By Cynthia Gross
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Philadelphia, Pennsylvania-born jazz artist Shacara Rogers is one of those rare talents whose passionate, soul-stirring performances have the ability to conjure up the deepest of feelings, reminding you of the unparalleled power of Black American music. The award-winning, internationally acclaimed vocalist and pianist has performed with Patti LaBelle, Dianne Reeves, Esperanza Spalding, and as a lead vocalist for Howard University’s premier jazz ensemble, Afro Blue. Rogers credits her faith as key to her ability to use music as a tool to empower others. Learn more about Shacara Rogers’ journey with contributing writer Cynthia Gross, including what inspired her return to Christ-centered music, why she believes “there is a special blessing on Black women,” and the surprising thing she needed to unlearn during her growth process.
Where did you get your start in music?
A: I’m from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. My mother and I lived in Harrisburg and a couple of other places. While in Harrisburg, my mother discovered I could sing in church. She and the choir director, Lisa Veney, caught on, and determined, “Yes, the girl can sang!” My mother immediately took me to the record store and told me I was going to learn songs. I was doing oral transcriptions of the songs, all the runs, not knowing how big this was as a child. Everywhere I went, my mentors discovered my gift and decided to give me a lead in something. My mom enrolled me in the Girard Academic Music Program in Philly, where I played violin, piano, and recorder. I still play piano now. So my journey started with my mom saying, “this girl can sing, let me get her some help.” She took it and ran with it, and here I am.
Who are your biggest influences?
A: My earliest influences include artists like Yolanda Adams and BeBe & CeCe Winans. I know all of their songs. Growing up, I spent time in two churches, one in Harrisburg and one in Philly. I attended Enon Tabernacle Baptist Church in Philly, under Reverend Dr. Alyn E. Waller, one of the most well-known pastors in the city. In my early years, I noticed the church would fall out when certain vocalists would sing, and I wanted to inspire that same reaction so bad. I started as a vocalist in the children’s choir. As I nurtured my gift, I noticed people would start to do that for me, too. They began calling me their little songbird, which has stuck to this very day. I started attending Enon when I was 7 and got baptized there. By the time I went to college, the church had bought the building we worshiped in, and there were thousands of members.
What inspired your return to Christ-centered music?
A: The reality is I never left it. I was always singing with the praise team in church on Sundays. Even when I went to college at Howard University, I was in choir. I got huge opportunities just from being a part of Howard’s premier jazz ensemble, Afro Blue. Some stuff I don’t know if I would ever have experienced without being a part of the group. So I wouldn’t say I left. Christ-centered music has now become the thing I am singing. I’m now chasing the Lord’s dream, not my own. Colossians 3:23-24 reminds us only what you do for Christ will last.
As someone who grew up in the Black church, I want to know your thoughts on what it is about Christ-centered music, especially gospel, that allows it to go to places no other genres can?
A: There’s something special about Black American music, the spirit-filled blues and gospel and other music of suffering from our ancestors. That’s why it’s so passionate – because generations of our blood, sweat, and tears are wrapped up in the music. In general, Christ-centered music is so powerful because the lyrics speak directly to our father. Anytime we call on him, he is going to answer, especially when we come with pure hearts. We call some people “anointed.” People who just open their mouths to sing, and you feel something right away. There could be three soloists on a program. Two of them sing, and then, the one who is anointed sings and knocks the place out. Here, we get into gifting and calling on our lives. I’ve been told, “girl, you’re anointed, and I get goose bumps when you sing.” When you feel those goose bumps, you feel the presence of the Lord.
How does motherhood influence your art?
A: Motherhood has both influenced and hindered my art. I would say it’s inspired my art more than influenced. I get inspired when I see my son going through the same process as I did, falling in love with music with Christ at the center. My husband and I keep this at the forefront. When my children were babies, I wrote songs for them. I created named songs for them so they could learn how to spell. On my first album, 16 Moments, I wrote a song for my son called “Yes, I Will.” Artists are inspired by everything in life – love, anger, everything in between. My children have been an inspiration in so many ways.
On the flip side, my children take a lot of my time. I get tired and don’t feel like composing a particular song because I have to pack their lunch for tomorrow, for example. I’ve learned through it all to grace myself. It’s okay if I’m not someone who can muster their last ounce of strength to sit at the piano and write a song. I have friends who are also mothers and wives. We share together and allow one another the space to speak and feel. We support each other and babysit, when needed, to help out. It really takes a village filled with love and good, strong people.
Often, we discuss the double disadvantage of being a Black woman. Unquestionably, we face countless inequities, but I want to focus on our strengths for a moment. What would say your biggest strengths are as a Black woman?
A: I feel strong as a Black woman. I was raised by Black women. We had Black men in our family, of course, but in my family, Black men have come and gone. I saw stability in Black women, including in prayer and relationship-building. My father was in and out of prison. My uncle was in and out on the streets. My brother, who is 9 years older than me, graduated high school when I was still in elementary school. He went to college and was gone. I watched my mother and grandmother struggle and be strong – for their children, grandchildren, great grandchildren. My mom steps in for my husband and me by taking my children to school and picking them up for us. There is a special blessing on Black women. We are survivors, and we make a way. We are the most envied, unprotected, hated, copied – you name it. It’s crazy how there are so many inequities and injustices against us, but everybody is fascinated by the idea of a Black woman.
You’ve worked with a number of legendary artists. What’s your favorite moment?
A: I have so many. The most recent one was singing behind Patti LaBelle. Another big one was when I got to perform in a play at the Apollo alongside Dianne Reeves and Lizz Wright. They were looking for someone from Afro Blue and chose me. In the play, I had the role of a girl looking up to a jazz singer, wanting to be like her. It was God-ordained because that was my story in reality. I was a little college student, and I got to sit between some of my musical heroes during rehearsals and rub elbows with them, where they accepted me as the next generation. I was also honored to work one-on-one with Geri Allen in New York City before she passed. I remember when I took a masterclass with Dee Dee Bridgewater. She was like, “girl, you got it.” The same thing happened during a session with René Marie. “Girl, you got it,” she said. “Now, what do you want me to do?”
What is one thing you needed to unlearn during your growth process as an artist?
A: I had to unlearn what I learned. As a freshman in high school, I didn’t have writer’s block. After learning the complexities of jazz, I went through this phase where it became a barrier. I would sit down and not be satisfied with my writing. I hated the ideas I came up with. My ears were so trained that when I tried to sit down and write my own album to express myself, I couldn’t. It took a year or two for me to unlearn. I had to get used to exercising the natural side of my brain and combining it with the technical side. I learned from great musicians while I was a part of the Betty Carter Jazz Ahead Program in 2014, and other elders in the industry who really stressed this to me. Howard really stresses this in their music program. Everybody wants to play Charlie Parker and do vocal runs. Yeah, you got the chops and the technical side, but what about the soul? Howard is so good at producing soul-singing artists, who can easily transition from jazz to the blues, and have people be like, “Oh, my God.” This mindset allows me and my peers to stand out.
Which two songs from your collection would you recommend to a new fan?
A: My most recent collection, including the single “His Will,” which won a Wammie Award. It’s a reflection of my focus on Christ-centered music and signifies a change in my career. From my earlier work, a fan favorite is “Hey Mister.” Sirius XM – or someone – is still playing it. I got royalties from it even today. My husband and I sat on the song for 4 years. As we were going through some old tracks, we wondered why we didn’t do anything with it, and then released it. It’s ironic that it turned out to be a favorite.
Maryland-based singer-songwriter Cynthia Gross seeks to inspire an awakening to all we are and all we can become. With a passion for language in all of its forms and more than a decade of experience as a professional ghostwriter, she is a light seeker who understands the power of each individual’s voice to create positive, meaningful change.
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