“I had a dream one night when I was 15,” DMV-based guitarist and singer Gordon Sterling recalls, “that I should start playing music because I would be part of a movement that would remind people of a side of themselves that they had forgotten.”
As he spoke, you could hear the earnestness in his voice – like music had been a premonition or calling for this man in a way that manifested deep in his subconscious. “I know that sounds crazy lofty,” he admits, “but when I woke up from that dream, it left me with that feeling, and it was absolutely overwhelming.”
To the dismay of his mother, who wanted him to play piano, a young, eager Sterling got himself a guitar the very next day and started playing everything he heard. By this time, he had been living in northern Virginia for a few years since his family moved from Queens, New York, and early genre influences like reggae, soul, jazz, and funk that came from his father who was both a businessman and amateur DJ.
This led him naturally to realm of blues and rock and roll, which have remained hallmarks of his signature sound that blends into the electric blues he digs into today. “Once the blues hit me, I was hooked” he states confidently.
“When I was attending Robinson High School in northern Virginia, I was lucky enough that they had guitar as an elective” he says about his musical upbringing. His teacher, Glen McCarthy, who he is still friends with to this day, gave him all the foundation he needed to start writing and performing his own original songs right away. As his high school years ended, he began gigging and completed his first tour at the age of 21.
I asked him what has kept him around with the DMV music scene to which he simply replied, “It’s just because I come from here musically. These are my musical roots.” After the birth of his daughter and rolling from one musical venture to the next, it became even clearer that these would be his permanent stomping grounds. “I’ve always had something going on that kept me here, and now I’m so rooted in the scene that I can’t imagine picking up and moving to another one. I’ve become such a part of it, and it’s become such a part of me that it’s become familiar and familial.”
As Sterling worked to develop his literal and extended musical family, he began working on recording solo material under the name Gordon Sterling and the People. From its inception, the band has found its drive deep in political and philosophical thoughts about race and truth. His identity as a Black man tends to be at the forefront of his song writing, which comes through clearly in his first single “Amerikkka the Critical” which was first released in 2020, as racial tensions were reaching a breaking point in the wake of George Floyd’s murder at the hands of police.
“I like that song, but I wish I didn’t have to write it” Sterling notes, “It’s not putting America in a bad light, but identifying a cancer that needs to be cut out.” With a funky, soulful drive, it yearns for a moment of rest and healing as well as a change in perception that emphasizes empathy for Black and brown bodies. “America is sick / Her critical condition is near terminal” he sings in the final chorus, “The medicine she needs is inside us / The pill is in the meat / Let’s start healing.”
An official music video featuring footage from the Black Lives Matter protests that emerged out of that historical moment was released to accompany the single. Images of chaos flash through a montage style collection of videos featuring military police, smoke bombs, and people scattered to the wind in both fight and flight. As Gordon Sterling and the People’s first recorded outing as a band, it set up a precedent right away that they were just here to play but were on a mission to be a part of the movement.
“[Washington D.C.] is built on politics, so it’s been received well at home. We managed 25,000 hits/views on FB in a short amount of time” which took the band to a near viral status. Sterling recalled an online interaction where someone was initially in conflict with the song, but after talking through some of the deeper issues, they were able get to a place of acknowledgement where the commenter could take a step back and see the larger issues of race and violence in America. Looking back, he says that “It was cool to see someone converse with that song and become more open than they were before listening to it.”
While the pandemic put the remainder of the band’s material from that time on the back burner, Sterling began looking for something new to adapt to the lack of work for performing artists. Initially he attempted to get some experience as a guitar teacher and enlisted his friend Cliff to help him get organized, but they quickly found that they were much more interested in jamming and getting to know each other through music. Suddenly, something new was born in Gordon Sterling and the People as they further defined their line up and their sound.
Jump forward to today, and we see the results of their labor in the band’s stunning new album titled Truth. With a sample of the late philosopher Allan Watts as a sonic epithet at the beginning of “Thin Line” ending with the phrase, “…there is no such thing as the truth.” So, we can see how the curious and critical mind that created “Amerikkka the Critical” continues to feed off a desire for deep philosophical thought. And as we take the plunge into the opening notes of Gordon Sterling’s fuzzy, psychedelic music, it is clear that there is something aesthetically embedded in these electric blues that brings forward a blend of perceptions about what truth is or could be.
“I learn more about truth every day because truth is an evolving thing. Truth is based on perception and if you’re living your life right, your perception should change a lot. You should evolve. So, I think that living one’s truth you start to realize how many aspects there are to it; how complex and important it is to live one’s absolute truth as long as it’s not harming anyone else.”
With notions of change and difference coming through with each thought and each passing note of the album, you can hear the expansive and morphing nature of truth as it continually changes to shape to meet any given moment. “If we’re sentient, we should be evolving” Sterling notes, “and our truths should be expanding.”
In the aftermath of the Donald Trump presidency, Sterling feels it has become increasingly important to protect our truths, especially as they pertain to Black and brown voices and experiences. With school curriculums and content being reevaluated in light of conversations of critical race theory, it is easy to see how the erasure major historical events like the Atlantic Slave Trade, the genocide of American Indians, the Holocaust, or even Japanese internment during World War II leads to a white-washed archive that prioritizes white industrial advancement over the resilience of specific demographics.
As Truth comes to a close with “There’s a Song There,” Gordon Sterling and the People remind us that “If you ever feel you’re in need of rescuing / Just look inside and see / You will find, my friend / a song waiting there.” This sentiment recalls Sterling’s initial dream driven hope of reminding people of something they have long forgotten, and, perhaps, music is the best way to activate those memories through emotive vibrations.
Awakening those Black elements of reverence, celebration, work, and play within blues also helps to remind us that rock and roll would not exist if not for this beautiful expansive foundation. “Playing the style of music that we play is uninhibited and it’s broad and ever evolving.” Sterling says as looks back on writing the album, “I think we did a good job of putting the pill in the meat, so to speak, getting the feel of each song to encapsulate the lyrical content.”
As our interview ended, Sterling returned to his mission with a strong kindness and grace saying, “I want people know that we’re out here, and we’re coming. I’m excited to get this band out into the world with some heavy touring, so please watch out for us. Join us. We love to call our fans our family, they’re the beautiful people. The beautiful people should be the one’s living their truths and ready to expand.”
Truth by Gordon Sterling and the People is available now to stream on major platforms, and be sure to follow the band on Facebook, Instagram, and Spotify for updates on upcoming releases, performances, and tours.
Charlie Maybee is a dancer, musician, educator, and writer based in Charleston, South Carolina who currently teaches with the Dance Program at the College of Charleston. His primary work as an artist is with his performing collective, Polymath Performance Project, through which he makes interdisciplinary performance art that centers tap dance as the primary medium of expression and research. He also currently plays rhythm guitar for the Charleston-based punk band, Anergy, and releases music as a solo artist under the name Nox Eterna.
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