Michelle Bonilla: The Latin R&B singer who points the listener to Christ

Wednesday 17th August 2011

Tony Cummings reports on the Brooklyn-born R&B gospel singer MICHELLE BONILLA

Michelle Bonilla
Michelle Bonilla

Delicious slices of urban gospel like the Cross Rhythms turntable hits "Your Show" and "Give It Up" have heralded the return of Brooklyn-based Michelle Bonilla. Having recorded a stunning debut 'Phenomenal' in 2006 the Latin/R&B gospel singer had a four year hiatus before returning with the equally impressive 'In Spite Of Me' which like its predecessor was produced by her husband Lee Jerkins (Out Of Eden, Cross Movement). She has been described by journalist Richard Picart as having "one of the most beautiful faces in contemporary gospel and Christian music" while her particular sound has been called "an eclectic musical palate".

Michelle was asked by Miami Magazine what was the inspiration behind her music. Her response was illuminating. "I'm inspired first and foremost by my Heavenly Father, who is the reason why I do what I do. I'm also inspired by my dad and my husband (Lee Jerkins of RockSoul Entertainment), the two amazing musicians in my life, and I'm inspired by all the young sisters that are going through life feeling less than 'beautifully and wonderfully made'. I talk about my own personal life experiences, the challenges I've faced growing up. I talk about my issues with self-esteem/self image, issues with my father who has struggled with drugs and alcohol for a long time. I also talk about my decision to remain abstinent until marriage. In today's world, it's hard for young people to make wise choices. It's even harder for young girls to find other female role models that are living for Christ and are NOT compromising their faith for fame. Every time I hear a story about a young girl who is pregnant at 12 years old, I cringe. We've seemingly accepted teen pregnancy as a cultural norm and we've allowed our young people to be defined by the images that the media portrays. With so many broken families, young people are getting their guidance from the media. I hope to be an example for young girls, that contrary to what the media says you're not a prude if you don't wear plunging necklines, nor are you any less sexy if you don't weigh the ideal 115lbs. And ultimately, that it's okay to take a stand for your faith. Real life and real people inspire me to keep writing the music I write."

Michelle grew up in a Dominican Republic-Puerto Rican household that feasted on a steady diet of BB King, Eric Clapton, the Beatles and the Fania All Stars. Then, when her father got saved "he started listening to Christian contemporary artists. He played them all the time!," Bonilla told theblackgospelblog.

Michelle was encouraged by her father - a Latin jazz guitarist who played around Greenwich Village - to make music herself. "My father put a microphone in my hand when I was five. He was like, 'Sing,' and I was like, 'Okay!'" She led worship at church with her father and sang three-part harmony with her two sisters. But then tragedy struck the Bonilla family. As she told TBGB: "My father fell back into alcohol and drugs. He fell away from everything he had taught us about the Christian faith. It was a difficult time for us, but I kept going to church. Eventually, I moved to Bay Ridge Christian Center, a bilingual church in New York."

Michelle Bonilla: The Latin R&B singer who points the listener to Christ

It was while leading worship at Bay Ridge that the teenage singer/worshipper met producer Lee Jerkins. "My husband, who wasn't my husband then, met me when I was 19 at my home church in Brooklyn. He was looking for a female artist who was sold out for Christ and he spotted me at a gospel hip-hop concert that my youth group was hosting. Lee chose me to be a part of the RockSoul compilation CD Vol.1. I recorded my first song 'Faithful' and became a RockSoul artist soon after. I moved to Philadelphia during the making of the first compilation CD and started my development as an artist. I had been a worship leader at my church for six years so I was comfortable in that arena, but becoming a national recording artist was something I didn't see coming. Lee trained me 'boot camp style'. He would take me to the track four days a week to run. I had never run a day in my life before then but I eventually was able to run four miles every other day, while singing. I lost 40lbs! I never thought I could do that. The training not only helped me physically, but spiritually and emotionally it was like God was pruning away all the hurts and fears from my childhood. I learned so much about my relationship with God and about myself. I had gradually stopped eating the wonderfully flavourful high-caloric Latin foods I grew up on and switched them for salads and protein shakes (I still can't get used to it!). I started taking vocal lessons, acting lessons, learned how to write a song in the proper song format, and enrolled at Temple University where I'm currently an English Major. During those years of training I got married to Lee and my debut album 'Phenomenal' was born."

'Phenomenal' was just that, an exhilarating blend of R&B, Latin, acoustic rock and hip-hop. Suite101.com described it as "a possible solution to the Stacie Orrico-shaped hole in the Christian music scene." It was the first non-hip-hop album released by Cross Movement Records though high profile rapper Da T.R.U.T.H. did make an appearance on 'Phenomenal'. One of the most powerful tracks on the album was "Cold World". Explained Michelle, "'Cold World' talks about a mother who has sent her son off to war only to one day have to bury him. It talks about a father who has abused his daughter sexually and how that same daughter now turns to the streets for love and support. Neither of these scenarios are personal but they are stories from other young people that both my husband and I have worked with."

Continued Bonilla, "'Phenomenal' was a middle of the road album. I had these different musical influences and I wasn't sure what genre I would fit into. I don't sound like a black gospel artist, but I don't necessarily sound like a CCM artist. And I have all this Latin stuff in me, too, and what do I do with that? 'Phenomenal' was a fusion of all these styles. For 'In Spite Of Me', I streamlined my sound. I gave it an urban feel. I am characterised as an urban artist but I hadn't yet produced an urban project."

The 16-track CD - 13 full songs and three diary excerpts - with strong infusions of R&B, pop and Latin melodies featured guests like reggae gospel star Chevelle Franklin and rappers Lecrae, Flame and R-Swift. "My music is a blend of who I am culturally - urban, Latin, rock and soul," said Bonilla.

Michelle Bonilla: The Latin R&B singer who points the listener to Christ

One song, "My Generation", from the album addresses an issue that is at once eternal and distinctly post-modern. Commented Michelle, "We [youth] are told that we have potential but we're not tapping into it, that we are not listening to our elders. But elders aren't elders anymore. Grandma is 35 years old. Who is passing wisdom down to us? Is it that we don't have potential or is it that do we not have the wisdom? We do have potential, but times are changing, and the way we share the message of Christ has to change as well."

Bonilla sings one song on 'In Spite Of Me' in Spanish and plans someday to do an entire Christian album in Spanish. "I want to take my time and do it right. I've grown up around Latin musicians who are absolutely excellent and I don't want to present anything less than that."

Looking back on her life so far Michelle is convinced that she made the right decision to pursue Christian music ministry rather than the more lucrative world of R&B and pop. She said, "I was 16 years old when I decided that I would use my voice to encourage others. I realised that God had given me a gift and in humble thanks I was going to give it back to him. I decided that if I was given an opportunity to become a recording artist I would want to utilize the platform to tell others about the un-ending hope that kept me sane when my family was in turmoil. I still can't see myself singing a song that encourages people to release their stresses, fears and anxieties with more clubbing, drugs, alcohol and promiscuity. I would hope that my songs encourage those who don't know Christ that there is a better way to deal with problems. Scripture says, 'Come unto me all ye who are weary and heavy laden and I will give you rest.' I've come to learn that Christ is the only answer for a chaotic, hurting world, anything else is a temporary fix. I could sing love songs all day long but in the end if those songs don't point the listener back to Christ, what's the point? How will they heal when their heart has been broken? Who can they turn to when there's no one to lean on? I know one thing; when you're hurting and crying your eyes out on a pillow at night, another sad love song won't provide the answer." CR

The opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily those held by Cross Rhythms. Any expressed views were accurate at the time of publishing but may or may not reflect the views of the individuals concerned at a later date.
About Tony Cummings
Tony CummingsTony Cummings is the music editor for Cross Rhythms website and attends Grace Church in Stoke-on-Trent.


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