The genre of gospel music is universally known for producing some of the industry’s most passionate and skilled singers. From Aretha Franklin to Beyonce, many of R&B, soul and pop music’s greats either have roots in gospel music or have been influenced by this powerful art form. To no one’s surprise, gospel music continues to impact today’s generation of rising artists.
Meet Clifton Ross III. The Detroit, Michigan, native has been singing all his life and began to make an impact in the United States as part of the famed Howard University Gospel Choir in Washington, DC. His star continued to rise as part of BET’s hit singing competition Sunday Best, where he was one of the top three finalists in its most recent season (season eight). He has sung with many of gospel music’s finest and currently sings backing vocals for popular artists Byron Cage and VaShawn Mitchell. iSing magazine down with this amazing singer to talk about his history, love for music, and passion for vocal training.
iSing: Tell us how your love affair with singing began?
Clifton Ross III: I’d have to say it started with my family and in church. I have a family of singers and musicians. Growing up I watched my mother singing in church and it always made me feel good. My dad and sister played percussion. I was always directing in my mirror and the first time I directed my class in school was in fifth grade. Singing has always been a source of great energy in my life.
iSing: You grew up in Detroit and then lived in Washington, DC. What are differences in the sound of gospel music regionally?
C: Detroit has a smooth sound – just think The Winans or the Clark Sisters. Two different styles but if you really study them you can hear the similarities in their delivery and their technique. Washington, DC has its own unique sound – it’s very “in your face” like “go-go”. Even though the sounds are different you can still feel the passion and energy and I love them both.
iSing: Tell us about your journey to the television show Sunday Best?
C: Sunday Best was life changing. Most people never get the chance to experience the Sunday Best stage once and I had the privilege to experience the stage twice. Both seasons were very different for me. During season two I was just nervous. Standing on stage and being critiqued in front of millions of people was frightening. But all I could do was give it my all and I did. The time between season two and the All-Star season (season eight) was all about growth and honing in on my assignment, which is to be a light wherever I am – singing, talking, teaching – wherever. In 2015 I was a completely different person than the Cliff in season two. I was more confident. I actually felt “ready”. And my prayer was simple – I just wanted to reach people’s hearts. And I believe that God used me to do just that.
Sunday Best: Clifton
iSing: What lessons have you learned from being a part of that franchise?
C: 1 Everyone will have an opinion about you and when you’re on a reality show like this they feel like they know you. Some opinions may hurt your feelings. Don’t take everything you hear to heart. Stay focused.
2 Be open to grow or evolve in an instant.
3 Be secure in your gift and don’t compare yourself or abilities to anyone.
4 Don’t be upset over someone else’s assignment…God assigned me to make the final three, not to win Sunday Best. Assignment complete.
iSing: The TV show was taped over a short period of time. What did you do vocally to preserve and conserve your voice during that timeframe?
C: I was like a bear in hibernation. When I wasn’t singing I was sleeping. I made healthy food choices and I drank several litres of water a day. I used my personal steamer for hours during free moments I could steal in rehearsals and before performances. I kept my scarf on and did warm ups and vocal exercises throughout the day – to stay warm.
iSing: What kind of specific technical vocal demands of gospel singing?
C: Firstly our first reference for gospel singing is in our churches. And in church if the spirit is high a soloist or a choir may have to sing a particular section over and over until the moment passes and we all love it but it definitely takes vocal stamina to be able to continue to deliver with the power and energy that’s needed in the moment.
Secondly, most gospel singers have big voices which require mastering singing from the diaphragm and sustaining phrases. This definitely takes technique and practice.
iSing: What are the common vocal issues gospel singers encounter?
C: 1 Vocal fatigue/Loss of voice
2 Nodules and polyps
3 Singers don’t always do what’s necessary to take care of their voices like visiting an ear, nose and throat doctor or hiring a vocal coach.
iSing: If someone wanted to sing in a gospel style what would you advise them?
C: Study gospel soloists and be open to listening to all kinds of music. Also learn how to connect with the audience. In gospel, singers are mediums between God and the audience. Stay open and don’t get in the way.
iSing: Who are your gospel role models and why?
C: You cannot be from Detroit and not be affected by the legends such as the Clark Sisters and the Winans, so that’s a given. Since I’ve been on the east coast, I’d have to say Byron Cage, VaShawn Mitchell, Kurt Carr, Richard Smallwood and Ricky Dillard are role models that I look up to and they’ve poured into me. And more than their words, I’ve watched them minister both on stage and off stage and I’ve learned so much. They are all artists at different points in their careers but they are consistent and effective and I admire them tremendously and I’m grateful that they don’t mind sharing and teaching.
iSing: What are the benefits of singing gospel?
C: Singing gospel is both about spreading the word about a great Light and also being a light. And that’s what I believe my responsibility is – that’s how I’m making my mark on the world. One song at a time – one hug at a time. I get to encourage people not just because it is kind but because I know the power of that encouragement – I’ve been lifted just listening to music. It’s definitely heart music – you can sing what you think is true but to truly deliver gospel music you’ve got to sing what you know. And I try to be as open and pure in my heart as I can whenever I have the opportunity to sing. And singing gospel music is definitely an exchange. Hearts reach hearts. I am better for the privilege of singing gospel music.
iSing: Tell us about your favorite warm up techniques?
C: Lip trills are my favourite. Basically it’s a technique that I use to warm up from the bottom of my range to the top of my range. Without getting too technical, the lip trills send vibration to your “mass” (which is the frontal part of your face near your nose and cheeks and sinus cavities). Singing gospel music usually you will do quite a bit of singing from that “placement”. When I’m warming up, depending on what I’m prepping for, I like to run in place so that I can sweat and basically I’m just warming up my entire body.
iSing: Tell us about the Empower Your Voice initiative.
C: Teaching people how to sing was something I ran away from. People would always ask me questions about range and technique. And finally I started attempting to answer the questions and that is how Empower Your Voice started.
I started with one video and people started asking more questions and sending in topics and I just continued to share what I learned along the way. My YouTube Empower Your Voice videos cover a plethora of topics. And from that one video I’ve conducted workshops both locally and internationally. The videos cover technique and they also focus on the mental approach. Technique matters and skill matters but neither have much weight without the support of the mental and spiritual approach. It’s all connected.
Empower your Voice: Clifton Ross lll
iSing: What’s your view of the gospel music genre today?
C: Gospel music is evolving and it’s relevant and it’s powerful. With innovators like Kirk Franklin releasing albums like Losing my Religion and writing songs like Wanna Be Happy? listeners are being challenged to have real conversations about their beliefs and to at the same time make simple declarations about their lives. I am inspired.
iSing: What’s next for Clifton Ross III?
C: I’ve finished working on my EP and I will be releasing it soon. And I can’t wait to share it. If I could describe it in one word it would be “posture”. The songs are a reflection of lessons I learned during my journey and my position about my process – I’ve learned that peace is the best posture.
I’m also traveling and singing as often as I can and loving meeting people. I still get the “I voted for you” outbursts and it never gets old. I am grateful that people were kind enough to not only watch the show but to also stay connected with me.
I’m excited about joining one of the leading gospel music outlets, Khalif Townes’ UGospel.com as a media correspondent. It’s definitely a step outside of my comfort zone and I love it. So far I’ve had the privilege of covering the Dove Awards, the BMI Trailblazer of Gospel Music Honors and The Stellar Awards.
But most importantly – I’m open to what’s ahead and I’m grateful to do what I do. I’ve always just wanted to be a light and I know that I am doing that. I’m walking out my life’s purpose.
For more information on Clifton Ross II, visit cliftonrossIII.com
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