Bankole: Detroit’s band of six offer season’s hope
In his Christmas message last year, Pope Francis said, “Where God is born, hope is born; and where hope is born, persons regain their dignity. Yet even today great numbers of men and woman are deprived of their human dignity and, like the child Jesus, suffer cold, poverty and rejection.”
The pontiff added, “May our closeness today be felt by those who are most vulnerable, especially child soldiers, women who suffer violence, and the victims of human trafficking and the drug trade.”
The pope could have been speaking directly to Favour, a Detroit gospel band of six men, the majority of whom have dealt with vulnerability and abandonment, yet have now recovered from that despair.
And during this season, the men are offering their stories as hope for those unable to rush to malls or stores to shop for gifts because of grief-filled circumstances.
“I can tell you that drug use is bad. I was one of the worst back then. I was eating out of the garbage and living in abandoned houses because I was on crack” said lead singer Shawn Upshaw, 56. “God saved me.”
Upshaw, who grew up on Detroit’s east side said he started using drugs because of peer pressure. During that time, he had sex with a prostitute, the mother of his 21-year-old son. The woman, he said, died last year from drugs.
The young father said he “was trying to do what other people are doing.” The breaking point “was when I got kicked out of an abandoned house,” he added.
He got help in 1995 from the Detroit Rescue Mission Ministries and left that lifestyle.
“I’ve been clean for 21 years now,” Upshaw said, noting the band’s role in his life. “We have a group of guys with a common goal to inspire people to have faith so they can change their circumstances.”
The band’s leader, Byron Brown, 63, offers another inspirational story.
He grew up in a family of musicians. His older brother, Wade Brown Jr., was a Motown writer and his mother was a piano player who died last year at age 90.
Byron Brown said he got into drugs, which altered his life.
“I went to prison in 1986 and went back in 1990 serving three and a half years each time for selling cocaine,” Brown said. “Since 1994, I have been straight. I worked for DRMM for eight years after that helping the same people I had become.”
Brown, who would become a residential specialist with the ministries group, said working with the men there was not enough. He wanted to create a gospel group that would minister to the neglected. He started writing songs and started singing to homeless people housed at the mission.
He founded Favour six years ago and decided to recruit members whose stories explore and reflect triumph over challenges and hardships.
“Music is a ministry and it talks about hope and love,” Brown said. “There is power in the tongue. There is truth in what we sing. You can turn your life around. That is the message we want to send.”
Brown, who was diagnosed in 2008 with prostate cancer that has spread to his bones, said he has been inspired with the recent release of the group’s CD titled “The Fisherman.”
“I have not given up. I’ve gotten stronger and carrying on with the band,” Brown said.
Bass player Derrick Maclin, 61, said the group gives back to the community.
“The music that we play is a Modern Motown style with a gospel message,” he said. “I got into substance abuse for close to 20 years. I was chasing drugs at that time and wasn’t using my talent in music. For years I’ve had to deal with that until I went into transitional living.”
The other band members are drummer James Wallace, 38, and tenors Jimmie Palmer, 61, and William Banks, 71.
Banks, whose brother Ron Banks was lead singer for the Motown group, The Dramatics, said: “We are a faith based group that is committed to spread love, hope and mercy through songs because a lot of people are suffering.”
Last weekend the band performed at a fundraiser for City Covenant Church and for DRMM annual Christmas celebration. The group has no scheduled performance but can be reached at (313) 629-4523.
Bankole Thompson is the host of “Redline with Bankole Thompson” on Super Station 910AM weekdays at noon. His column appears Mondays and Thursdays.