Gospel girl goes for the gold
KEFIA ROLLERSON has the rare kind of singing voice that makes your jaw drop and your arm raise up over your head in tribute as you holler out, "Go on girl!"Or else, you go silent and get chills the way I do each time I listen to the 32-year-old gospel singer from Philly's Bottom belt out the lyrics to the old-time, classic hymn, "It Is Well with My Soul."
Excuse the vernacular, but Rollerson can saaaang.
Local gospel music fans have been enjoying Rollerson's out-sized talent for years. But the rest of us are only now getting to know her, thanks to BET's weekly gospel fest, "Sunday Best" (Sundays at 8 p.m.).
The "American Idol"-style competition began in early July, and the competition is now down to just two contestants - Rollerson and Detroit's Tasha Page-Lockhart. Now, it's up to us. TV viewers get to vote (dial 888-5BEST01 or text 1 to 79922, or visit bet.com/ shows/sunday-best.html) to see who wins that big-time recording contract with Fo Yo Soul/RCA Records, a new Ford Fusion and $20,000.
C'mon, Philly. Let's show Rollerson some hometown love and make sure she gets this. Not just because she's a Philly girl, raised at 39th and Wallace streets, but because she deserves it. Rollerson has spent years in relative obscurity singing in Philadelphia churches and local recording studios. She's ready for the big time.
And in the fickle entertainment industry, where looks are everything, it would be a dang shame if we sit back and let it pass on Rollerson because she isn't a Beyonce look-alike. Plus-size women aren't a rarity in gospel music, but Rollerson's been around long enough to know that there are still barriers.
"Her style is flavorful and it's skilled," said Desiree "Dezzie" Neal, a singer and Praise 103.9 radio personality. "There are a lot of people that have the flavor but they don't necessarily have the skill to accompany it.
"And the anointing in her music is so rich," Neal added. "She's a very humble person, and she presents really quiet. She doesn't have much to say. But when she performs, it's almost like she morphs, and that makes it even more powerful because she's just a totally different person. Her level of skill and craft is just through the roof. I'm so proud of her. She's taken 'Sunday Best' by storm."
In honor of Rollerson, Neal has organized a viewing party of "Sunday Best" at Yesha Fellowship Hall, 2301 Snyder Ave., at 7 p.m. Sept. 1.
"It came from my heart because I just thought she wasn't being celebrated. For Philly to be top 2 - for nobody to have done anything, I just thought that was kind of a disservice," Neal told me.
The child of a Pentecostal pastor, Rollerson spent much of her formative years in her family's churches, singing, playing the organ and drums. Pants in church were a no-no. Typically, Rollerson's family attended three or four services every single Sunday. Some Sundays she would sit so long, her backside would start to hurt. Chicken wings and french fries were a frequent Sunday dinner. Rollerson credits her grandmother, Eloise Rollerson, a pastor herself at New Bethel Pentecostal Holiness Church, for initially pushing a mic in her hand.
"My father's mother would always make me sing at her banquets and she would always put on concerts and stuff and say, 'Now, I need you to put this concert on and I will give you a little something and grandma will take care of you,' " recalled Rollerson.
Around age 14, Rollerson, along with a friend and one of her sisters, formed a trio called KeShare that performed in local talent shows and school competitions. Before long, Gregory Allen, a music teacher at Overbrook High School, overheard her singing in a hallway and asked her to join the choir. After graduation, she performed on his CD, "Greg Allen & Friends Live in Philadelphia!/Songs of Praise: Vol. 1."
"She is in a league with Kim Burrell, Vanessa Bell Armstrong, etc.," Allen commented on YouTube two years ago. "It remains to be seen what God has in store for this extraordinary vocalist!"
Whatever God has in store for Rollerson, she sure has had to work for it. After high school, she skipped college and began working at a McDonald's in Valley Forge and at other menial jobs while trying to realize her musical ambitions. At one point, someone impersonating Tyler Perry had been in contact with her, pretending to offer her a music deal. At first, Rollerson cried with joy thinking she'd been discovered, only to find out later that it all was a scam.
"I've been through a whole lot in terms of this music thing," Rollerson said. "I've been told no. I've been asked to use my voice and put it on another body. I think my mom went through the phone."
She started another group, Sincere to Music, after awhile, but by her late 20s she'd decided that it was easier to be a solo artist. Along the way, she flirted with the idea of going the secular route.
"I auditioned for 'American Idol' and just like we are sitting at this table, the judge kept flicking his paper. Flicking his paper. He was like, 'Hmm, you are too churchy,' so . . . ," Rollerson said. "I was kind of mad with my mom. I said, 'Why would you make me come out here?' We were outside. We were sitting on the ground. You know that long process. That's what made me not want to do more competitions. We had fun but I was like, 'This isn't worth it for me.' "
At age 29, she moved out of her one-bedroom apartment at 29th and Dauphin streets and went back home to her parents' house. She'd given up the odd jobs and was doing gigs whenever she could, and continuing to record. Before long, she tried out for Season 3 of "Sunday Best" singing, "Pass Me Not, Oh Gentle Savior" at her audition.
"Honestly, I feel like it was me that stopped me from getting on the show that time. I wasn't willing to change my image," she said. "You've got to give them that artist look, the whole package. . . . I really wasn't ever a makeup person. . . . I wasn't into the bright colors. I was laid back.
"I was just more like a sneaker person. Throw on a pair of jeans and a nice shirt and something like that," she said. "My whole artistry image has changed. . . . At the end of the day, it's show business."
The next time she tried out, "I came with the swagger. . . . I don't even think they realize that I auditioned in Season 3. I came a little bit more flashier for them.
"I went out there ready to sing so they would pick me."
And that's when she gave her soul-stirring performance of "All Is Well with My Soul." She didn't even finish before the judges waved her into the show. Her talent was that undeniable.
"Looking at where the industry is today, I think she's going to fare very well," said Tamika Patton, a Philly-based gospel artist. "She has that crossover appeal. I would say that she is going to fare very well."
But first, guys, she needs your votes. Dial 888-5BEST01 (888-523-7801) or text 1 to 79922, or vote online at bet.com/ shows/sunday-best.html.
On Twitter: @JeniceArmstrong