Every CCM, sanctified dance and holy hip hop fan knows that the phenomenal production team the Gotee Brothers contain DC Talk's Toby McKeehan. What they may not know about is the behind-the-scene trio's passionate campaign against racism. Mike Rimmer spoke to the Gotee's Joey Elwood.
The 'Erace' project is an album of such musical and lyrical power that it demands further investigation. Joey Elwood is the President of Gotee Records and a major songwriting contributor to the project. I begin my chat with Joey by asking him how he views himself. He replies honestly, "I don't really view myself as a musical artist, although I do like to write. My first job is as a music company executive."
The next obvious question is to find out who are the Gotee Brothers? "It's not really a band," he replies, "but an amalgamation of who we are as a company. That means our employees, Toby (McKeehan from DC Talk), Todd (Collins, a writer and producer) and I and our artists. I guess it's a brand name for our entire family. It took three years to make this album because we did it slowly. At different times it made sense for certain people to be part of a certain song."
To understand the project, it is therefore important to understand something of Gotee Records history. "It really started as a production company," Joey explains. "We were producing a small kids' project called 'Smalltalk' and we met a group called Out Of Eden that we fell in love with. We started producing songs for them. As we took the songs around to different labels, nobody seemed too interested in them. But we knew that the album would be important for kids and would do very well in that market. Basically, this label started more out of need than want. We couldn't find anybody to take the records we had put money into, so we started selling singles out of our basement. We sold 10,000 by just calling retail stores! From there we kept on moving. After the first year we guessed we were a record company."
Gotee's roster of artists now includes bands as diverse as GRITS, Johnny Q Public and Christafari but it seems as though the label is like a family in a similar way to Motown in the '60s, producing exciting music for teenagers. Joey agrees, "It works for us and against us sometimes. We're all friends, whether it be the employee, artists or managers and know each other very well. It takes a long time for us to ask a new person into the family and we really think it out and ask everybody their opinion. This is not a typical record company scenario, but we want to keep a very close-knit family here. Life's all about having relationships and a family close to you."
The vision of Gotee is to reach young people with music that can have a positive influence on their lives. Joey expands this point; "We want to bring music back to a point where we're talking about things that can uplift - and uplift not only individual people but races and particular genders."
This is the strong vision underpinning the 'Erace' project. The idea for the album was born during a car journey, as Joey remembers: "One of the executive producers, Dan Pitts, and me were driving from Nashville to Washington DC. There was a bit of frustration in that while we're in this industry, it seems like very little of what we do has a direct impact on any social causes or anything that we can make a difference in. Dan asked me if there was anything I could do, what would it be? I replied that I would love to do a project regarding race relations in America. That's the genesis of the album. It is a musical expression of frustration because I think we're all frustrated in America, to a certain degree, with our inability to communicate with people of colour."
Racial equality and segregation have been an issue much publicly debated since the civil rights movement of the '60s. I wonder how Joey feels about the current situation and whether things had changed for the better in the time since the death of Martin Luther King. "Actually, if truth be known, America is becoming move divided in some ways," he says. "We're very much segregated in how we live, where we live and what TV shows we watch. I think even the OJ Simpson trial really showed how polarised we can be at times. But then there's the other side - I think there are certain pockets where we are melting together to some degree and there's not the friction that there has been. As America has allowed people of colour to integrate into society educationally and economically, we're starting to see things change, albeit rather slowly."
In combating racial prejudice, I wonder whether Joey has any opinions about black supremacy? "It's a natural reaction," he concedes. "People who have prejudices against them take the thing that discriminates against them and throw it back in the face of the discriminator. Unfortunately it is wrong. I think what we all need to get back to is the fact that colour has so very little to do with the problems of America today. I actually think it goes back to the individual people. It comes down to selfishness and control. If you put all white people on one island and all black people on another island, the same problems would exist but under a different disguise. Racism wouldn't be there but it would be something else like class or education. Some dividing line would be drawn that would separate people."
That thought is contained in one haunting and recurring line on the 'Erace' album -"Colours don't hate, people do!" Joey explains that the issue is a human, not racial, problem. "What we're faced with as human beings,' Joey says, "is that we have a problem with wanting and needing to control one another which comes back to greed. I'm hoping that the 'Erace' album will depict that we do have a race problem in America, but the real core issue that we should be fighting is not the issue of black and white. The thing that we're fighting against is ourselves because if you take away the race problem we're still going to find a line to divide people. I think if we continue to get caught up in the smoke screen of colour, we'll never get to the real issue. That's why it's taken us so long to move in society."
The album included contributions from Gotee artists like Grits and Out Of Eden. As the recordings were spread over a long period was it difficult to maintain the focus? "It was really hard," Joey confesses. "We were constantly going back and listening to what we had done before. Even though we'd recorded the songs three and a half years ago, the music isn't the kind that will go out of style. It's got that American blues/country sort of feel - like wearing a pair of khaki trousers and a T-shirt! Not terribly fashionable or trendy, but it feels good!"
The 'Erace' album actually amalgamates a variety of musical styles, a touch of reggae, some rap, a lot of grooves and plenty of catchy thought provoking tunes. It sounds fresh and dynamic, a radical idea fused with effective music. The song which has attracted the most attention is "Mental Mississippi" which opens the album. A musical soup of styles, I ask Joey to tell me about the inspiration for the song.
"It's very much an ode to Southern writers. I think Mark Twain summed it up best when he said, and I'll paraphrase it, 'Southern writers are a unique group because we see the imperfections of our culture and we're the only ones who are allowed to say what those imperfections are.' We can laugh at ourselves but we don't want anybody else laughing at us. Southern writers understood that the South had a lot to learn and a lot of things needed to change. There's a lot of beauty in the American South, both good and bad. The writers had the courage to see these things."
To some degree, Joey Elwood's songwriting is simply the next stage in a very long tradition. He has been writing for a long time. "I've always written poetry and prose and some short fiction. I started songwriting when I moved to Nashville back in 1990. It seemed like all the stuff I wrote revolved around Southern topics regarding race relations. I'm from Virginia which is considered south of the Mason Dixon line."
Joey continues to observe, "The South has gone through so many changes. I've said it before; in the South we're just one generation away from legalised hate. The generation growing up here today, particularly the white South, is in a really peculiar but wonderful position."
Gotee Records make music for the new generation and there is optimism that it is possible that old conflicts can be laid to rest if each new generation embraces racial integration and equality. Finally, Joey is under no illusion that a record can change the world, so what does he hope to achieve? "What we hope happens," he explains, "is that it spawns conversation. Whether you're sitting in a pub or at home, just talk! There's so much monologue going on that I think it's time we started dialoguing with one another. That's what I meant by the communication efforts between the races. Once we start talking openly and freely a lot of things can change. That's what I'm hoping this album will do."