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Alex Fine

Can gospel music survive the rise of hip-hop?

Tradition is losing out as different expressions of praise and worship overtake traditional gospel music and choirs

Right now, the 51st Annual Convention of the Gospel Music Workshop of America is being held in Atlanta. The hot topic? The state of gospel music. A cross section of people from the gospel community — including pastors, ministers of music, artists and church musicians — will try to get a sense of the impact of gospel music on today’s culture from three perspectives: the music, the message and the musicians.

Looking at the balance of tradition versus innovation in the styles of recorded gospel music and music performed in church has led them to ask whether the underlying message of gospel has changed, and what is the impact of that on the culture.

Tradition vs. innovation

Recording artist Donald Lawrence performs onstage at the 2016 McDonald’s Inspiration Celebration Gospel at Changing A Generation Full Gospel Baptist Church on Aug. 19, 2016, in Atlanta.

Paras Griffin/Getty Images

There has been a historic tension in the black church between the music and the musicians who it birthed. At different points in time, musicians were ostracized from the church for playing new styles of music that were deemed inappropriate. Often, these musicians picked themselves up from the proverbial curb of the church from which they were just kicked and took those new styles into the secular world.

Over time, these innovations were eventually accepted and invited back into the church, creating a pathway between the church and the secular music world and popular culture.

Steven Ford, a Grammy, Dove and Stellar award-winning musician, composer, arranger and producer, has worked with a who’s who list of gospel artists and has contributed to nearly 100 recording projects. During his tenure in the gospel industry, he has seen constant change.

“Gospel music is ever-changing. It’s always evolving. What I heard 10 years ago is different in the church now, but it’s still called gospel music. You can’t put it in a box,” he said.

In the continuum of gospel music that starts with the Negro spiritual and goes through a lineage that includes Thomas Dorsey, Roberta Martin, James Cleveland, Andrae Crouch, Edwin Hawkins and Kirk Franklin, is there a tradition of sound that needs to be codified and preserved for future generations or should the innovation just be allowed to move forward without any regard for a tradition?

Grammy and Stellar award-winning producer and artist Donald Lawrence sees himself as a part of a proud tradition of an unbroken line of gospel musicians who came before him while also finding inspiration from outside of gospel.

“From traditional to contemporary, you still could hear elements [of a tradition]. From contemporary to urban, you still could hear elements of where it came from,” he said. “I was inspired by [Andrae] Crouch and [Edwin] Hawkins. Crouch was inspired by [James] Cleveland and Hawkins was inspired by The Caravans, and they were inspired by people before them. And also, Hawkins was inspired by pop writers, and the same with me. I was inspired my musical theater writers and [also] by Luther [Vandross]. But when you start going a little more like rock-driven, it kind of erases that.”

The rock-driven aspect of gospel music that Lawrence is referring to is not rock ’n’ roll per se. What he is speaking of is the underlying chord structure that is contained in much of today’s gospel, particularly music from the praise and worship movement. The harmonies come out of chords that are rock-based, as opposed to the traditional blues-infused gospel tradition.

Praise and worship movement

Judith McAllister is often referred to as “The First Lady of Praise and Worship.” She has served for more than 17 years as worship leader at the West Angeles Church of God in Christ in Los Angeles under the leadership of Bishop Charles E. Blake Sr. She is the church’s executive director of the music and worship department and in 2009 was appointed to the office of minister of music/president of the international music department.

Under the leadership of Blake, McAllister, along with Patrick Peterson, began the praise and worship movement at West Angeles in the late 1980s.

“At that time, we as African-Americans were not singing that type of music in our churches,” she said. “We were singing more of the spiritual and devotional songs and we needed to be ‘zapped’ by the spirit to dance, to lift our hands or to rejoice. But this [movement] was now more of an at-will or I will, as the Scripture says, kind of worship.”

The praise and worship movement has spread like wildfire throughout the black church over the past 30 years. One of the unintended consequences of the movement was a decline in traditional choirs in some churches in favor of smaller praise and worship teams.

Decline in choirs

Singer Richard Smallwood performs onstage during BET Celebration of Gospel at Orpheum Theatre on March 15, 2014, in Los Angeles.

Jason Kempin/Getty Images for BET

Grammy, Dove and Stellar Award-winning composer, arranger and artist Richard Smallwood laments the decline of the traditional gospel choir in today’s gospel music. Smallwood sees the increase of smaller praise and worship teams as a more efficient and less cumbersome music ministry option for many churches.

“It’s easier to work with the smaller praise team configurations than it is to work with a choir, and much of the music that those type of ensembles are singing are a lot easier to teach and learn for the singers,” he said. “Working with a choir and teaching them the intricacies of the music is harder, but it is also more rewarding.”

Alyn E. Waller, senior pastor of the Enon Tabernacle Baptist Church in Philadelphia, is a trained musician who aspired to become a professional musician before heeding the call to ministry. The Stellar Award nominee regularly ministers through song with the Enon Tabernacle Mass Choir and as a soloist. He contrasts the music of a traditional gospel choir to that of smaller contemporary gospel groups of today.

“We’ve become almost monolithic in our expression musically,” Waller said. “Sometimes when you hear a traditional gospel choir from a black university come and do a concert where the first half is spirituals and the second half is contemporary gospel, you can hear how dumbed down the music has become, from four- or five-part harmonies to three or even a single line. The imagery that’s painted with the words is not as beautiful as it was, and the ties to Scripture [are not as strong]. There are some very famous songs now that are theologically horrendous.”

Innovation leads to imitation

The Roots keyboardists James Poyser (left) and Kamal Gray during a taping of The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon on Sept. 22, 2011.

Lloyd Bishop/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images

Looking back over the past 30 years since the beginning of the praise and worship movement, McAllister senses another change coming in gospel music. “As it was then [in the late ’80s], so it is now. I think we have reached an impasse because everyone is doing the same thing,” she said. “I think there is coming a new sound, a new technique that everyone will now gravitate to. Everything is really starting to sound the same.”

Like McAllister and Waller, Lawrence also senses a similar stagnation in the music.

“To me, gospel music today has become a little monolithic; a lot of it is the same. This is the first time I have really seen this,” he said. “Gospel has always been about a diversity of brands or sounds. It’s never been one message, one sound. It was always one message with multiple sounds. Commerce has pushed a lot of the newer artists to be one message, one sound.”

This phenomenon isn’t unique to gospel music. James Poyser, a member of the hip-hop band The Roots, sees a similar trend in music in general. Poyser, a pastor’s kid, got his start playing in church and took that experience and branched out. He is now a fixture on the hip-hop and rhythm and blues scene. “Everything is becoming homogenized,” he said. “Everything is starting to sound the same. Everybody has the same [computer music] programs and are using the same sounds. They all communicate with each other, and because of the internet, everything is readily available. Gospel music is just following the trend of popular music.”

Diversity of music worship

While recorded gospel music may be facing a challenge of diversity of sound, some pastors are embracing the entire continuum of the black music tradition to reach their congregations.

Todd Townsend has been pastoring at the Resurrection Center in Wilmington, Delaware, for nearly 20 years. The church will celebrate its 126th anniversary this year. Townsend has a doctorate in family therapy and doctorate of education in educational leadership, and a few years ago he added a gospel rap album to his résumé.

“I always loved music, all forms of music. Poetry has always been important to me, but I never really thought to put the two together,” he said.

One day his minister of music asked him to sing a song. Because he doesn’t really sing, he reluctantly agreed, if the minister of music would agree to coach him. He actually never sang that song, but it led him to do some writing and put some poetry to beats. His musicians liked what he came up with and invited him into the studio, and seven months later he had his first album and a whole new set of passions.

This passion has opened up new doors and has made his church relevant to a whole new generation of worshippers.

“We keep all variables available because every generation is relevant. From our oldest elder who wants the hymns like Precious Lord, we have that. We have cafes where we will have a jazz vibe. And then for the young people who have an appetite for hip-hop, we also have that,” he said. “Our responsibility as an institution is our loyalty to the gospel message. We create those options for people. It’s a lot of fun and innovative, but it’s also risky. I received some critical feedback from rapping. After the first album came out, I had people tell me, ‘You got 20 years of experience and faithful service. You’re a solid preacher. Why do you want to throw all that away?’

“I processed that and decided to weather the storm. As I continued on the road and grew as an artist and my material got better, they saw that I am still the same guy that I always was. The critics began to turn, and now they say don’t stop. As a matter of fact, they say, why don’t you come to my church.”

One message, many sounds

Rev. Alyn Waller of Enon Tabernacle Baptist Church performs at Dell Music Center in Philadelphia on Aug. 2, 2012.

Mychal Watts/WireImage

While the styles of gospel music have evolved over the years, the thing that truly distinguishes it from other genres is the message.

Regardless of the style of music, most everyone agrees that in order for it to truly be considered gospel music, the message has to be clear, consistent and Christ-centered.

As a musician and a pastor, Waller understands the power of the message in gospel music.

“Gospel music has always helped us to be prophetic, meaning to critique the present ideology, speak truth to power and, where power has no clue, offer a more imaginable social future — which is hope,” he said. “Whether it has beats to it or no beats, the essence of gospel music is the hope of the gospel of Jesus Christ.”

In some instances, commercial forces have conspired to compromise the message of gospel music. In an effort to gain a wider audience, some artists have decided not only to go for a more homogenized sound but also to water down the message, making it unclear whether the song is truly about God.

Ford has seen this phenomenon at work firsthand.

“The gospel music industry has changed in order to promote sales. Will the artist be willing to make changes for sales?” he asked. “In other words, I’m going to change you from your style and your message to the current thing that is selling. If you do that, then to me, you’re selling out. You’re changing for the consumer. If you’re going to be true to gospel music and what is being sung in church on Sunday morning, then that message can’t change. That’s why we have people today saying, ‘I’m a little confused. Is that gospel or is that something else?’ ”

Even with the right words, the true impact of the music may be lost if there is a disconnect between the words of the song and the life being lived by the artist.

“Many have departed from the true tenets of what gospel music is. Gospel is the good news. To live what the good news says has been something that in my estimation has become increasingly scarce,” said McAllister. “If those who are playing, singing and ministering the music don’t have the power that makes the music come alive, then you will have wonderful ear candy but no impact on a generation.”

Musicians: the salt and the light

Kirk Whalum performs at Fair Grounds Race Course on April 26, 2015, in New Orleans.

Erika Goldring/Getty Images

Jazz and R&B saxophonist Kirk Whalum has spent most of his career playing secular music. He’s played and toured with the likes of Whitney Houston and Vandross, but like many black musicians in popular music, he grew up playing in the church. His son plays bass for Kelly Clarkson, and his nephew plays saxophone with many R&B and pop artists, including D’Angelo and Beyoncé.

Whalum estimates that up to 90 percent of the black musicians playing secular music today came out of the church, and for the younger generations of church musicians like his son and nephew, he offers some sage advice.

“I challenge some of these kids who come out of the church to serve God out in the mainstream industry, but kind of be stealth [about it],” he said. “You don’t have to come straight out and say that I’m a Christian. All you are really called to do is to live a life for Christ that draws people to the cross and at the very least to cause people to be curious about you and wonder what it is about you that makes you tick.”

McAllister has a cadre of supremely talented musicians in her employ at West Angeles who perform with the latest sensations of pop, R&B and hip-hop. She has set a high bar of expectation for her musicians and church musicians in general.

“Church musicians have an obligation when they go out into the world to be salt and light,” she said. “Salt does not become effective until it gets into an area of decay, and light does not become effective unless it goes into darkness. I have no problem with collaborations [with secular artists] as long as you can go in and change the environment and not allow the environment to change you.”

Rev. John Ray Jr., minister of worship and arts at Light of the World Christian Church in Indianapolis, sees a troubling trend with gospel music and musicians.

“Some black church music and musicians have forgotten that Christians are called to walk a tightrope,” he said. “We are walking the thin line between being in this world and not of it. God’s standards are not those of this world, but we are called to make it so. When we engage the world, we are to represent Christ and his way, not the other way around. This is true for music as well.”

Ray believes that this capitulation to the world by gospel music and musicians is exemplified in Snoop Dogg’s recent release, Bible of Love. “It is emblematic of where we are when a secular rapper who firmly espouses the values of the world [both before and after the release of the record] can decide to record a gospel album and it becomes No. 1 on the gospel charts.”

Christian hip-hop or gospel rap?

Christian hip-hop or gospel rap has been around commercially since the early 1980s. As a subgenre, it has not received anywhere near the traction, acclaim or influence of traditional urban gospel music. One of the reasons is that hip-hop was not born of the church but owes its roots to the streets of the black inner city and as such is often associated with the negative aspects of those streets and neighborhoods.

Jamel “Jkeyz” Richardson, a songwriter and producer who is also a member of the music ministry at the Resurrection Center, says Christian hip-hop faces an uphill battle because of the inability of some churches and Christians to have an open mind.

“Because hip-hop has produced music and lyrics about death, drugs and destruction, it’s hard for some people to accept and hear good news coming from someone using the same music,” he said.

Richardson has worked with and produced many Christian hip-hop artists, including John Cook, Canton Jones, Iz-Real and S. Todd (Bishop Townsend). He believes that artists like these as well as artists like Lecrae, Andy Mineo and KB may be able to reach a generation for Christ more effectively than traditional gospel artists would.


The Second Baptist Church of Washington, a historically black church that’s 160 years old, celebrates on the first Sunday after Barack Obama’s presidential election victory on Nov. 9, 2008. Choir members (from left) Mary Terrell, Grace Davis, Vernelle C. Hamit, Lena Bradley and Sharon Bradley belt out a tune during service.

Katherine Frey/The Washington Post/Getty Images

The black church has had an extraordinary impact on American culture. So much of the music that the world has enjoyed over the past 75-plus years is a direct result of music and musicians who have come out of the church.

According to Ford, the world is reaping the benefits of the gifts of the black church.

“The church world doesn’t really realize how powerful they really are in terms of the arts [and culture],” he said. “When you talk about Bruno Mars, Jay-Z and so many others, I know their musical directors. They all come from the church. So whether we want to celebrate it or not, they are products of the church. And so the church has actually made the world successful because you have trusted what has come out of the church regardless of whether you agree with their philosophy or religion.”

Economic, social and technological factors have affected the way music is developed, marketed and consumed. Gospel music is not immune to those pressures, particularly in the gospel music industry. However, the black church as an institution has the power and the ability to profoundly affect the culture with the continuum of music and musicians that has given birth to going out into the world as “salt and light.”

Ford wants to make sure the music and musicians who go out into the world from the church find a way back home.

“Musicians and artists who start out in the church, they get their foundation. They get their chance to stand out, to perform, and then they go out and become ‘famous’ and financially secure,” he said. “For them to be able to complete the full circle, they need to be able to come back to the community and help the community. I feel in the church that should be the goal of what church musicians or church artists are doing. Whether or not everyone does it, that’s something different.”

A homecoming of sorts will help ensure that the pathway created between the church and the secular world continues to be a two-way street with most of the impact and change coming from the church.

Waller recognizes the power of black music to do good and evil along that two-way street.

“There’s power in music. There’s power in the good news of Jesus Christ. There’s power in our type of music, meaning the tonalities that come out of the crash of African and European musicalities that is something that is very American, very special, very powerful, very appealing, and because of that we need to nurture it, use it to inspire.

“We need to recognize how powerful lyric is on top of that. When we get the right [or wrong] lyric on top of good music, it can inspire people to do good or do evil. [Much of the music of the world has a] lyric [that] lacks depth, insight and the prophetic, and so what we want to do is tie the two, because the right lyric with the right music will last forever.”

Andre Kimo Stone Guess is a writer and cultural critic from the Smoketown neighborhood in Louisville, Kentucky. He was VP and Producer for Jazz at Lincoln Center in New York and CEO of the August Wilson Center for African American Culture in Pittsburgh. He is the president of GuessWorks, Inc. He also writes for his family website educated-guesses.com and CultureofChrist.org.