And the Winner Is….
Persistence and faith took Evvie McKinney from background singing to the winner of The Four
by Candace Y.A. Montague
Photographed Exclusively for A&U by Sean Black
On February 18, 2018, the first season of the Fox network, primetime singing competition The Four: Battle for Stardom was coming to a close. Four finalists had performed their hearts out hoping to be win a spot in the iHeartMedia’s “On the Verge” artist development program, receive coaching from the industry’s top producers and get their music airplay across iHeartMedia radio stations. It was a rapid competition with only eight episodes airing on Thursday nights. As Diddy announces “the winner of this challenge is,” Evvie McKinney’s face is stoic. When her name is announced, she folds over and cries. She made it. Evvie was the winner of season one.
What was behind those tears? What has she endured at just 21 years of age? Evvie McKinney is a rising star who doesn’t mind paying her dues and gladly gives credit where it’s due.
“It’s in my blood”
Evvie McKinney was born the youngest of seven children on June 27, 1998, in Memphis, Tennessee. She’s a proud Southern belle who beams with pride when she mentions growing up there with that sweet Southern twang. She describes her mother, Maria McKinney, as a strong woman who reared her children as best she could. Her father was a gospel and blues singer named Tony McKinney. In spite of his battles with drug addiction, Evvie fondly remembers him being the rock of her family who kept her focused on her faith. “My dad struggled with drug addiction but he was always a believer. So he instilled faith in me from when I was a little girl. When I was four or five years old I would sit on his lap. He would ask me ‘who you love?’ And I would say ‘you’. But he would ask me again and again until I said Jesus first and then him.” Tony McKinney died on December 30th, 2005. Evvie says losing her dad deeply affected the McKinney family, “it was kind of like a halt was put on everybody’s lives. Everything was different and it would be for the rest of our lives. Still, to this day, I cry when I think about him. I think about him every day.”
Although the McKinney family struggled there were two constants in their midsts: God and music. Evvie grew up singing in the church. Her brother Gedeon had a band called Gedeon Luke and the People which Evvie frequently joined in on. Gedeon says that Evvie has always been a benevolent girl with big dreams. “Evvie was always an open minded person. She always listened to all of her sisters and brothers. That’s probably why she was so successful. Growing up she was very sweet, very smart, focused. She always knew what she wanted.” Coming from a household where talented people sang and played instruments, Evvie was destined to be on stage. “It’s in my blood,” she exclaims.
Made in Memphis
Evvie’s hometown is a fascinating dichotomy: a playground for entertainment and a battleground for justice. Memphis, Tennessee, is a city where blues, jazz and rock and roll intersect. A city along the Mississippi River that houses Graceland, the Rock and Soul Museum and the famous Beale Street where music serenades the crowds daily. Memphis is also a municipality steeped in Black history. The National Civil Rights Museum is hosted at the Lorraine Motel, the site of the assassination of civil rights icon Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
The McKinney family started life in Orange Mound, a neighborhood in southeast Memphis. It was the first neighborhood in Memphis built for and by African Americans. Crime, drugs and blight stunted the community’s growth during the 1980s and 1990s. But in the 2000s Orange Mound started rebounding.
In 2001, when Evvie was five years old, her mother wrote a 500-word essay to Habitat For Humanity to apply for a home. Her wish was granted just as the family was being evicted from their place in Orange Mound. The McKinneys moved to Nutbush, a neighborhood located in north Memphis. Evvie recognizes that her living situation was less than ideal but it never shook her faith. “I grew up in the projects. I grew up in the hood. But one thing my family has always acknowledged is the word of God.”
From “no” to The Four
Evvie was no stranger to the competition circuit by the time she auditioned for the show. She had tried to get on The Voice, American Idol and The X Factor multiple times. Her mother would drive her from tryout to tryout hours away from home. “I would get all the way through the process to the point where they put you in front of the camera and record your audition. But I always got a ‘no’,” she recollects. In August 2017, while she was touring with Frayser Boy and Boo Mitchell, a family friend called her and asked her to try out for this new show called The Four. She was weary of competitions by this point but decided to give it a shot. “He connected me to this executive producer named Nicole Marion. We talked on the phone. She gave me the concepts of the show. She said if you’re interested send over some videos. So when I got back to Memphis I recorded some videos and sent them in. And I never heard back from her.”
The tour continued on and Evvie moved right along with it not giving another thought about The Four. In November 2017,the Frayser Boy tour went on break and Evvie returned to Memphis. Shortly after returning home, the tour manager called Evvie and told her they couldn’t afford to bring her back on the show when it started again. “I was telling him I had put two months aside for the show. I couldn’t book any other gigs because I already booked these months with them. And he was telling me that he couldn’t even afford to pay me. So how was I supposed to pay my bills for January and February.” She was devastated but not defeated. Evvie continues, “Let me tell you how God works. When I got off the phone with him she emailed me and asked me to send some videos in. Baby, I put on my makeup, I put that camera on and I did those auditions for her. And she said ‘ you are amazing. I am presenting you tomorrow to the executive producers of the show.’ And when she said that I kept praying because I knew that God was taking me into something that was farther than what I could see or understand. But I knew that if He brought me to it He can bring me through it.”
Her adhesion to her faith paid off in a big way. Days later she received a plane ticket to Hollywood to audition in person. After returning home, she received the call. “My producer called me and said “pack your bags. You’re going to Hollywood.’”
She came in on the fifth episode and gave an “electric” performance in front of Sean Diddy Combs, DJ Khaled, Meghan Trainor, and Fergie. “They saw something in me. They really enjoyed it. Whenever I feel like I’m going through something I remember where God has brought me. Sometimes a ‘no’ isn’t really a no for good. It’s just a no for right now. So if God gives you a ‘yes’, can’t nobody say no. No matter how much they want to God will always come through for you. You just have to believe and keep the faith.”
Heroes in the struggle
Memphis has certainly not been missed by the HIV epidemic. According to AIDSVu.org there were 6,202 people living with HIV in 2016 in the city, eighty-four percent of whom were Black. Black females are 13.8 times more likely to be living with HIV in Memphis than White females. The state of Tennessee has very strict rules surrounding sex education in schools. Sex education must stress abstinence and can only host limited discussions about contraception and sexually transmitted disease prevention. A law passed in 2012 that allows parents to sue instructors who stray from the abstinence curriculum. Evvie says she learned about HIV in health and wellness class during her high school years. They learned about condoms. Her biggest takeaway from that class was learning to just “be careful.”
As a performer on the lineup for the Black AIDS Institute’s annual Heroes in the Struggle Awards Ceremony in December 2018, Evvie learned much more about HIV and the people who live with it every day. “When I went to the AIDS benefit I heard so many stories about how people who had HIV and so many testimonies. One thing that really touched me was that they all had kinda the same story about how people treated them because of something they had. It really touched my soul,” she recalled. She said she felt inspired that night. “These are people who are living with something that could possibly kill them. But God is making a way for them. Those are some very strong and special people. Just being there in that atmosphere and taking in all the information that I heard about the black community having HIV and AIDS and a lot of people having it and they don’t know. It really inspired me.”
Gedeon Luke describes his sister as a big person. “She loves God and she loves people. Her main focus is Jesus Christ and she’s always looking after her neighbor. Her neighbor is anyone who comes to her. She is very generous.” Her positive spirit seems to draw in the audience. But it’s her love for God that empowers her and she thinks all women should share that same spirit. “Women’s empowerment starts by knowing that you are loved by God first and foremost. We have to be careful with comparing ourselves to other women. You don’t know what kind of insecurities they have or what they’ve been through. But look at yourself in the mirror and say God chose me to look the way I look, have the hair I have, the eyes I have, the lips I have. I am fearfully and wonderfully made in Jesus’s name.”
Evvie has had strong, effective female role models in her life starting with her mother. She’s also admired trailblazing female singers like Aretha Franklin, Tina Turner, and the Staple Singers. Evvie may be young in age but her mindset is old school. She boldly explains how gender roles make women dynamic. “It wouldn’t be no world if it weren’t for women. God gave things to a woman that he didn’t give to a man. The man pays the bills. He is the provider. He makes sure everything is all right. We make sure that everyone is okay. We cook and clean. We have the children. We give birth to the nation. We are the nurturers.”
Family is also something that empowers Evvie to go on in her pursuit of her dreams. She says that although they may not all be in Hollywood with her they keep her grounded from afar. “We are a very spiritual family. My mother and grandmother have been soldiers for Jesus for a long time. They know the word of God. They send me scriptures. They pray for me. They call me. They know that I am on a vigorous path. They remind me of God’s grace.”
Her first album is in the works. A release date is unknown for now but Evvie is working hard in the studio and accepting her new life in Hollywood gracefully. Her confidence and self-awareness are unfailing. “Me being a twenty-one-year-old Black woman I’m learning that no one will believe in Evvie the way Evvie believes in Evvie. I can call DJ Khaled or Diddy, or Meghan but if I don’t believe in me that’s when it gets dangerous.”
One thing is for sure: the lady has grit. And now that her foot is in the door she won’t quit until the world knows who she is and what she stands for. Get ready for Evvie rising.
Follow Evvie on Instagram and Twitter @evvie_music.
Hair/Make-up: Juan Alan Tamez @boomkackmua.
Candace Y.A. Montague is an award-winning freelance journalist based in Washington, D.C. Her work has been featured in a number of print and online publications including The Washington Post and The Washington City Paper. Follow her on Twitter @urbanbushwoman9.