By Vergil Demery
Photos by Sierra Turner
Over Memorial Day weekend, I went to my first concert since joining the North Carolina Arts Council as an intern for Come Hear NC. Far from the bright lights of New York’s Summer Jam, or the hype of Coachella, Lenoir County’s 4th Annual African American Heritage Festival was going down in the small town of Kinston, 30 miles southwest of Greenville.
Kinston's not a big town, and at this point is probably more well known for basketball than music, producing NBA players at a rate (per capita) 63 times higher than the national average. Or as the miracle town that was fortunate to avoid being blown to smithereens when a B-52 crashed in a tobacco field carrying a bomb with 250 times the power of the nuke dropped in Hiroshima. Or as the home base for the popular PBS Television show A Chef’s Life. Or maybe you’ve never heard of Kinston. Maybe like me, you were completely unaware of its rich musical history. Maybe like me, you doubted that giants existed in small fields.
On the way to Kinston, our team made a pitstop in Wilson. We toured the Vollis Simpson Whirligig Park for a bit. While visual art has never been my cup of tea, I couldn’t help but be in awe of the fact that a man well into retirement had spent his old age climbing 50-foot poles to build and maintain massive sculptures. However, I wasn’t just here to admire Vollis. I kept my eyes open for venues that could be included on the African American Music Trails of Eastern North Carolina, which I’m researching this summer. When we decided to break for lunch, a local pointed us to a sandwich shop, Tig’s Courtyard, that he said we would probably like because they sold “yuppie sandwiches.” I didn’t think much of it. This, however, was probably the biggest problem with my perspective going into the trip. I was a yuppie who assumed that nothing major would come out of such a small town and that the gospel performance we were headed to see wasn’t going to be my thing. Even though I had never been to a formal gospel show, I thought the times I listened at my local church in Raleigh, as well as my grandparents’ churches in D.C and Atlanta were enough. If gospel singers in such major cities couldn’t move me, what chance did someone in a town as small as Kinston have? I went in not expecting much but quickly found out why a blip on the map like Kinston is considered the birthplace of funk music and one of the major stops along the African American Music Trails of Eastern North Carolina.
When I first walked into a sparsely populated Arts Council building in the middle of downtown Kinston my hopes didn’t shoot through the roof. As I looked around I noticed that the main performer had a promotion for his ministry, and I saw mostly older residents with a few young faces sprinkled in. I figured this was going to end up like a church event. As everything started to settle down and the residents found their seats, a small framed man no older than me named Malik Turner walked out and began singing the national anthem. He started out a bit shaky, but he closed the anthem with a Whitney Houston like bellow and then proceeded to give a speech before the full performance. He said that “music can move people in ways that a speech or written words can’t.” My interest was piqued.
This speech might not have resonated with me so much if Turner hadn’t been able to back up his talk, but after giving his short speech, he launched into one of the strongest vocal performances I’ve heard in recent memory. The music moved me in a way I hadn’t been moved before. I felt every word and hung on every verse. I had come to Kinston expecting to write a story on the hometown of Maceo Parker and four other members of the original James Brown Band, but I immediately knew that I had to find out who these people were. Malik Turner’s performance was so good that it floored me.
It would be criminal of me not to mention the acts that came after Malik Turner. Natasha Matthews, who was born in Greenville but has since found herself singing at St. John Free Will Baptist Church in Kinston, had the voice of an angel. And Mal Williams put on a show that you would expect from an Eastern North Carolina gospel legend. Every single performance was nothing short of amazing, and it made me start to question my yuppie ways.
Williams is from Snow Hill, a place that is the definition of small-town America. Snow Hill doesn’t quite have a population of 2,000, yet again, he was one of the best live performers I had seen in a long time.
Williams arrived in a very unassuming manner, he walked in wearing a plain blue suit but before his performance ran to the phone both, put on his cape, and transformed into the internationally renowned performer that he is. After that, his crew started to set up their own instruments before seemingly disappearing to allow the other acts to stand on their own. I found myself thinking, “Malik had just happened to be from Kinston and was young enough that no one had discovered him yet. Yeah, Natasha Matthews is great but she’s a minister so obviously, the Lord and her church work come first — she’s just singing where she preaches.” When Mal Williams stated that his band was comprised of his family members I thought I finally had my gotcha moment. “See I knew the first two were flukes this is more on the lines of what I was expecting.” I foolishly thought, I was clearly wrong.
Mal chooses his family members as bandmates not just because of their strong ties but also because they are the best players he could find. His cousin Darius Shackleford is a man that is a legend in his own right, who was considered good enough to be featured on an album with the likes of Maceo Parker and George Higgs. Even their drummer Clyde Felton Jr. is a published solo artist with multiple albums and singles available on the Apple Store. Mal’s wife was a force to be reckoned with in her own right. She was able to steal the show to a degree that I hadn’t thought possible after the strong performances from the rest of the group. The whole family performed so well that they were reminiscent of the early days of the Jackson 5.
In this tiny town hall, I witnessed two North Carolina musicians perform at the highest level. Williams is a man that has performed on five different continents and gone in front of stadiums of 40,000 people. A man that has an upcoming tour in Israel, and yet here he was in a room of no more than a couple hundred people, in a town that might not have existed if a wrong wire was cut. I was so close that I could see the sweat dripping down his face and had to move my legs when he came my way, so he didn’t trip. It was an experience that many people dream of having, and yet I still saw empty chairs. Foodies have discovered Kinston, I hope that music yuppies will too.
This concert was sponsored by the African American Heritage Commission of Lenoir County.
Vergil Demery, a senior at North Carolina Central University, is studying English. He has been in the Triangle area since the age of three. Vergil, who loves to write, is crafting stories for the Come Hear North Carolina campaign, and he plans to go into journalism after graduating.
Sierra Turner graduated from North Carolina Central University recently, where she earned a B.A. in Mass Communication with a concentration in Broadcast Media. She is also working in the Folklife Program — focusing on diversifying her work as a multimedia storyteller.