Feature: Sharon Irving

Sharon Irving, 32, is a “girl of the Southside of Chicago.” She evokes these words of Michelle Obama with pride as she describes her deep roots. She is a singer, songwriter, worship leader, poet, rapper and voiceover artist. I first encountered her in a room full of women of color at the 2017 Sojourners Summit. I was floored by her anointed voice and huge presence. I was also moved by her comfort in her vulnerability. Her ability to tell story, to seek guidance, to give and to receive sisterhood set her apart, and I knew that I wanted to build with her. Since then, we have become sisters, sharing long meals, long walks, and long talks on ministry, relationships, theology and more. I support her ministry because it comes from a genuine place of love, service, and artistry. This year, she released her album, Bennett Ave., and it has been on constant playback in my house, especially “Habakkuk’s Song.

Get to know Sharon here. But, then connect with her via her website and social media. Most importantly, support her album on your preferred music streaming and purchases outlets.

Please share a little bit about yourself.

I grew up in a musical family on the Southside of Chicago. Growing up in Chicago Public Schools, there was often a lack of structure, sleeping teachers and low resources, and suffering students of color, music saved me. On my report cards, my teachers would write that “Sharon is sweet, but she’s always in her own world, writing and making up songs.” We attended my grandfather’s Southside church, Greater Mount Moriah Baptist Church. Even though I led worship in college, I had always wrestled with being shy and insecure. but I always found my voice in music.

My father music directed for Miles Davis for years. It was an incredible opportunity for him, but it took him away from us. When my parents divorced later, music was how I coped and escaped. After the divorce, my grandmother became a second mother to me. There is a saying that says, “purpose is born out of your pain.” I think that out of the pain of the Southside and the pain and brokenness of my family, really birthed a purpose and passion to be a voice. One of my mantras for ministry is to be a voice “with and for the voiceless,” because I know what it’s like to be silenced and to feel like you don’t have a voice. This is affirmed in Proverbs 31: 8 -9: “Speak out on behalf of the voiceless, and for the rights of all who are vulnerable. Speak out in order to judge with righteousness and to defend the needy and the poor.”

In 2013, I left a job at Willow Creek Church to pursue her solo music career. Despite having been told that I wouldn’t make it, God has been faithful to open doors for me to do her work without the assistance of a an agent, manager or record label. It has been a grind, but God has been the hero of my story, shaping my ministry and calling me outside of my comfort zone. In the last year, my voice has been affirmed as a worship leader.

Please share the story of your call to your ministry of music.

I don’t know that there was one defining moment for me. Rather, all things have worked together. Answering my call meant that I had to step out of the comfortable space of music being an outlet, and into the understanding my music and art could change the world. I realized this in college with a beloved taught me what it meant to be an agent of change. Today, I realize more than ever, that my worship can be used as a form of resistance against injustice. When I was 18, I remember losing a friend to gun violence. When you grow up in Chicago, this happens so often that it’s easy to become numb to it. But, when this happened, it hit me that I needed to use my gifts for something other than myself.

As a Jazz musician, my dad demonstrated creativity and a spirit of “no limits to creativity” to the point that he is now one of my muses. His genius was such that he is underrated and has never gotten his due, but he did it for the art. He was so uninhibited, and this has shaped my style as a worship leader. In worship, I feel called to shift and change atmospheres. I’m not just a singer; it’s about shifting the atmosphere for healing through the Holy Spirit, which is powerful.

Since I was a child, I was aware that there was a Higher Power at work around me. Now that I’m able to call that Power by the name of Jesus, I know that God’s strength has been at work in my weakness. The enemy has been trying to steal my voice since day one, literally and figuratively. I get emotional thinking about, because I’ve had a vocal polyp and my doctor told me that it would effect my voice. Even through that process, I’ve still be able to sing. I’ve been told that my voice is stronger than it’s ever been. Only God could do that.

My story is still unfolding. I’m learning and unlearning so much, and becoming the woman that God has created me to be. I’ve often felt unqualified, but, “God doesn’t call the qualified, but qualifies the called.” I never expected to end up on a platform like America’s Got Talent. I’m still uncovering what the purpose of that was, but I think that God is doing something unconventional in my life. I’m being called out of boxes, which makes sense because I’ve never liked boxes, nor have I done well with them. So, i’m exploring new styles and methodologies, even in worship. I’m bringing in spoken word, and exploring subject matters that people are afraid to talk about in church. I feel called to be a truth-teller, and to talk about the “hard things” in worship. I’m not sticking to the typical Chris Tomlin because that formula has been done. I’m telling a new story, a different story, and my story, thereby giving voice to stories that haven’t been told.

What's the story behind your newest album, Bennett Ave?

Bennett Avenue is the street that I grew up in on the Southside of Chicago. It’s the home that my grandparents moved into back in 1950’s. It was a family home, in every sense of the word. It was a museum for our family. When you walked into it, it was a blast from the past, from the retro wallpaper, the appliances, the stained glass. My grandfather’s office was filled with sermons and books. I would escape to certain nooks and crannies in the house, to write, listen to sermon and watching healing words. My mother often says that my grandfather’s spirit visits me. He wanted a son to continue his legacy of ministry, but he would often pray over me (I don’t remember this). My mother believes that imparted something into me, and I would feel his prophetic spirit in that home. I wanted to pay homage to Bennett Avenue, to this place where I found my voice. I also wanted to pay homage to the Southside, and tell the story of growing up as a Black woman. Unfortunately, we had to sell the family home when my grandmother transitioned. My mother was living there by herself and she couldn’t afford to keep it, so we sold it. It took almost a year to purge the home when it was time to sell it. There were years and years of history in that home. They don’t make homes like that anymore.

Were there any particular challenges that you had to overcome to produce it?

I did this album independently, without a label. I didn’t have a big machine fueling the project. I did a Kickstarter, and I was blessed to raise some money to do it. But, it took a few years to get it done. There were a lot of setbacks with the producer or the mixing. I learned that even with the resources, if you don’t have the right team, it doesn’t even matter. While this was happening, I ended up on America’s Got Talent, and I couldn’t release music while I was waiting through that process. But, I, a girl of the Southside, got a huge stage to talk about my grandfather’s legacy. I’m still trying to understand what the purpose of that was, because I didn’t win, but, I do believe that God had something else in mind.

Do you have any favorite songs on your album?

“Sweet Darlin’” is close to my heart because it showcases my songwriting and rapping skills. I wrote all of the songs on the album, except for “I Want Jesus to Walk With Me.” This is my favorite spiritual, and I wanted to cover it on my album. I also love “Vapors,” because it was inspired by scripture. I love taking scripture and shaping it to lyrics and melodies. The song is based on James 4:14, which reads, “What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes.” The message is that life is fleeting. This is not meant to depress listeners, but to encourage them to really live everyday, and to focus on what really matters in life, which isn’t the material, but the Spirit. I also love “All We’re Living For,” which was inspired by Hadiya Pendleton, a young woman who had been gunned down in Chicago. In this song, I ponder the thought that, “there’s got to be more than life than this violence.” The song is unresolved.  I don’t always like to answer, but I think that asking the right questions will lead to the right answers. There’s no answer in this song; there is an ache and longing. I’m the type of artist who wants to live in the ache, the longing, the lament and the celebration. I like to name the pain and the brokenness, but also the glimmer of hope. I’m a prisoner of hope.

As a millennial Black woman, what are some of the challenges you face in your spaces? What are some of the opportunities?

Right out of college, I began working for a predominantly white, non-denominational institution. I’d grown up in a Black Baptist church, and in many ways, I wasn’t prepared for that. In my experience working for predominantly white institutions, so often the diversity of my look is accepted, but the diversity of my thought and culture are not. That’s a challenge across the board, because it’s where we get the “token” concept. I’ve encountered spaces on the road where people were fine with me as long as I sang their songs, but when I opened my mouth to offer a different opinion, or bring my culture into the space, they only wanted so much from me. As a Black woman in ministry, I’ve been a bridge-builder, but in the words of Austin Channing-Brown, that bridge has broken my back. 

Being a woman of color in the ministry of worship and arts, people have often wanted to put me in one category and I’ve had to remind them that Black women are not monolithic. Yes, I grew up in the Black Church and I love Gospel music, but I also sing Folk and Hip-Hop. Breaking free of some of those barriers has been a challenge.

As an artist, I haven’t had access to certain resources and support to which my white peers have access. Many have admitted that they don’t work as hard, but have access to so much more. I’ve also never had a woman of color mentor me in my line of work. So, it’s been lonely and I’ve had to advocate for myself. For years, I felt indebted to the institutions that have given me a platform. But, I realize that this is a lie from the enemy because I’ve added value to them also. I’ve contributed. Therefore, I can ask for what I need, such as a raise, and when I ask for things, I’m not asking for a handout. I’m asking to be fairly compensated for the quality professionalism that I bring to their institution.

Do you have any words of advice or encouragement to your sisters, who are also in ministry and seeking to tread their own paths in ministry?

My first and foremost word of advice is to pray. I have tapped into the power of prayer like never before, and I know that God will exceed your expectations in ways that may be uncomfortable. We’re talking about a God who called a virgin to deliver the Savior of the world. God is disruptive, and I’ve had to just embrace that. I’ve learned not to compare myself to anyone else because people don’t show the real on social media.

Don’t pin yourself against other women. I support and celebrate my sisters. I am genuinely inspired by my sisters, and it breaks my heart when I see women compete and tear each other down. Get connected to other women. In part, we become jealous when we know we’re not living into our personal potential. Reach out to some women who are doing what you love to do. Be teachable. It’s been helpful to me to know that I don’t know everything and to remain open to correction and advice. I know who I belong to, but I also know that there are areas where I could grow in wisdom.

Work hard. Be consistent. Take care of yourself and your soul. You can’t give what you don’t receive. You have to find balance. For me, doing God’s work was killing the work of God within me. I had to commit to self-care. I had to tend to old wounds because they appeared in my ministry.

Be authentic. Be you.