A week before the harrowing presidential inauguration, Grammy-winning vocal group Sounds of Blackness’s 1991 hit “Optimistic” resurfaced in a surprising form: internet comedian Jay Versace posted a video of him and his friends excitedly dancing to the inspirational earjam. A few days later, Chance the Rapper posted his own rendition, which cemented the #OptimisticChallenge as a viral hit.
Originally, Sounds of Blackness founder and director Gary Hines co-wrote the track with renowned 80’s R&B songwriters Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis with the hope of creating an uplifting, and enduring, ode to positivity and resilience.
“We [wanted] to create something that’s not a flash in a pan, but something would be a classic that you’d hear 20 years from now,” Hines told The FADER. Below, more from our talk about the decades-long legacy of Sounds of Blackness, the power of black music, and why the song still resonates today.
When Sounds of Blackness first got together, what was the intent of the group?
We are very serious about our name Sounds of Blackness. This is our 46th anniversary, and we called ourselves and named ourselves Sounds of Blackness because we wanted to, back then and now, present every genre of African-American music. Every sound of blackness for people of all backgrounds with messages of inspiration. So we're very serious about being true to our name to represent the culture, the music of the culture. That’s everything from the songs of Africa, the Caribbean, to work songs, field hollers, spirituals, rock-n-roll — which a lot of people forget that was black music — reggae, gospel, R&B, soul, and hip-hop.
You wrote “Optimistic” in 1991. What was going on in your world at the time?
It was the last song that we [Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis] wrote and recorded for our first complete album with him called The Evolution of Gospel. At the time, we wanted something that was universally encouraging and uplifting no matter what your race, religion, or ethnicity and something that was truly universal from the heart. Really, that's what African-American music is all about, and in many instances, what all music is all about. At the time on radio especially, there was a lot of negativity in the world, as there is now. So it's really a statement of faith, it's not about white-washing anything, but looking all the horrible situations in the face and saying you know what? Despite what we see, despite what we're going through everyday, all these different things, we have the faith and we believe in god, we believe in ourselves and we believe we can overcome. That gives us reason to be optimistic, no matter what.
Why do you think the the song is currently resonating with so many people more than two decades after it was released?
Once again, negativity has come to the forefront here. Not only across America but around the world in so many different ways and so many different fronts. Not that negative things aren't always a part of our lives, and always a part of the world situation, but not to the degree of prominence that they are now. That's part one. Part two is, what really brought attention to “Optimistic” and back to Sounds of Blackness, is our current song “Royalty” which was inspired by Prince, and we dedicated it to him after we lost him. Over the past year, “Royalty” has been really prominent at the airwaves and it's brought even more visibility back to Sounds of Blackness and back to the messages of hope and inspiration that 'Optimistic' spearheaded.
I was on YouTube and I found this really great performance: it was Sounds of Blackness doing “Optimistic” with Johnny Gill, Karyn White, and Jasmine Guy. Can you tell me what that performance was like.
To this day, Johnny, Jasmine, and Karyn are all close and lifelong friends of mine. In fact, I saw Jazzy not too long ago at something, and I try to stay in touch with Johnny. I remember that we were all gonna be a part of that particular Arsenio Hall show and he’d requested it if we could do it as a grand finale, and have Johnny, Karyn, and Jazzy to join us. Of course, obviously we were honored to do that. That's where the idea was born, we ran it through rehearsals and all that kind of thing and it was absolutely wonderful.
How did and how does Sounds of Blackness speak to the spirit of black people and black joy?
Well, it's a natural because, that spirit is what Sounds of Blackness is founded in, and rooted in, and still is. So, if you were to look at our goal statement back then,, we said we exist to glorify god and uplift people through the music of the black experience and tell the story of our people, that's still what we do today. We were founded in that spirit.
That's one member of the family of black music. The story of our people is about jazz and blues, hip-hop, soul, reggae, rock, and r&b. You can't have a complete story or testimony of the culture and the history of the people with just one of the genres that was created. That's why we're Sounds of Blackness— we were rooted in it, we began in that spirit, and we maintained in that spirit. We love, our people, our culture, our African roots, which are still so prevalent today in everything from the rhyme and rhythms of hip-hop, you name it.
What was your initial reaction to the Optimistic Challenge? And do you have a favorite one?
Sounds of Blackness and myself as one of the co-writers, were absolutely elated and overjoyed. There's too many great ones to pull one out. The kids dancing in the street around the car, that would probably be near the top of the list, but there's just so many. I’m humbled by it.