Ministers of Sound: Exploring spirituality through beats

Leave it to a preacher’s kid to find the similarities between a nightclub and a church. According to Atlanta-based spoken word artist and music and cultural events promoter Kemi Bennings, a sanctuary filled with shouting, joy-filled worshippers isn’t much different from a nightspot packed with jumping, dancing partygoers. The fact that a Sunday service is usually led by an ordained minister is a matter of semantics because, as far as she’s concerned, the way a DJ rocks a party is no different from a pastor inspiring his flock. “In parallel to a spiritual leader or preacher, DJs are ministers in music ... Empowering and inspiring loyal congregations,” Bennings says. “The power they have, the power it exudes can sadden you, and it can lift your mood.”

Bennings philosophy holds special significance in Atlanta, a city where nightlife plays a vital economic, social, and cultural role, and where DJs often bypass promoters and traditional nightclubs to create and produce their own highly trafficked brand of events. Look no further than DJ Kemit’s Spread Love, DJ Stan Zeff’s Tambor, and Salah Ananse’s Sunday School, for starters.

Which brings us to Bennings’ latest project, Ministers of Sound. This one-night photography exhibition, slated to take place at the Sound Table on Feb. 24, is a visual celebration of Atlanta’s DJ culture. The images on display depict more than 30 of Atlanta’s most well-known turntable maestros, including Apple Jac, Cha Cha Jones, Rasta Root, Mafioso, Tabone, Kai Alce, Mike Zarin, and more, posed in a variety of costumes, including monk frocks, pope-style hats, and choir robes, each reflecting the spiritual nature of spinning sounds that keep the dance floor moving.

Bennings says her late father, the Rev. Hardy S. Bennings Jr., who served as the associate pastor at Springfield Baptist Church in Augusta until he passed away in 2008, sparked her original idea for the exhibit. “Through the healing process, after his death, I started to think: If DJs were ministers and the pulpit was the DJ booth, and the playlist was the message, how do you move the crowd?” Bennings asks.

To bring the project to life, she collaborated with music photographer Annette Brown, who has built a career capturing images of artists like Killer Mike, Jermaine Dupri, and more. Initially, the idea for Ministers of Sound was to snap documentary-style shots of local record jocks, but the notion to dress the subjects in religious-themed attire evolved over time. “We started shooting DJs, but it was about the twelfth DJ we shot, Talib Shabazz, when it was suggested that we wardrobe the DJs,” Bennings says. “Then the project took on a new life and gained a whole lot of depth and meaning, particularly for each DJ. What we did was pull up their spiritual root and see what moves them.”

Along with the still images, Ministers of Sound will screen a video featuring candid interviews, conducted by Bennings, spotlighting various DJs featured throughout in the show. Attendees can also expect to be “baptized” by music from some of the same DJs as they man the wheels of steel that night. Ultimately, Bennings hopes that people who visit the show will leave feeling enlightened, and with a deeper understanding of what moves the folks who move the crowd. “It’s just like when people go to church,” she says. “You go to church to be fed, for fellowship, to be moved and inspired and touched ... spiritually. I hope in that same vein, people are inspired,” she adds. “And for people who may not even know the DJ culture, to have a renewed sense of who these DJs are and how they serve the community.”