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Gospel icons Donnie McClurkin and Lady Tramaine Hawkins will be honored at the ESSENCE Festival Get Lifted All Star Gospel Tribute on Sunday, July 7, in New Orleans. The dynamic duo will be celebrated with performances from artists including Yolanda Adams, Kim Burrell, Kurt Carr and Michelle Williams.
ESSENCE.com interviewed Cheryl Wills, host of the Gospel Tribute and anchor for New York 1 News, about growing up with gospel music and her love of New Orleans.
ESSENCE.com: You’re hosting the ESSENCE Festival’s Gospel Tribute honoring Donnie McClurkin and Lady Tramaine Hawkins. What does gospel music mean to you?
Cheryl Wills: Gospel music is where it all begins. It’s very close to my heart. My grandfathers were pastors, my grandmother was a great gospel singer in her own right locally and my father was a deacon. Everyone played an instrument in church. I remember when Tramaine Hawkins came out in the 70s and redefined gospel music. Donnie McClurkin took it to the next level. I applaud ESSENCE for giving gospel a spotlight at this Festival that attracts hundreds of thousands of people.
ESSENCE.com: In addition to great music, the ESSENCE Festival empowers attendees with discussions led by some of today’s most influential thinkers. Is there a personal philosophy of empowerment that you adhere to in your own life?
Wills: ESSENCE magazine taught me how to be an empowered woman. For me, the ESSENCE Festival is like an unofficial convention of Black people and Black culture. You know you are going to hear from the best and the brightest at the Festival.
ESSENCE.com: Do you love New Orleans?
Wills: It is very special for me as a New Yorker to return to the South and see our traditions being displayed on a magnificent stage. It’s an empowering experience.
ESSENCE.com: Can you share about what led you to write your book, Die Free?
Wills: I wanted to know my legacy because my father died when I was 13 years old. He was a New York City firefighter and a deacon in the church who lost his way. He was killed on the Williamsburg Bridge in Brooklyn on September 4, 1980. He slammed face-first into a steel beam on his motorcycle. It was horrific. From that day, all I could think was, ‘Who are the Wills’?
I went on ancestry.com, which is a genealogy website. I discovered that I am the great, great granddaughter of a Civil War soldier. It turns out my father was born in the same town as Sandy Wills, who was a slave purchased by Edmond Wills when he was 10 years old. As he grew up on the plantation in 1863—as the Civil War broke out and Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation—he rounded up five of his brothers and said we’re out of here.
I encourage people to trace their legacies. To think that maybe one of your ancestors fought their way to freedom by fighting in the Civil War–that’s a badge of honor.