Marcia Hines’s new album – the latest reinvention in her long and distinguished career – returns to the songs of her childhood. By Santilla Chingaipe.
Singer Marcia Hines
Marcia Hines is running late for our interview.
“I’m sorry. I do apologise. I’m not usually late but somebody knocked on my door and I couldn’t get rid of them,” she says in her Bostonian drawl, when we are finally connected. She is home and we’re speaking over the phone on an early spring morning, discussing her new gospel album, The Gospel According to Marcia.
When she hears I’m a Black woman, Hines addresses me as “girlfriend” – the universal catchcry of Black sisterhood. She began recording the album after the end of Covid lockdown measures. “It was the right time to do [the album] and it was really interesting because Covid was just kind of
over and I think, girlfriend, we needed a little bit of God.”
“A little bit of God” is what she offers. The album features 11 songs, mostly church hymns with some contemporary gospel. I confess I have been listening to the record all morning, having grown up with gospel music. “I think there’s something to be said about people who praise,” says Hines. “That voice. You know what I’m saying.”
There is something so wonderfully nostalgic that comes from listening to gospel. As a non-religious person, I feel a healing and hopeful energy that transcends religion. Hines agrees. “It touches your heart,” she says. “We all have hearts, you know, whether you want to admit it or not. I think there’s a peace that comes upon you when you go into a church, because nobody fights in church, nobody. I mean, like you go to church to find peace.”
Gospel has its roots in plantation slavery, when enslaved Africans sang hymns and spirituals; this genre evolved into what is today known as gospel, which merges these songs with secular music such as blues, jazz and hip-hop. Although Christianity is a contradictory religion in Black history – the Bible was used to justify slavery and later used to call for abolition – gospel goes beyond this. It is joy. It is affirmation. It is proclamation. It is fellowship. Harvard professor and historian Henry Louis Gates Jr says gospel is the soundtrack of the African–American experience: “It’s the beating heart and soul.”
Hines’s connection to gospel can be traced to her childhood in Boston, where from the age of 10, she accompanied her godmother, Florence James – “a little Jamaican lady who was blind” – to churches across the city, where James was the choir leader. James had an influential role in instilling Hines’s love of music.
Black churches are more than a religious experience – they are a cultural cauldron. I ask Hines about this weekly childhood ritual. “I would go to my mother’s church first, and she was Church of England and that was very conservative and nice. And then after church service finished, lo and behold, Baptist Church would start. And that’s where my godmother, Flo, would attend,” she says.
“Every Sunday we would dress up and find something appropriate to wear. My girlfriend Yvonne and I, we made our own outfits because I love sewing and she was a sewer. She’s much better than me. We made our own outfits. We had a navy collar on it. And then I had a nice little slouch hat and we went into the subway to catch the bus to another church and a pigeon shat on my hat.” She laughs.
Hines was born in Boston to West Indian migrant parents at the beginning of the civil rights movement in the United States. Her father, Eugene, and her mother, Esmeralda, were both born in Jamaica and met in the Massachusetts capital. They had two children – Marcia and her older brother, Dwight. Eugene Hines died when Marcia was an infant and the widowed Esmeralda worked as a housekeeper to support her two young children.
Music was a big part of Hines’s childhood – Grace Jones is a cousin. She recalls sitting around the stand-up radio with her mother and brother on Sunday nights. “I just thought, There must be people inside that thing!” she says. “I actually thought there were miniature people inside [the radio].” She listened to the latest hits by Jimi Hendrix, Martha and the Vandellas, The Supremes, The Temptations and Yusef Lateef. Although she first sang in church, popular music became so important to the young Hines that shortly after she began a scholarship to study opera at the New England Conservatory of Music at 14, she quit to pursue a different kind of musical career.
When she was 16, she was discovered by Harry M. Miller and director Jim Sharman, who visited the US to audition African–American singers for an Australian production of the musical Hair. Hines arrived in Sydney in 1969 and says the culture shock was immediate. “Where I come from, you can get a suit made anytime of the day. You know, like it’s 24/7 tailors, 24/7 supermarkets. Nothing opened here and I just found that really weird,” she says.
At the time, Australia was beginning to dismantle the racist laws that had prohibited non-white migration for close to 70 years. The Immigration Restriction Act 1901, known as the White Australia policy, was instituted at Federation and had significant social and political implications that continue to manifest today, long after its complete abolition in the 1970s. A recent United Nations report found African Australians were living “under siege of racism”. In its first-ever report on the experiences of people of African descent in Australia, the UN found there was a “culture of denial” of anti-Black racism.
Hines tells me she wasn’t afraid of relocating to a foreign place at such a young age. “When you’re 16 and you’ve been brought up well, what would I be scared of?” she says. “It was a gig. I got something I never could have imagined in my wildest dreams – to come to Australia and enjoy a six-month contract.”
That short-term job turned into a successful career spanning five decades and Sydney became home. She gave birth to her only child, Deni Hines, and invited Esmeralda to live with her. She says with pride that at one point she had three generations of women living in her house.
Hines tells me her support system in those early years enabled her to thrive. “I learned to become a proper musician in Australia with all the amazing musicians that I had the chance and the pleasure of [working] with,” she says. Unprompted, she tells me race did not factor into her success in Australia. “Nothing to do with colour. Okay. Yeah, nothing.” Hines underscores this a few times during our conversation. “The thing about music is, you’re never judged on your colour – you’re judged on your talent. That’s a large reason why I’m in this industry. I’ve never really dealt with any type of prejudice in the music industry.”
Looking through the archives of Australian media reveals a different picture. A Canberra Times article from 1977, reviewing Hines’s appearance on the television show Countdown, describes her as “dusky”. While praising her talent, the writer says, “we surely have little cause to think of her as ‘Our Marcia’, alas”.
Hines’s career has taken her around the world. In 1977, she toured Papua New Guinea in a show billed as “The biggest show to ever hit Papua New Guinea”. Hines arrived in Port Moresby aged 24 and, according to a local report, was surprised that many Papua New Guineans would not be able to hear her sing. She said it would be disappointing to get a mostly white audience when the country that she was visiting was Black, reportedly saying: “After all, I’m a Black myself!” I’m curious about this and ask Hines what she recalls of that tour. “Who’s in the audience? It’s got nothing to do with me,” she says. “I’ve never said to anybody it’s gotta be a certain type of audience. It’s just who the entrepreneur picks. Yes, I was slightly surprised.”
I tell Hines that, because of her enduring presence in Australian pop culture, I feel as though I have personally known her for years. “You do, because vicariously we’ve been living together,” she says. “It’s one of those weird things. I see all these Black people in the street and I talk to everybody. I’m terrible. ‘Hi, how are you doing?’ You know? Yeah, I gotta talk to everybody.” She laughs and then asks me, “How old are you?” She is curious, regularly turning interviewer herself. It is easy to see why she is so beloved, because she is naturally charming.
Beyond being a musician, Hines is an accomplished actor and presenter. Younger audiences have come to her work through her appearance on the reality television show Australian Idol, where she was a judge from 2003 to 2009. Sandwiched between two white men, Hines was the most empathetic and generous of the judges when critiquing the hopefuls who were vying to secure a recording contract at the end of the competition. I’m surprised when Hines tells me she was made to audition for the role of judge.
“They did a mock set-up of how I would behave and then, when I got the gig, I’m relatively still. And there was, like, a movement coach who said, ‘Marcia, you’re a bit too still. You need to just give a little bit more,’ ” she says. She tells me she is excited to return to the judge’s chair next year. Why did she decide to return? “They asked.”
Reflecting on her time on Australian Idol, Hines reveals a sense of respect for the people who audition on national television. “Those kids only wanted to sing, and they get plucked out of total obscurity and placed onto a street where everybody’s got criticism of them. You know how hard that must be? I didn’t come up like that … [The show is] really hard yakka. There but for the grace of God go I.”
It’s hard to believe Hines is celebrating 50 years of working in the industry.
She has released 23 albums and sold millions of records. She talks about what she loves about performing live – “the audience” – and her ability to reinvent herself, which does not seem like an easy feat. “I don’t want to become stagnant,” she says. At 70, it is as if she is just getting started.
She tells me she never expected to become famous when she began singing. “I just wanted a gig, and I got one. And then one thing led to another. And you know, there’s great responsibility with fame as well. Great responsibility.”
Before our call concludes, I ask Hines if she has a favourite song on her latest album. “How Great Thou Art, because my godmother used to sing that,” she answers. In many ways, it’s unsurprising Hines has returned to the music she first started singing as a young girl. It is like a homecoming for a woman who has spent 54 years making a home in Australia.
So when does she listen to gospel? “When I’m by myself, because then I can crank it up and nobody complains, you know. It’s usually when it’s dark and I sit down and just stare at the sky and listen. To me, when people sing gospel music, something extraordinary happens – they soar.” Like her music, Hines has soared.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on November 18, 2023 as "Gospel truth".
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