CHICAGO (August 21, 2015) — It was three days before Sharon Irving was to audition for the TV series America’s Got Talent. Mere hours before her rendition of “Take Me to Church” by Hozier would bring the crowd and judges to their feet and earn her an automatic trip to the live rounds in New York City. But the 2008 North Park University graduate had her mind on another gig.
She was in Angola, Louisiana, at the Louisiana State Penitentiary, also known as the “Alcatraz of the South.” She was performing with the Willow Creek Community Church worship team in front of hundreds of inmates as part of an ongoing prison ministry.
“I didn’t want to do it because I thought, ‘I have to save my voice for America’s Got Talent,’ ” Irving says. “But I think God lined that up because it put things in perspective.”
Irving tells the story of a community of people with amazing voices who sang their hearts out that night. Some of them came up to her after and told her to think of them when she’s up in front of the judges.
“During my sophomore year at North Park I started saying that I want to be a voice for the voiceless,” Irving says. “It kind of evolved to I want to be a voice with the voiceless, because I’m all about empowering people. That’s what I wanted my music to be about.”
So when she walked on stage, she wasn’t thinking about the celebrity hosts or the bright lights. She was thinking about the men in Angola who sang their hearts out. “It’s easy to focus on the wrong things because it’s a competition,” Irving says. “You get nervous and you start to compare yourself with other contestants. I’ve been reminded constantly that this is bigger than me.”
(Editor’s note: This lightly modified interview was published on the North Park University website prior to Irving’s first appearance on America’s Got Talent. Earlier this week, she advanced to the semifinals.)
Music as a Bridge to Healing
Irving was born and raised on the South Side of Chicago. She grew up singing in her grandfather’s church, Greater Mount Moriah Baptist. “Music has always been a part of my upbringing,” she says. Her parents have videos of her writing music when she was five years old, before she was even aware that her father was a premier musician himself, a former musical director for jazz legend Miles Davis. “I really believe that this is something that I was born to do.”
The pieces were there that linked music with a larger purpose. Irving describes how in “black culture, music is closely linked to our struggle,” and with that, she also speaks about the example of her grandfather, who marched with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. “When the slaves had to run for their freedom, they came up with these songs that carried them through. And so for me, that tradition is passed on from my grandparents. Music is healing and it bridges the gap between people.”
Irving says she feels a responsibility and a calling to be a prophetic voice through her music, a “mouthpiece” to create an atmosphere of freedom where people “would feel reconciled to God and to each other.”
“I had a professor at North Park, Dr. Rupe Simms, and he was one of the first professors that taught me about what it means to live in this world as an agent of change and to take the path of least resistance,” Irving says. Simms, professor of Africana studies, takes his students on a journey through history from an Afrocentric standpoint, and considers the ways that African Americans, Afro-Mexicans, and Mexican Americans experience life in the United States today. The role of music in that context is essential.
Irving was a communication arts major, and minored in sociology. These areas drove her interest in understanding how things work in society, specifically with issues of race and class, and figuring out ways to use her talent to speak to those issues.
It was around the same time that she began leading worship with Collegelife, a weekly communal worship experience on North Park’s campus. She says this experience shaped her “in a big way.” She found her voice, not just in melodies or songs, but also with different forms of communication, specifically a type of poetry known as spoken word. She also developed a deep relationship with Campus Pastor Judy Peterson, who continues to mentor her in her journey today.
“I started writing about my experience growing up in Chicago and what that was like,” Irving says. “It’s one thing to have a talent for writing songs in your room that no one hears, and it’s another to actually use that voice for good.”
As part of the worship team for Collegelife, Irving helped to record an album for the North Park community, which featured a spoken word performance.
After graduating from North Park, Irving worked as a vocalist at Willow Creek Community Church for several years. She recently left that position to focus on her music career full-time and is nearing completion of an album due out sometime this fall. It’s titled 69th and Bennett, the address where she grew up, paying homage to foundations that continue to influence her.
Though Irving does admit her upbringing is not the only influence on her music. She boasts of a surprisingly eclectic taste in music, which presents opportunities and challenges her as an artist.
“Being a black girl from the South Side of Chicago, I think some people might be surprised to find that I love Dolly Parton. I love Bjork, Sufjan Stevens, Radiohead, and Led Zeppelin.” She says she is influenced by what feels good, and is drawn to artists who are thoughtful about the entire musical experience, including stage design and wardrobe. “I love old school because I’m an old soul, but I also love world music, and any music that uses a lot of different instruments.”
Her brother is also a musician, doing mostly underground instrumental work, and Irving says he is one of her biggest inspirations.
Some people in the industry tell Irving it would be easier if she clarified whether or not she was a Christian artist, or picked some kind of pre-defined category. That would be easier to sell. But that wouldn’t be true to her as an artist, and especially to the breadth of her musical influences and interests
I’ve been really encouraged by the process,” Irving says. “Television is a whole different world for me. I thought they would try to make me more commercial or do things I didn’t want to do.”
Instead the opposite happened. She has worked with producers and musical coaches who have encouraged her to share her message of hope. They told her she was the only artist on the show with a mission to her music, and that wasn’t something to hide from.
“It is not just about entertaining people,” Irving says. “I hope that the music I sing in New York can break down those barriers that divide us as humans.”