Interview and story by Don Wilcock
Photograph of Jubilee Mass Choir by Rudy Lu
The switch from being a night nurse in a Tacoma, Washington hospital to touring gospel singer wasn’t as drastic a transition for Crystal Aikin as she might have thought. “Sometimes you realize in order to heal the natural body, you have to heal the soul and the spiritual man,” says the headliner at Friday’s (April 11) third annual Gospel Jubilee at Proctors in Schenectady. “I definitely miss the (nursing) field. It was definitely challenging to leave, but I also knew there was a wonderful future ahead to change lanes and to actually start healing with singing and finding out that music, as well as medicine, is a powerful medium for healing.”
In December, 2008, Aikin won the grand prize in BET’s “Sunday Best” singing competition. She had already recorded with the Washington-based Soul for Trinity Records, the gospel arm of a record label run by Jimi Hendrix’s sister. But this was the African American gospel equivalent to “American Idol.” “It was a great experience where you’re looking at Kirk Franklin standing next to you, and like my life has changed. Oh, my God. I remember (judges) Be Be Winans and the girls Mary Mary. They were saying my full name, and I said, ‘Wow! If they’re saying my name, people in their homes are saying that.’ It was a huge paradigm shift to just be a girl that is local in Tacoma working in the hospital ER to all of a sudden be the mainstream from BET on the stage such as ‘Sunday Best.’ All of a sudden you’re in everybody’s home on television on Thursday and Sunday nights. So it was a paradigm shift, but I wasn’t even thinking about that at the time. Something I ultimately had to learn was over, but I’m telling you, my heels were shaking.”
It was four months after winning the contest before Aikin gave up her nursing career to go on the road. By this point, they were calling her “Superstar Nurse” at the hospital, and at times her celebrity got in the way of practicing medicine when patients realized who was caring for them. But the deeper she got into her new persona the more similarities she noticed between her two professional lives. “I think nursing and singing have a great partnership to some degree because whether it’s the mind or the body, it’s the person’s soul. They all come from a person who is compassionate and who is caring about the individual to whom they are having to offer service.
“I feel like when I get up on stage, and the Lord allows me the privilege of using the microphone and speaking to people, I don’t necessarily consider it a nothing or happenstance. I definitely consider every opportunity God designed and ordained and definitely make sure I have the compassion, and my mind and heart are open to not only hearing what the Lord has to say for the people but recognizing that it’s a very serious thing. What comes out of my mouth is serious, that the listeners use their faith in order to know that they can be healed and that they can be set free and be liberated. And I definitely have a compassion and a desire to the kingdom of God at large and to see people blessed and their lives changed and see people at peace in chaos and see people having hope when they’ve been discouraged. It’s the same as health care to have compassion and see people ill and sick and have a need to be that conduit to be able to offer that service to heal and to help.”
Aikin’s performance on Friday will be part of an event that has more than tripled in size in three years. Produced by Proctors’ Sara Hill, the jubilee also includes the Jubilee Mass Choir, a 130-voice choir representing 15 Capital Region churches under the direction of the Reverend Elgin Joseph Taylor, Sr., pastor of Sweet Pilgrim Baptist Church in Albany and a most prominent gospel music leader in our area for more than three decades. “This is a time to just unwind, put your faith where it is, open your heart where it is,” says Hill. “Listen to the music, and let the world turn outside of this room because I’m going to tell you, this room is going to be magnified, electrified that evening, and folks need this. I know I need it.”
Aikin echoes Hill’s feelings when it comes to her singing. “There’s something about singing from the heart and how it actually touches the heart of the listener. We’re audio learners. We’re audio receivers, and so when we hear something, just like when we hear the first sound of a baby crying or the sound of your loved ones saying they love you. Our mom saying, “I love you,” it’s the same with music. It does the same thing for you. It frees an endorphin to satiate or to satisfy the part of us that is hurting and that needs healing.”
Aikin’s eponymously titled debut album has almost as many producers as the nine cuts that represent a contemporary gospel sound. “I was able to have the luxury of calling in who I thought I wanted to work with. My A&R at the time, she’s like, ‘If you want to work with them, let’s try and work with them. If you wanna work with them, let’s make a call.’ So I was kind of lending myself to the leadership of the production team, and the producers at the time, and it ultimately led to a very eclectic smorgasbord of
sound on the album because all of the different producers have a lot of their own individual unique sounds, but with one vocal voice.
“So hopefully when people get it, they hear the different styles and recognize the different productions and see that there’s some versatility, and I’m not just – I’m a girl that sings gospel music from Tacoma, Washington, which is one of the least church states in American, at least black church states.”
Aikin characterizes herself as daddy’s little girl. It was her father who encouraged her to go into nursing. He died in 2002, but Aikin thinks he’d approve of her career change. “Oh, I wish he were out in the audience the day that I was the last woman standing on stage at ‘Sunday Best,’ and I think he would just be tearing up. I think and believe he would just be a huge supporter and grateful. And I don’t think he would have been completely surprised.”