The Saint and the Sinner

A godless heathen gets down with J.C.

Jesus Christ was everybody's favorite person on the evening of June 22 at Redeeming Word Christian Center, a big church way out near the end of Prospect Road in Fort Lauderdale. In a very-distant second place was Kristine Alicia, the young woman whose debut album was launched that night in what passes for high style among the Seriously Godly.

This was not your mounds-of-cocaine-in-the-bathroom-and-illicit-lovin'-in-the-stalls type of album launch: This was a scene where consciousness-raising came courtesy of the Holy Spirit or not at all. It's a normal vibe for the folks who frequent these things and a totally alien one for the rest of us. Heathens and the Seriously Godly don't often party down together, which is a shame. Because no matter whether you pray to Jehovah, wear orange for Krishna, or don an eye patch for the Flying Spaghetti Monster and His Noodly Appendage, your life will likely be improved by Alicia's monstrous DIY debut, Get Ready.

Those in attendance that evening knew this in advance. They could hear her music blasting over the superpowered P.A. system before the concert got under way. Tight, tricky rhythms with riffs and fragments of melody jittering up top, locking together into a busy sound punctuated with sudden silences and martial blasts. It was the kind of music that makes your spinal cord want to lindy-hop right the hell out of your back.

In comparison, the concert itself was rather underpowered, at least at first. God is occasionally stingy with his grace, and he seemed distinctly unhappy with the three brave men of Call to Worship, the evening's first opening act. Though their hearts were undoubtedly in the right place, the supreme creator of the universe had, for reasons of his own, neglected to bestow these men with pleasant voices or anything resembling songwriting ability. One of the trio's formless, drearily earnest songs included the line "He is worthy to be exalted" repeated over and over again, as though mindless repetition could somehow convince the Lord God Almighty to alter the laws of grammar.

It didn't happen that night — Paul Simon notwithstanding, these are not the days of miracles and wonders, and God just doesn't do that stuff anymore. Next, Dre Marshall came to the stage to "bless the mic" (this is what the Seriously Godly people do — they do not "sing"; they "bless the mic," just as I imagine a Christian Escoffier might "bless the cod"). Marshall, a massive man with a similarly outsized voice, specializes in holy hip-hop about desperation and need. His songs are all cast with uptempo, horn-heavy arrangements and call to mind all the great music that's come out of black churches, where worldly deprivation is met with the hope of better things in the hereafter, sounding like neither joy nor sadness but some exquisite thing in between, to which the only appropriate response is to dance. People danced.

Marshall was followed by Papa San, who probably had much the same vibe going, though I couldn't understand what the hell he was saying. Papa's from Spanish Town, just outside of Kingston, and he's been a prime mover in dancehalls since shortly after Alicia was out of diapers. His delivery is now so stylized, so phenomenally fast and syncopated, that non-Caribbean folk can't decipher a thing. Not one word in ten; not one word in a hundred: nothing. Presumably, Papa San was singing about Jesus, but it hardly mattered. This is body music, fast and ferocious and coming down hard on all the offbeats, and it seemed improbable that Alicia could follow it.

She didn't. Her sister did, doing a spoken-word piece that proved conclusively that self-help-brand Christianity is not suitable material for poetic exegesis. This is what Alicia followed. Before she took the stage, a tight little vocal group sang the refrain from Get Ready's title track, heralding her imminent arrival. When she showed up, she was a marvel of natural charisma. Hers was a performance devoid of mugging or posing; there is only the sense that this is a woman transported by her work. If you happen to share Alicia's preoccupation with dead Jewish carpenters, you will likely credit her whole-body commitment to the Holy Spirit. If you're like me, you'll assume it has something to do with the transformative power of skillfully crafted pop music.

Alicia was born to Richard and Maxine McCaw in Kingston, 25 years ago. When she was 13, her family moved to Florida, after which her parents hoped to go to Oral Roberts University to get teaching degrees. They didn't, though both are teachers today. Alicia did manage to get to Oral Roberts, graduating in 2003. She then proceeded to get an M.A. in music business from the University of Miami. During this time, Alicia worked on a per-diem basis at the Covenant House — a youth crisis shelter on Fort Lauderdale Beach — and began singing backup for Caribbean/Christian stars Papa San and Nigel Lewis.

You can tell a lot about this small corner of the music world — the Caribbean Christian music community — by seeing how these fortuitous gigs led to the creation of the genre-hopping Christian-pop disc currently blaring from my speakers. At some point, Nigel Lewis said something like "Golly, Kristine, I sure do like you. Why don't you record a song in my studio?" She said: "Sure thing, Nigel!" and recorded a song. Nigel liked it. "Hey! Kristine! Why don't you do a whole damned record?" "Absolutely, Nigel!" And so Nigel let her have the studio for free, producing, arranging, and playing on more than half the songs, receiving in return only a small songwriting credit (which, to be fair, may well make him rich, though it could just as conceivably make him nothing). Once the record was in the can, Papa San's drummer said, "Hey! Kristine Alicia! Why don't you let me throw together a praise band to back you at your album launch?" And so he did. And it too was free. And it was good: a tight, dynamic combo working in nigh-miraculous sympathy with Alicia's kinky götterdämmerung dynamics, caressing her voice at its softest, lifting up her raspy coloratura coos on gentle swells of sound, shotgunning her voice from the stage at its most dramatically declamatory.

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