LaRhonda Steele (Portland) is a gospel singer and songwriter recognized as one the region’s best rhythm and blues vocalists. She has been dubbed “The First Lady of Portland Blues”—a title of leadership that she lives up to as she shares songs that carry forth directly from her spiritual life-force. For LaRhonda, singing is not just something she does—it’s who she is that she brings to the stage. In an interview with the Oregon Folklife Network, she says that song is the gift that God put in her heart to share:
“As an expression, it’s simply who I am…I feel like I just have to do it.”
It is contagiously empowering to watch her perform and to witness the kind of fierce self love and confidence she displays in “Phenomenal Woman”. She declares,
“The fire in my eyes, the flash of my teeth, it’s in the bend of my waist and the joy in my feet—I’m a woman, phenomenal woman.”
This kind of celebration of one’s self and culture—in a system of white supremacy, wherein a person can be oppressed simply by being who they are—is a powerful act of resistance and revolution.
Steele grew up singing in the rural town of Spencer, Oklahoma where her grandfather was an evangelist and her mother and aunts sang in a gospel quartet. Music was a part of the spiritual glue of the family and they sang together as part of their daily routine. On Saturday’s, household cleaning days, Steele and her older sister would open all the windows and doors and harmonize as they cleaned. As teenagers, both sisters joined a small church choir in a nearby community, where she sang hymns and songs such as “Blessed Assurance,” “Amazing Grace,” and “Going Up Yonder.” The preacher recognized Steele’s immense vocal talents and she began to perform solos before services around the region. By the time she was 16, she was directing her first choir.
Steele moved from Oklahoma to Portland after college to live with her Aunt Jean Stadamire. She began meeting other musicians in the local African American community and joined an acapella gospel group—a type of unison and harmony singing that traditionally does not use musical instruments. Steele began to perform elsewhere—such as at the World Arts Foundation Inc. Martin Luther King Celebration and with music producer Ken Berry’s band “Time Sound.” Since 1993, she has produced and co-produced 5 CD’s and regularly performed at Portland’s Waterfront Blues Festival, The Grotto (with the Portland Interfaith Gospel Choir which she is director), and the MLK Celebration. Steele has sung with such well-known musicians as Gino Vannelli, Janis Scoggins, Linda Hornbuckle, Curtis Salgado, Obo Addy, Mel Brown, and Norman Sylvester. Recent achievements include an invitation to sing with the Pistoia gospel choir in Porretta, Italy (2018) and at the Soul Festival in Porretta, Italy (2017) with King Louie. As part of Colombia Blues and Folk Festival, she took a 7-city tour of South America (2017) teaching the history of blues and gospel. She has won three Muddy awards for Best Female Vocalist leading to her induction into the Cascade Blues Hall of Fame. In 2021, she will be inducted into the Oregon Music Hall of Fame.
Throughout her many achievements, she has never been alone. LaRhonda sings for her people and her people sing through her: “Every time I take the stage I am carrying with me my grandmother, my mother, my brothers and my sisters, who don’t necessarily have this platform– to express what is culturally ours.” Traditionally, gospel music is a form of religious expression in the form of hymns and sacred songs. LaRhonda—when speaking about her work as director of an interfaith gospel choir—shares that Black gospel is more than that:
“We are not a religious choir; we sing Black gospel music to keep the art form alive. By teaching the American art form of Black gospel music, no matter what the [religious] message is, the [overall] message is of freedom of a people who were trapped into an oppressive situation, an oppressive life, reaching for the higher good. Still believing there is a higher good. What that music does, is [celebrates] that spark of life, that part of the human spirit that says, ‘No matter what my situation is, I am reaching higher. I am more than the situation that I am in.’”
She nurtures this “spark of life,” given to her by her grandparents and parents and she carries it forward to her audience, her community, and her own children. Talent clearly runs in the family—the proof is in this impressive performance of LaRhonda and her daughters Lauren and Sarah, “Grinning in Your Face”.
Her latest CD is Spirit of Freedom, which she describes as the most important album she has done so far. It is a collaboration with Karen Haberman Trusty who shares her experiences on the front lines of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee during the Civil Rights movement in the South, while LaRhonda sings the songs that they sang during the marches and meetings. Steele has described the CD as, “Culturally authentic and relevant; its message is true still.” On March 27th of 2020, civil rights leader Joseph Lowery died at the age of 98. Lowery helped organize the pivotal bus boycott in Montgomery, Alabama and later gave the benediction at the inauguration of President Obama. Following his death, Don’t Shoot Portland (a Black-led human rights nonprofit that advocates for accountability) released this request:
“We encourage you all to take this time to learn more about the civil rights movement and the leaders who paved the way for human rights and dignity. In reflection of his passing, we’d like to ask you all to stream ‘Spirit of Freedom’. Through these songs, you will feel the inspiration and tribulations faced by those in the fight for our lives.”
This fight continues and the request still stands. The album can be found here: Spirit of Freedom (2019) and for more on all things LaRhonda Steele, join her Online Groove Party, also known as: her official website.
Explore Black and African artists on OFN’s juried Roster of Oregon’s excellent folk and traditional artists. OFN is a program of the Museum of Natural and Cultural History. Learn more about Oregon’s Black History in the MNCH exhibit #RacingForChange.
By Emily Hartlerode and Sophia Kohl Enggren
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