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Label, Director Fight Over Gospel Choir

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Who owns God’s Property?

That issue is being contested in dueling lawsuits in federal court filed by the youth choir’s director and the record label that released the God’s Property debut album.

B-Rite Records and director Linda Searight have each staked a claim to the Dallas-based youth choir, which burst onto the pop charts last year and marked gospel as a commercial power. Now the original choir might break up before it even receives a royalty check.

A complaint filed Monday by B-Rite alleges that choir director Searight withheld cash payments from the group, then improperly replaced key members and tarnished the choir’s name following the release of its album “God’s Property From Kirk Franklin’s Nu Nation.”

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Searight “is ruining the goodwill we spent a lot of money to build up,” said B-Rite attorney Channing Johnson.

B-Rite wants to contract with members of the original choir directly, and its claim seeks both a court order to bar Searight from using the God’s Property name and an accounting of the proceeds from the Dallas-based group’s merchandise sales.

Monday’s claim comes in response to a lawsuit filed last month by Searight, who says she is owed $65 million in damages for the label’s alleged effort to undermine her stewardship of the choir.

Searight says she was induced into signing a one-sided contract without a lawyer and contends the record label turned her into a slave in violation of the U.S. Constitution.

“If someone can take your money without your consent, either the contract is illusory or you’re bound to indentured servitude,” said Joe Porter, Searight’s lawyer.

With the choir’s youth singers trapped between the label and their director, the legal dispute is writing a sad chapter in what had been gospel music’s biggest success story. God’s Property’s debut album has sold more than 2.7 million units and crossed over to the nation’s pop charts with a No. 3 ranking in its first week.

B-Rite says its contract with Searight was fair and that she was responsible for distributing to the choir members the cash advances it paid her. When she failed and the singers complained of having no money, the label paid them directly, Johnson said. All told, it has provided “hundreds of thousands of dollars” in advances and support, he said.

Because the label spent $3 million promoting the album and must recoup its expenses from the proceeds, Johnson said, it doesn’t owe the choir royalties yet.

Meanwhile, about 15 choir members have hired a lawyer to work out their contracts with the label.


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