I’ve written before in this column that any artist who has true staying power has learned to master the art of re-inventing themselves. There’s no textbook blueprint dictating exactly how this is done. Any number of factors can come into play depending on the artist. What matters, though, is that any viable artist will always have something to say — it’s just the delivery method that changes.
Back in August of 2001, the rocker known as Yolanda was introduced to readers of this column. At that time, Yolanda fronted as band called The Plastic Family. A follow up column was posted in June 2003.
The name changed to roger Anthony Yolanda Mapes by August of 2009 when a two-part interview was posted. A review of House Of Joy, the album released under that name, was then posted in January 2010.
As a side note, also back in 2009 I came across one of the most unusual CDs I’ve ever heard, Abbalicious. Think in terms of eight well known New York City drag queens doing Abba covers. Of course Yolanda was involved in this lovely bit of weirdness. A review was posted in our companion TransVocalizers column in December 2009.
After all this time, Yolanda has yet again shown that she has more to share. Her off-Broadway show, Rev. Yolanda’s Old Time Gospel Hour earned her a nomination in the Best Performance In A Musical Comedy category in the BroadwayWorld.com awards in New York. Along with other awards, Rev. Yolanda is also in the GLBT Hall Of Fame.
Rev. Yolanda has just released a new album of music that is part of the show. Entitled Rev. Yolanda’s Country Gospel Kirtan Vol. 1, God Is, it contains more than just country gospel. A review will be posted next month, but until then, Rev. Yolanda has graciously agreed to yet another interview for TGForum. So please, get comfortable, enjoy the interview, and find out like I did, what a kirtan is.
TGForum: I just have to ask, have you re-invented yourself for this show?
Rev. Yolanda: I guess you can call it a re-invention . . . but I prefer to say that I have remembered who I truly am.
TGF: How would you compare the Yolanda of the 1999 Plastic Family days to the Rev. Yolanda of The Gospel Hour?
Rev. Y: I was angry back in 1999 — angry about everything — the world, society, LGBT rights, my personal rights, my love life, and on and on. Today I am at peace with myself and the world around me. My life commitment now is to “BE The Change” I want to see in the world.
TGF: Your previous release, House Of Joy, touches on your Southern roots. Does the new project, Vol. 1: God Is, carry that concept further? I personally think that use of the song Freedom is a good bridge between the projects.
Rev. Y: YES! Rev. Yolanda’s Country Gospel Kirtan, Vol.1: God Is is the total return to my roots. I started playing guitar and singing in church. I always said I wanted to be a music minister . . . and now I believe that I am just that. I’m glad you enjoyed this version of Freedom. I also think it’s a terrific link to the past and taking it forward to the future.
TGF: It’s also interesting to go back to the Yolanda And The Plastic Family album of 1999, and the song Eat Me (“…a song for the Christian right wing”). It’s obvious you’ve had a life-long spiritual journey. Is The Gospel Hour the culmination of that journey, or just a short portion of it?
Rev. Y: The Gospel Hour is a sincere expression of the total/authentic person that I am, as drag queen, singer-songwriter, gay man, transgender activist and Interfaith Minister. In my show, I refer to my self as my full name, Rev. Roger Anthony Yolanda Mapes. Then I go about (with monologue and songs) explaining how this person with all these names came to be. I have never been a “female illusionist.” I have always been more interested in showing myself as both male and female in one body. That is why I have always identified with the word Transgender. I tend to think of the word as “transcending gender.” I think the transgender person is the perfect example of what God is — both male and female — both God and Goddess in one being. I also believe that LGBT community (and especially the “T” part) are the Shamans of the Human Race. We are the point in which spirituality shines the brightest. We are the Priests and Priestesses of humanity, and we are finally coming back to our authentic role in society.
TGF: Your monthly gig at The Duplex, plus the Broadway nomination, are wonderful achievements. Congrats. Was it your plan to make the show a semi-permanent thing, or is it a great stroke of good fortune?
Rev. Y: My plan was and is to perform as Rev. Yolanda till I drop. The success of the show is so fulfilling to me personally that I am open to good fortune taking me forward into new gigs and incarnations of the show. I will be going to North Carolina, Vermont and the South to perform the Gospel Hour in 2013 and will keep going with it in NYC as long as I can.
TGF: How has the audience response been?
Rev. Y: Absolutely fantastic. Gay, straight, old, young — repeat audience members who bring their friends and children and moms. I am so sure that we are touching people where they live. Jews, Christians, Muslims, atheists have all come to the show and told me how moved they are by it. Everyone tells me it’s something they’ve never seen before.
TGF: I found the title of the album interesting. I looked up the word “kirtan.” Couldn’t find it in a standard dictionary, but used Wikipedia and found out that it comes from Sanskrit and means “praise, eulogy.” It’s a form of call and response that was used in Hindu musical tradition. Forms of kirtan can include speaking, music, dialog, dancing, gaps and silence, overal theatrics asnd is usually under the direction of a leader. It this an accurate discription of how the show is presented?
Rev. Y: That is a fairly accurate description, actually. I am the leader of the festivities and it is definitely theatrical — costumes, wigs, great music, preaching, call and response singing, audience sing-a-longs — all describe what happens during the show. I do think of it as a kirtan, as I’ve been to many kirtans and find a similar feeling. As the name of my CD says, I think of it as a Country Gospel Kirtan.
TGF: What surprised me about the album was the mix of different styles. It’s called a “country gospel kirtan” but also contains a lot more than country. How do you manage all this live?
Rev. Y: The CD isn’t exactly representitive of how the show is presented. The show is strictly Old Timey Gospel Music sounding, with piano, guitar, fiddle, banjo, harmonica, tambourine (you can see the video of the live show on my website) I wanted to do the CD a little bit differently because of my interest in Hindu Kirtan music and the relationship between the two musical cultures. They blend beautifully. I am also an Interfaith Minister which fuels my interest in bringing different spiritual traditions together.
TGF: Part of the title is also Vol. 1: God Is. Will there be a Vol. 2?
Rev. Y: YES! I already have the songs written.
TGF: You’ve gotten a lot of mileage from some of your older music, such as We Are Angels and Home from the Plastic Family days, and Freedom from House Of Joy. Do you plan to use any of your other material in the show eventually? Plus, those songs just seem to work so well within the new context of what you’re doing.
Rev. Y: Yes. I use all of these songs in the show and they work beautifully, and I include new versions of all of these songs on the new CD.
TGF: How many other musicians are on stage with you? Plus, I see that Robert Urban is also on the new project. Does he ever perform any of the new material with you?
Rev. Y: Piano, bass, banjo, harmonica and fiddle — it’s so KAWNTRY sounding and I just LOVE it! I have four more musicians on stage besides myself. I just love Robert Urban! He is so wonderful and so very talented — not to mention cute. We haven’t been performing together this year, but he did record and produce the wonderful duet won the CD with my friend, fellow Reverend and Jazz chantuese – Rev. Chanda Rule. Robert has been very busy with his own rockin’ music and he’s been producing many different shows and fundraisers for the transgender community in Long Island.
I have been working with Texas born off-Broadway musical director Kenneth Garthman, who is also an amazing tenor. We sound terrific together and he really understands gospel music. We also have the wonderful banjo/harmonica player Bill Turner who is a music industry veteran. He has played all over the world with many rock, country, and gospel muksicians as well as playing lead guitar for Bill Haley and The Comets, in Mr. Haley’s touring band in the ’70s and ’80s. Our fiddle player works on Broadway in the new production of Annie and our bass player is a working Broadway musician for many different shows. It’s a great group.
TGF: Any plans to tour the show? Or, at the very least, release a DVD eventually?
Rev. Y: Both! We start touring in January to Chapel Hill, North Carolina and Quincy, Massachusetts in February. We are going to Burlington, Vermont, and Easton Mountain, New York, in March. Freddy Freeman and I are touring the South. In between the tours, I will be doing the show in NYC at The Duplex. The DVD will be released in March at the latest.
TGF: Any plans to write new material for the present show?
Rev. Y: I have written so much material that it was hard to decide what should go in the “official” show at The Duplex. As times goes on and as I continue growing with the show, I will include more of the new material.
TGF: In closing, any last words?
Rev. Y: My calling is to be an instrument in the re-awakening of the LGBT community to our Spiritual selves. Our conscious connection to Source is essential in our personal healing and the healing of the community around us. As we move into a world that acknowledges our rights as full human beings (marriage equality is a BIG movement in that direction) we will need to reassess what we call our identity. We are used to identifying with our marginalized and objectified sexual and gender identities. I believe that now we need to come into our own personal healing and a higher realization that our sexual and gender identities are only a part of who we are, not all of who we are. This realization moves us into a conscious spiritual connection with Universal Source Energy. I am not talking about following a specific religious tradition (unless one wants to do that). I am talking about accessing the power that already resides within us. That power, that connection to Source is what I call God.
Along with the new album and the Broadwayworld.com nomination, Rev. Yolanda participated in New York City’s Battle of the Boroughs, representing Brooklyn on February 1st. This is a city-wide talent show sponsored by NPR radio stations WNYC and WQXR. Further dates for the talent event are March 1st (Queens), May 3 (Staten Island), June 7 (Manhattan), with the ultimate battle on June 21. Tickets and information at www.thegreenspace.org. And if that’s not enough, Rev. Yolanda will be bringing the Old Time Gospel Hour show to the 18th annual Winter Is A Drag Ball, February 16. This is presented by the house of LeMay, at Higher Ground Ballroom and Showcase Lounge, 8 p.m. ($30 advance, $35 day of) Visit the website. Of course, please check out Rev. Yolanda’s previously mentioned website.