Recent unexpected visitors to the UK were American R&B gospel team NU JOI. Miker Rimmer caught up with them.
The self-titled debut album from Nu Joi released through Alliance indicated that this new group could sing and a rainy summer evening doing their stuff in Birmingham confirmed the girls' talent. The only thing puzzling me as I watched them sound check was how this four piece had shrunk to a trio.
With the noise of the support act's sound check making it difficult to communicate with anything less than full-blooded yells, I smuggled the girls and their manager into my car and with the rain splattering down the windscreen we hunkered down for a chat.
Sisters Erica and Tara Lorick and Tonja Williams were playing a few dates, promoting the album and shopping, of which we will talk later, but first, what of Angela Priester? Tonja diplomatically responds, "She's still around but she's not with us anymore. Things just don't work out always like you expect them to. But we three decided that the ministry of Nu Joi had to go forth because there were young people who needed us and needed to hear this message. So we took the vision and we're still continuing to minister with the three of us. The Lord has really been blessing us in that."
Since Angela's brother Lee was responsible for the lion's share of the songwriting on their debut I wondered whether he would continue to write songs for the group. Again Tonja responds, "He's my cousin; Angela's my cousin. Right now we're in the process of writing more songs ourselves. He did most of the writing for this album. We've been through a lot in the last couple of months so this album is going to be a little more personal for us, so we're going to do all of the writing."
Certainly listening to them singing live, the absence of Angela hasn't made a noticeable difference to the sound of the group, as Erica comments, "It hasn't changed anything because the harmonies are still there. A lot of people worried how we were going to sound now that there were just three of us. But at a concert you really can't tell. They always say we did good and you really can't tell that there's another person missing." Tara laughs and chips in, "Jesus is on the stage singing with us so he sings the fourth part!"
All three of the girls were raised in church and began singing when they were very young, although like many people brought up in the church, they didn't really take their faith seriously until their middle teens. All three are PKs - Preachers' Kids - and the pressure of being in the spotlight can have positive and negative effects. How do they see it? Tara speaks honestly about the situation, "At home a lot of people say that preachers' kids are the worst kids. And we were! But two or three years ago we really got serious about the ministry." Tonja continues on the topic, "It has been our influence in making us get up and share the Gospel because it helps us to really stay spiritual and to grow." Erica observes another advantage, "When we're not touring we have Bible studies during the week. Tonja's mother is a minister and so is ours so they coach and encourage us."
The responsibility of a musical ministry is an encouragement to stay spiritually strong as Tara describes it, "The music adds to it. As we're going around ministering you have to grow. You can't give anybody a word if you don't know it yourself. That has a lot to do with it for me." Because of their background, Nu Joi want to reach people in church who are not yet following God passionately. Tara sums it up, "I believe there are a lot of people out there going through the motions, because that's what I was doing. I wasn't really serious and didn't have a real love for the Lord."
Getting serious with God changed the hearts of the members of Nu Joi. Erica describes the feelings of the band, "I have a love for people. I want them to come in and give the Lord their life. You find yourself being more serious because it's a life or death situation. So I've got to tell them about the Lord. I don't want them to go to hell."
Nu Joi was originally formed by Angela Priester and her cousin Tonja Williams but they only developed the R&B gospel style of the current line up when the Lorick sisters met them at church and joined the band. Tara describes their style as, "A little bit of R&B and some songs have rap. It has a R&B sound and beat but it has a positive message behind it." When it came to recording Nu Joi hadn't been desperately searching for a record deal and Tonja makes it all sound so simple when she describes how they were signed. "There's a guy in South Carolina named Dave and he worked at a book store. Our former manager gave him a demo tape and he took it to Sparrow Records because he also worked there. He just slid us in there and hooked us up! We weren't really looking for it. It just fell out of the sky!"
If only life were this simple for every Christian group! But before you get too envious, the recording of the album wasn't exactly plain sailing! For a start, the girls were still working full time in their day jobs! Tara was studying computer programming and working in retail. Tonja worked for an insurance company and Erica is still a cosmetologist, which is a posh way of saying hairstylist!! As she explains, "Whenever we're at home I still do hair. I do the girls' hair too on the road. My customers understand, they come back to the shop and I do their hair when I'm home."
Fitting recording into their schedule was no mean feat. Tonja takes up the story, "We did one week in a studio in New Jersey and one week down in South Carolina. So we actually did the entire album in two weeks. We were also working at the time, so we went from work to the studio so it felt like we lived there! It was very tiring but we did it." It was after the album's release in August 1995 that they were able to go full time.
I ask the girls to describe what message they wanted to communicate. Tonja responds, "We write about everyday situations around us, especially dealing with young people. A very strong issue all over the world is abstinence and saving yourself for marriage. Basically, we sing about the situations surrounding our young people."
Singing about sex isn't something that a great many Christian music artists have done. Nu Joi's "God Says Wait" is as in-your-face as DC Talk's "I Don't Want It" when tackling the issue. Tonja has very strong opinions on the subject, "That's why we're in the predicament that we are in now because nobody wants to talk about it. They just say, 'No, don't do it,' but they don't give reasons why. 'God Says Wait' is a song we would like to get out to all our youth. For me, it's a personal testimony of mine because I've waited and I'll still wait until the Lord blesses me when I get married. I feel I'm a living witness that it can be done." Tara continues, "Safe sex says if you're going to do it, wear protection. But abstinence is the best way because you don't have to worry about getting any diseases."
Warming to the subject, I wonder whether the girls feel that the Church buries its head in the sand? Tonja believes they do. "Yes, because society has made sex so dirty, like on TV and in movies, so the Church doesn't want to talk about it. But we need to tell young people the right way to go about it. If they've seen it on TV then they think it's the right way. So why not tell them the right way and start in the Church?"
Nu Joi haven't just been singing the message, they have also joined in campaigns. Tonja comments, "We did an abstinence programme in Detroit that has just started. We're also currently working with Youth For Christ and they have something like a True Love Waits programme." Tara concludes our discussion, "In concert, nobody has ever come out to talk about this issue so I think that people will respond to it."
To conclude, I want to know which bands inspired Nu Joi when they were growing up. They throw out names, 'The Clark Sisters, the Winans, Commissioned. We grew up singing their songs. Those are our favourite gospel groups." So do they think there will be other groups coming up who will say they'd been influenced by Nu Joi? Tara is full of hope, "We pray for it, yes! We already have some young people singing our stuff. It's kind of funny to hear that. We always sing other people's songs and people are singing our songs so it's a blessing."
As we finish, the rain pounds off the roof of my car, discussions move to the iffy weather and the exchange rate which means that the girls are struggling in their favourite leisure activity -shopping! Hotel, concert hall, shops. It's a busy schedule but Nu Joi even take time out to serenade me acapella live from the back seat of my car! Amazing! Those harmonies sent a shiver down my spine, or was it the weather?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.