to mainstream gospel music on secular airwaves that she seems more anointed. Or maybe it's just because the after-work crowd in Largo likes to feel the Holy Ghost, that the folks who showed up Tuesday night were caught up in the tug of church and community and celebrity worship all rolled into one. According to Circuit City management, the store sold 900 CDs. (Atlantic Records had no national sales figures.)
It was the store's biggest crowd ever and some in it just wanted to testify.
"She has a song for everything you're going through," said Andrea Etheridge, a manager at a Lanham pawnshop who got someone to mind the store so she and co-worker Lawanda Creech could meet Adams. She cried, nearly hyperventilating, when she shook the singer's hand. She quoted lyrics: " 'The battle is not yours, the good shepherd.' . . . I play her at work to keep the Devil at bay, especially working in a pawnshop."
April Watts, an on-air personality at WMMJ-FM radio, which promoted the appearance, said much of Adams's appeal comes from her crossover status. She helped make it "okay to be Christian and be cool, okay to be Christian and be beautiful, okay to be Christian and be stylish," Watts said. Adams helped bridge gospel and other creative styles, "so that now we have gospel hip-hop, gospel jazz, gospel poetry, and I believe that's largely the impact that Yolanda Adams and Kirk Franklin brought."
Adams knows her fans like to get intimate with her. Like to share their personal stories because they feel her singing about their lives. "I represent community because of the music I sing," Adams said. "It's not like on the one side is the artist and on the other side is the fans, because we're all connected through one thing, and that's Jesus Christ."
She and her second husband, who have a 4-year-old daughter, divorced last year, and Adams said the fact that she doesn't try to hide what she's going through from fans also draws them closer. "People need to be able to relate," she said. They need to know "after a divorce or death or trouble or trials, there's life. There's life after all of that." And there's music.
Although she's toured steadily, Adams said this is her first studio release in four years because she switched labels, from Elektra to Atlantic. Contemporary gospel music sales have grown in recent years and Adams is one of the genre's big sellers. Of her nine albums, "Mountain High . . . Valley Low" went platinum in 2000 (it also brought her a Grammy Award for best contemporary soul gospel) and her last album, "Believe," went gold in 2002.
For her upcoming tour in October she plans to have guest appearances by singers Eddie Levert, Ruben Studdard and Chaka Khan, artists not known for their gospel standards, but natural choices for her to work with, Adams said. "We spend so much time trying to make comparisons and separations of music. Ninety-nine percent of African American artists come out of the church, whether it's drums, guitar or singing in the choir. . . . Chaka Khan has a very powerful testimony. It's not hard for them to connect, or reconnect," Adams said.
The fans lined up Tuesday night felt exactly the same way.
Veronica Stroman drove to the store from her job as a deputy clerk in D.C. Superior Court. About 9:15 she was finally getting her CD signed by Adams and was again singing "Be Blessed."
"You've waited this long, you can definitely sing the song," Adams joked.
"I don't even feel tired, it was worth it, she's so beautiful I can feel her spirit!" Stroman said. And behind her, about 65 more fans listened to Adams's music and swayed and stayed even later, hoping to feel that connection, hoping to feel her words and hoping to feel a powerful spirit all their own.
CDs in hand, Nicole James-Loving greets Adams as she arrives for the signing. She and co-worker Diana Townsend, left, were the first in line.
Adams signs a copy of "Day by Day," her first studio album in four years.