Reality shows, including talent competitions, have ruled our television sets since the millennium began. Some of the currently stars like Kelly Clarkson, Fantasia and Jennifer Hudson were born from the humble beginnings of television musical competitions. Gospel Dream, birthed by Bishop Paul S. Morton, was first seen on the Gospel Music Channel in 2003. SoulTracks had the recent pleasure to speak with the inaugural Gospel Dream winner Benita Washington, a vocalist who says reality shows have changed a great deal since their inception. "It is a big difference that these reality contests have come a long way from Gospel Dream or even American Idol. I think there is some incredible talent that comes across on those shows, and these people I would say ordinarily would not have an avenue to be discovered or to do a demo or even put a record out."
In pursuing her dream towards a bigger spotlight, Benita moved from Alabama to her current home in Nashville . When she was first approached about competing in a national talent search, she admitted there was some apprehension. "I was hesitant because I had been to different talent showcases promising record deals, being seen by producers and industry feedback. Many times I was disappointed, and others as well, that we were not given any of the benefits that were advertised in those showcases." Even though she considered American Idol, Benita chose Gospel Dream, on which she beat over five-hundred hopefuls and landed a major label recording contract that resulted in the 2004 disc, Hold On. Her superb vocal range and tone are never in question. But despite the success of her debut, which earned her a Soul Train Lady of Soul nomination, she was ultimately disillusioned with the creative process. "With my first deal, I did not get a chance to write or express myself creatively other than singing."
There was a three year gap between Hold On and her second release, Renaissance: Live in Nashville, recorded for her independent company, ReddApple Seed Entertainment, co-founded by Benita and her husband, Delvin Washington.
The lengthy break between Hold On and Renaissance was a very educational and edifying experience for Benita, who learned a great deal about all the aspects of the business in front and behind the microphone. "You are responsible for everything: marketing, advertising, the cost of recording. It can be a bit much and overwhelming to beginners." During that period, she sang background for CeCe Winans on her Throne Room Tour. They formed a special relationship, and Benita speaks very highly of CeCe's professionalism and personality: "The same person you see on television or in concert with that same beautiful smile and that same beautiful spirit of worship she carries on stage; that is the same person behind the stage. She has been a big influence in my life, musically and business wise."
Benita now balances businesswoman, praise and worship leader, singer/songwriter, wife and mother hats. While she still heads RedAppleSeed Entertainment, Benita chose for her follow-up to Renaissance to take a different road - one where she could utilize her creative facilities and sync with a company that could lighten her business load. "With the way things have been in the economy, it was a good business deal for me at this time for me to put out more music. Rather than digging a hole for our label, it is just a way to partner with another label (Shanachie Entertainment) so that in the future we can make sure that ReddApple Seed is able to thrive."
Now three years after Renaissance, Benita returns with The Word Remains, where most of the ideas behind the songs flowed freely and often. "A lot of the songs came to me in their simplest form when we were in the writing stage. I was thinking about songs I needed to be writing and songs I was already writing." On the title track and first single, the sassiness exuded from the opening line, "If you're looking for an anchor...," hits the listener with an En Vogue/Rufus-style jam. The musical connection between Benita and producer Daniel Witherspoon clicked immediately: "Once I got with Daniel who produced that track, I wanted something funky and he was able to fashion that track." Another single she hopes will be considered for radio airplay is the R&B ballad, "Watching Me": "I can't quit, I won't run, I can't leave, I can't fall, I won't leave, Fear is not a factor." Guest vocalist Darnell Levine and Witherspoon drop a snappy hip-hop/R&B tandem on "Enough is Enough." Benita was very intrigued with Levine's musicality. "I met Darnell through Daniel. We got together for the writing sessions, and this happened to be one of the songs that made The Word Remains. He is a grassroots artist; the ones that do the smoky nightclubs and he is an awesome writer." Though she is content with the results on The Word Remains, two particular songs struck a nerve for Benita: Mixing today's edgy R&B with traditional gospel, "Proverbs 31" is a diversion from songs depicting women in a negative light. "There are a lot of songs in the world that degrade woman and that encourage woman to do things they shouldn't do. I wanted there to be an anthem for woman that would empower them and encourage them and help them to understand the image that God has made us and what he thought a good woman is. Her personal prayer, "Look Like You," is a brief but significant piece on the relationship with her heavenly Father: "Help me find the me that I'm supposed to be, The me that looks like you."
Benita has made great strides since her Gospel Dream days and the proof is in The Word Remains. She also is also proud of her growth in the creative process since her debut, Hold On: "I've grown as a writer and I'm very proud of the songs that I have written (Benita co-wrote eight of the eleven songs off The Word Remains)." And sometimes those reality talent programs do serve the public well in discovering solid talent like Ms. Washington 's. Highly Recommended.
By Peggy Oliver