Founder Melanie Few talks the Super Bowl Gospel Celebration

'If God is for you, who can be against you?'

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Melanie Few, who was raised in both a Baptist and African Methodist Episcopal household, is the benevolent Black girl boss behind the extravaganza known as Super Bowl Gospel Celebration.

Nearly twenty-two years ago, the established marketing executive had a vision to bring the joy and inspiring aura of gospel music to the National Football League and though she was rejected seven times, the eighth seemed to have been the charm.

This year, as founder and executive producer, Few has wrangled up some of the industry’s most sought after names in gospel including Erica Campbell and Voices of Fire’s Pharrell Williams, PJ Morton, Kierra Sheard, Koryn Hawthorne and Zacardi Cortez. The Super Bowl Gospel Celebration will also present this year’s “Faith In Action Award” to Houston Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson.

“I’m just grateful to God because I want there to be other women and other Black women who have sanctions. For right now, I’m the only African-American and the only female so I count it as a blessing because God didn’t have to put me in this position. He chose to for whatever reason and I pray and hope that I’m making him proud,” the Results Marketing and Media president said about her position as the head of a sanctioned event.

theGrio connected with Few ahead of the Super Bowl Gospel Celebration to discuss her love for gospel music, the initial pushback from her pitch to the NFL and how her marketing expertise assisted with the execution of the event. Check out the conversation below.

Melanie Few-Harrison attends the 2019 Super Bowl Gospel Celebration at Atlanta Symphony Hall on January 31, 2019 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo by Marcus Ingram/Getty Images for BET)

What inspired the foundation of the Super Bowl Gospel Celebration? 

It happened on a whim. I went to the Super Bowl back in 1990 and when I was young, just out of college, finished partying and having so much fun, I asked one of my friends wondering why there’s no gospel celebration around the Super Bowl. She said, “You should write a proposal,” and I did. I wrote the NFL for seven years and got seven years of rejection letters but I was that kid when my mommy and daddy would tell me “no,” I would cut up and get a spanking. I would ask them five minutes later if the answer was still “no” because I just didn’t like the word “no.” After seven years, Gene Upshaw who was at the NFL Players’ Association at the time thought, “Okay, I know how to get rid of this crazy lady.” 

He had one of the people who worked for him call me to say, “If you get Gladys Knight,” because he was a big fan of Gladys Knight, “we’ll do the Super Bowl Gospel Celebration.” He thought this would be the way to finally get rid of this lady. Gladys is from Atlanta, she went to Turner High School, my aunt went to Turner and I knew other people who knew her. So I was like, “Gladys and I will ride the midnight train to your office together” because that was his favorite song, “Midnight Train To Georgia.” God just saw fit to allow me to book Gladys that year and it was just a blessing. That was 22 years ago because the next month, we started doing Super Bowl Gospel in 1999 in Miami.

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Did you initially have any pushback from anyone else outside of the NFL when you first pitched the event?

People just kept saying it’d never happen and that the NFL’s never gonna sanction a gospel event. The first two years, I partnered with the NFL’s Players’ Association because they were allowed to do public events back then. Then the NFL stopped them from doing events for the public and they called me because so many players were so embedded in and supportive of the event and said, “We’ve seen how much the guys love the event so we’re gonna sanction you.” I didn’t even know what a sanction was and that was in 2001. I came to understand the value of the intellectual property of the NFL’s brand and I was so young, I didn’t even know that people could just start using the name “Super Bowl,” just put it on your event and go.

It’s been a blessing because when we first started doing Super Bowl Gospel, there were numerous sanctioned events because the host committee could sanction back then and there were different levels of sanctioning. When Frank Supovitz, who was one of the senior vice presidents of the NFL, came over from the National Hockey League, he said, “We’re gonna get rid of the sanction program and the cream of the crop will rise to the top.” No one knew whether they would be able to keep their NFL sanction because he said only four groups would make the cut. Super Bowl Gospel made the cut, we kept our sanction and as of now, there are only two, maybe three sanctioned events around Super Bowl. We’re one of those three and I just feel immensely blessed.

Where did your love of gospel music come from?

It came from my parents and I grew up in the church. It’s just what I know. My mother was Baptist and my dad was A.M.E., but I grew up very heavily influenced by going to church with my mother and father. When I was little, my parents went to two separate churches because my grandparents were still alive on my mother’s side so she would want to take her parents to church. My sister would go with my dad and I would go with my mom but after my grandparents died, we all started going to church with my dad but we’ve always been lovers of gospel music. 

My mother  was a minister and she was a school teacher for many, many years but she got the call into ministry when it wasn’t popular for women to go into ministry. One of her sermons is actually in the Smithsonian Institute in the African-American division where she preached over in the Holy Land. That year, they had 100 women who they considered at the time to be some of the top women in ministry and they had them put their sermons in a time capsule. In a hundred years from that time, those capsules will be opened up and those women will be known as powerful women in ministry. 

In an interview with The Undefeated, you said that “faith and football are a natural combination.” How so?

When you look at all the different sports – basketball, hockey, tennis or whatever – there is something that’s uniquely different about football. Even if it’s not all guys, in any NFL game you go to on the side of the field and at the end of the game,there’s always gonna be a circle of guys from both teams that’re gonna get on that field, get in the circle and pray together. I think it starts in little league but there’s something immensely different about the NFL. From small children on up to adulthood, there’s something about the culture of football where the guys tend to be more open – and I’m not saying other guys are not faith-based – and football players tend to be more openly faith-oriented. I can’t speak to what that is other than it’s part of the culture. That’s why it’s so important to acknowledge that that is the case.

How did your marketing expertise assist in the foundation of your famous faith-based event?

It’s probably gonna age me a little bit but I literally did not plan to go into marketing. I had always wanted to be a reporter and it just did not happen for me. I ended up going to a job interview 30 years ago and it was when all of these big blue chip corporations had African-American marketing divisions. I got a job with RJR Nabisco and I went on tour with Anita Baker and Luther Vandross. I didn’t even know what I was doing but I was hired to be the marketing rep for the tour for the sponsor to make sure things were right. That’s what got me into multicultural marketing and I’ve been in this area for over 30 years now.

How I am able to translate it into what I’m doing with faith-based events, I go from servicing the client to “I am the client.” I know what I give and I’m the type of person who can’t sleep at night if I don’t give 100%. Sometimes that gives into my detriment and I won’t sleep for days because I don’t know how not to do 100%. I might not always be as successful as I would have wanted to be but I’m gonna fight to the death for success. That’s all I know. I guess you could say I take what I give. I turn some projects down because I found out that not all money is good money. If you’re not going to be able to give it 100%, you’re gonna burn a bridge along the way.

How did the pandemic impact your event execution?

It has been somewhat challenging because when the pandemic first started, I was in Tampa, FL and I was beginning to hear about the pandemic but you didn’t know how serious it was. I was on a site visit for Super Bowl and it really hit me while I was down there because I stayed with my cousins and they told me there was a breakout at the schools. I was gripped with fear and I was so scared at first and when I flew back to Atlanta, I probably had on four masks. Because my dad’s 93-years-old, I came back to stay with my dad but I realized that we have to lean on our faith and life has to go on. I’ve had a lot of friends that I’ve lost, who have lost both parents and it’s been a rough time. I think that’s why we came up with the theme of this year’s show, “Nothing Can Stop Us.” Before we get on calls, we pray and we talk it through because if God is for you, who can be against you? I think working like this in a pandemic has made me stronger than ever because it has put us in a position where we understand that all we can do as humans is what we can do but God can do anything.

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How have you seen gospel music be used as a healing tool?

There are people out there who may not listen to a sermon, may not go to church but one of the things I understand about gospel music is it’s not about religion. It’s about inspiration and it’s the feel-good messages of the music that let people know they can go on even in the middle of a pandemic. When I think about gospel music, Donnie McClurkin is one of my dear friends and I think he gave me the most profound understanding of what it means to sing gospel music. He told me that he goes over to Asia often to do these gospel music workshops and the first time he went, he thought he was just teaching 100 people but when he got there, there were 3,000 people to take this workshop. He had to immediately send for other singers and his sisters. 

I asked, “Donnie, how do they know what you’re saying?” because he didn’t speak the language. He said, “Melanie, they come up to me after class. They don’t even know what they’re singing or the lyrics until they’re told by a translator what the lyrics are.” He told me when he first did it in Japan, the Japanese would ask him, “What is this that I feel when I sing this music? I feel something that I’ve never felt before,” and they didn’t even know what they were saying. It’s something that you feel on the inside when people sing meaningful gospel music that you will not feel with any other genre.

What is the spiritual and emotional benefit of this event, considering the social and racial unrest impacting the Black community?

I’m super excited that on top of having these amazing singers, we have ten football players that are gonna be part of the show this year. We’re doing these meaningful testimonials, almost like itty bitty sermons where guys are talking about how nothing can stop them. Some of them are doing it from a spiritual perspective and some of them are doing it from an inspirational perspective. We’re living in times where people are struggling emotionally, financially, physically – people need to be encouraged and inspired. I don’t care if you’re a football player making $150M a year or a week, we’re all God’s children and we all need to be loved, inspired, encouraged. My mother used to say, “With God, there’s no respect of person,” because we’re all equal. 

If you look at Deshaun Watson, even though he has a $160M salary, when he was ten-years-old, he was homeless and he wrote to Habitat for Humanity and said, “will you help my mother get us a house?” They were living between homeless and public housing. That’s why Super Bowl Gospel’s gonna be so special this year because he wrote them, they wrote him back and his mother put in 3,000 community house to get them a Habitat for Humanity house. Ironically, the person who showed up to give him the keys was Warrick Dunn. Warrick Dunn is gonna be with us on Saturday night and he’s going to honor Deshaun Watson. That’s what people need to see.

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