Nonfiction Gospel

Joseph Washington Jr., left, and James Arnold lead a cappella group Discipline.

At 27 years of age, Joseph Washington Jr. has already seen most of his ambitions, goals and aspirations come to fruition. The Houston native is a graduate of Texas Southern University. Before that, he served for six and a half months in Operation Desert Storm. Today, when he is not performing his duties as a supervisor of inventory at Budweiser, he is conceiving, writing and distributing African-American-themed greeting cards along with his partner, Austin Williams. Now Washington is embarking on a new venture. A venture that has him singing words of inspiration. A venture that has him working musically. A venture that has him needing discipline. In fact, that's what it's called: Discipline.

At its beginning, Washington's a cappella troupe called Discipline included ten people. Among others, there was Demetria Glover, a food inspector for the U.S. Army; Takeya Rogers, a 15-year-old who attends Nimitz High School; Thaddeus Smith, who works in airport security; and Jonathan Davis, a Texas native and former California resident, who's a dead ringer for popular R&B crooner Brian McKnight. But because of fallouts and prior commitments, many of the group members had to depart. The roster is now down to five. But there's still Discipline.

The whole endeavor got started last fall when Washington began speaking to Glover, who was stationed in Japan at the time, about a possible reunion of a singing group they once took part in. "I was talking to her on the phone," Washington says, "and I was telling her that I wanted to get the group back together, which we used to sing in at TSU."

Their talks led Washington to assemble the old group plus add some new members, including Antonio Thomas, Ericca Thompson and a University of Houston student/opera-singing waitress named Sharon Brown. He then wrote a song called "In Their Shoes," an unwaveringly uplifting number that Washington couldn't wait to lay on his friend over in the Far East. "I was calling Demetria constantly," he says, "and I left the song, the entire song, on her answering machine in Japan. That's how she learned it."

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Before Glover came back to Houston for holiday break, Washington performed and recorded the song ("It wasn't good singing, but it was, you know, me singing," he admits) along with keyboardist James Arnold Coates and gave copies to everyone else in the group so they could memorize it.

Despite the song's gospel-influenced lyrics, it is not reflective of the band's intent. The members are not willing to be known just as a gospel group. "We're really like an outreach group," Washington says. "We see some problems in society that maybe need to be dealt with, which you can touch a person with through song." Glover says: "Sometimes they call [the music] universal."

Washington wrote "In Their Shoes" with the intention of getting that universal appeal. The song's positive mix of fact and fiction is something Washington wanted to get across to people. "Well, a lot of the parts in the song are actually true," he says. "Like, if you look at the one on verse two." He clears his throat. " 'A humble man full of cheer / He was an honor student during his college years.' That's a friend of mine. He had diabetes throughout his childhood. But it really affected him during his sophomore year at college when he lost his sight. I wanted to include that in the song."

Washington then talks about other lines that are personal. "Another part of the song is about my goddaughter. She was born with one kidney. 'I pray for that precious little baby girl / Having only one kidney at birth into this world.' And a few friends I know, women going through divorces or whatever. I put that in and included that also. The song is actually almost like a story, a true story."

Although friends and family have given him material for the song, he does claim it was a higher power that moved him to write down those words. "I guess I would say [it was] a revelation from God, because I just started writing," he says. "I was writing unconsciously. I wasn't really thinking about any of these things. I wasn't concentrating on the words or whatever. I just started writing."

This isn't the first time Washington has written songs. He has written for some members of the group individually, including Glover. But for this song, he wanted all the top vocalists he knew personally to come together and perform something they could be proud of. "I want this song to really, like, bring out all the talent within this group that we have," he says.

Probably the most unusual thing about this crew of performers is that many of them have served in the military. Singers Damon Holland and Roshunda Jones have military experience, along with others in the group.

"We were all friends before we even joined the Army," Washington says. "So, you know, that played a part in me naming the group Discipline because of the fact that we all separated and went our different ways and most of it was off to the military. And, you know, having to deal with the military is a lot of discipline. And then, I figured to implement that in the group. To even do a song, that takes a lot of discipline."

The group (along with Coates's side chorus Reverence) has laid down the vocals and is looking to independently distribute the single on compact disc, along with two other tracks they are looking to record. Washington is in talks with a few local record stores to sell the single at their shops and is looking into radio stations to promote it. Washington and the gang promise they'll take a dollar from every CD that is sold and donate it to the Juvenile Diabetes Foundation or various children's hospitals. If the song is moderately successful, then they probably plan to work on a whole album. Brian McKnight doppelgänger Davis hopes that people will pick up on the group's music and message, and therefore give the group widespread attention.

"We haven't shopped it," Davis says. "We have plans to shop it. But we haven't had anybody that's gonna shop it for us or anything. We don't have a manager that could manage it or anything like that. We're just letting the Lord work his way through it and see how far we're gonna go with it."

In the end, the priority of the group and its head man Joseph Washington Jr. is just showing compassion and feeling through song, writing, in Washington's words, "a song that would touch hearts or whatever."

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