The singer known as "the Luther Vandross of gospel", DARWIN HOBBS, speaks about his traumatic past. Tony Cummings reports.
Darwin Hobbs has, as many critics have observed, one of the finest voices in gospel music and has often been referred to as "the Luther Vandross of gospel." Since his recording debut in 1997 his potent, towering tenor has been heard on a series of blistering solo albums as well as landing him session work for a bewildering array of artists from Donny McClurkin and CeCe Winans through to Jars Of Clay and Switchfoot. Yet it is Darwin's latest album 'Free', the first for his new label Tyscot, which expresses Darwin's release from inner demons which have haunted him since childhood. He spoke to Christianity Today about his traumatic childhood. "I'm a survivor of childhood sexual abuse. More than on the prevention side of it, I want to bring awareness and I want to share my testimony to help people who are survivors. Hopefully through that a lot of prevention will happen. At the age of 11, I was sexually violated by my stepfather, whom my mother met after divorcing from her first husband. It changed the landscape of my life. This guy was my mother's knight in shining armour, but he was my worst nightmare."
Darwin explained that he didn't speak up at the time because he was threatened by the perpetrator. "Back then, you're impressionable to listen to anything that you've been told. I was told then that my mother would have a heart attack and die if I told her. He told me that people would call me a sissy, since the violation was homosexual in nature. I was told that nobody would believe me. So I kept silent. I believed the lies that I was told and I didn't say anything. I would wonder why an adult would [perpetrate] such a violation and bring shame and guilt and fear to a child. Posttraumatic stress disorder is very common in the lives and the minds of people who endure such violation, and I was no different."
Keeping silent about the abuse added to Darwin's trauma. "I had a horrible, horrible, low self-opinion. I had all these inward struggles and was a very fearful kid. And I was also an obese child, because I used food for comfort, something I still deal with as an adult. I would use food to medicate myself. So I ended up with a very low self-opinion, which turned into me entering into this whole performance mode, because I happened to know how to sing. So I used my talent to manipulate my environment. When I was in performance mode, I always wanted to make people laugh - I was very comical. That's a heavy bag to carry and at a certain point in my life I got tired of that. As a result, I became indifferent as an adult with a very temperamental and aggressive-type personality. That's what I was for most of my adult life until nearly a year ago. I feel like I have to write a big apology letter to anyone that had any level of exchange with me until a year ago because I wasn't a very good person. I was trying to make up for all the power that had been stripped from me as a kid."
To make matters worse for Darwin, his paedophile step father was a church-goer and Darwin and his five siblings were required to attend Cincinnati's El-Bethel Baptist Church. Darwin said that his new-found Christian environment didn't help his inner torment. "It didn't matter that I was a Christian. It didn't matter that I'd go into the doors of the church every Sunday. I didn't have an outlet to share, especially in church. We don't tend to talk about these kinds of things in churches. It's oftentimes taboo to discuss issues such as this. One of the reasons that I know God allowed me to share my story is to break the silence. There's such a gag order as it relates to people sharing their past and sharing their issues and their wounds. I feel that it's time that the silence is broken, so that people can pursue freedom and pursue wholeness and realness. Enough is enough."
Now at last Hobbs is giving testimony of getting free of his inner turmoil. His supportive wife and life-long confidant Traci had known about his internal conflicts all along, but after telling his mother, on the death of his stepfather, Darwin's life began to change drastically. "I've been apologising to people more than ever - I just wasn't a good person to be around. Even as those inward layers of pain are peeled away I'm able to deal with some other outward manifestations of pain like me dealing with obesity and now the weight is starting to come off," Darwin shared and that's both literally and figuratively. A swimming regimen has left Darwin Hobbs 42 pounds lighter physically. He's getting rid of the psychological, spiritual and emotional weight with routine visits to a professional counsellor.
Like Donnie McClurkin and Kirk Franklin, two prominent gospel artists who made their private struggles public (homosexuality and porn addiction respectively), Darwin's naked testimony has enabled him to emerge as a more effective minister of the Gospel. He said, ". . .What better way [to minister] than to say I've got issues and I've been in some of the same places you've been in?"
Even from childhood it was obvious that Hobbs had an exceptional voice. "I opened my mouth and I could sing," he once said. He sang so well that the choir leader pulled him from the children's group and put him in the young adult choir. He began to sing throughout the city and studied formal classical music. In 1995 Darwin went to see CeCe Winans on her Alone In His Presence tour. It proved life-changing for the singer. "During that time in my life I was sort of in a holding pattern, waiting for the timing of God with regard to my music. I knew I didn't want this ordinary shallow ministry. Prior to CeCe's concert I had never experienced the glory of God mixed with such creativity and skill."
After the concert, Hobbs struck up a conversation with Winans' music director, Roger Ryan. The two stayed in touch and Ryan encouraged Hobbs to move to Nashville and jumpstart his career. Hobbs and his wife made the move in October 1996. Within a week of his relocation, Hobbs was getting session work as a background singer. He sang on Michael Card's 'Unveiled Hope' and was immediately invited by Card to record two more duets and join him on tour. Hobbs went on to sing bvs for such artists as CeCe Winans, Shirley Murdock, Bishop TD Jakes, Michael W Smith and Kathy Troccoli. It was while singing backing vocals on a Sarah Masen album that Hobbs met producer Charlie Peacock who subsequently arranged an introduction to EMI Christian Music Group head Bill Hearn, which led to a contract with EMI Gospel. One year later, EMI Gospel released 'Mercy', produced by industry legends Fred Hammond, Cedric and Victor Caldwell and Chris Rodriguez. An excited Hobbs told CCM magazine, "It's crazy, it's happened so fast. That's the biggest mystery to everybody. But we know Who it is. My wife and I just prayed that the favour of the Lord would be upon us. . . And that's what's happened. It's the Lord."
In 2000 EMI Gospel released Darwin's 'Vertical' album. It included a gospelisation of the Luther Vandross smash "So Amazing" with the female quartet Virtue backing the soulful tenor. Also guesting on the album was disco queen Donna Summer, who contributed to a soulful duet with Hobbs on "When I Look Up" while another gem was Hobbs' funky rendition of "Everyday" with blue-eyed soulman Michael McDonald. Commented Bil Carpenter in Uncloudy Days: The Gospel Music Encyclopedia, "Had EMI Gospel had an urban radio team, the song could have easily crossed over to mainstream urban radio. But Hobbs' music has never received the embrace from gospel radio that it deserves and thus he's still lacking that defining hit song."
In 2002 Hobbs appeared in the film and on the soundtrack of HBO's Boycott. It included a scorching duet with diva Karen Clark Sheard. Hobbs told gospelflava website, "It was great to work with Karen. I found it amazing that a person with the level of giftedness that she has, walks in such humility. [For the duet], there was actually no specific method of preparation I did with regard to singing with her. It was more mental as it relates to the style of singing needed for the Boycott era. Karen and I both learned the song about five minutes before singing it, so everything was very impromptu."
More EMI Gospel albums followed in 2004 ('Broken') and 2005 ('Worshipper'). Hobbs took up an appointment as a worship leader at Eddie Long's famed mega church New Birth Missionary Baptist Church in Atlanta, Georgia. Over the years worship had become an increasingly important part of Hobbs' spiritual life and the 'Worshipper' album with 10 songs produced by the award winning team of Israel Houghton and Aaron Lindsey (plus three urban gospel bonus tracks) reflected this. Darwin said, "I think this album will speak to the deep places in people who are worshippers already and I believe it will also draw others to a level of worship they may never have encountered before. The bonus tracks are to let people know we still know how to kick it and hopefully to bring people into this experience who well may be venturing into the church for the first time ever."
In 2007 Hobbs left EMI Gospel and signed with Tyscot Records. As it has turned out, it's been a good fit. Said Darwin, "It's a good transition. It's somewhat hard, though. The paradigm for me was making records with EMI - they're a large label and a somewhat different culture for doing things. Tyscot is more of a boutique label. It's the oldest gospel label in existence, and very much different in its culture, procedures and the overall way of doing things. It was a hard transition, but necessary and very timely. I'm just enjoying the new family. We hope that the positive chemistry that we have together continues."
Darwin feels that the 'Free' album is the kind of record that he has always wanted to make but had never before had the opportunity. "It's not that the other records weren't meaningful or valid, but 'Free' is the most accurate depiction of who I am musically. My musical tastes included a wide range of different genres and styles, so I think 'Free' is a direct representation of that. There's a little bit of pop flair in some of these songs and of course there is the contemporary gospel flair - that's who I am. I'm very proud of this record, mostly because I produced it. I've used other producers for other records, and it was good, but I think as you mature and grow and come into your own, there's a desire to stretch and do things you haven't done before. That's the difference that you hear on this album."
As well as being enthused by his new album, the singer also feels good because the trauma of his past is finally in the open. He said, "It felt good because I had the support of people who love me. The first time I shared it was on a radio show. It felt amazing. I was real nervous and I had a great deal of apprehension because you don't know how people will think. It was a mixture of feelings, both good and bad - again, a paradox. People have an impression of you, you're a worship leader, yadda yadda. Some people don't want you to say anything. I had people who would criticize and say mean things like, "Why is he sharing this now?" These are people in church who call themselves Christians, but, again, they want to perpetuate the gag order. I can't do that."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.