Gospel Music: Living with the tension between Ministry and entertainment: Part 1 by Juliet Fletcher

I want to create a clear distinction. This article is directed at those who identify themselves with the prefix ‘gospel’ when it comes to their genre artistry. I know there are those who have a strong gospel root, are clearly Christian, but artistically are listed outside of gospel. Such artists – like Michelle John and Jahméne Douglas, for example – must be supported and have access to good guidance, as they are part of God’s purpose and plan to be influencers in the world of media, music, arts and entertainment.

But recognition under this term ‘gospel artist’ is critically important, as great opportunities continually open up to us in the heart of today’s challenging culture. For good reasons, therefore, I hope it becomes apparent as you read why I’m compelled to tackle this subject that’s bubbling under the surface of the lives of many in our scene: Why is there a tension between ministry and entertainment for gospel artists?

I often hear people say on stage: “I’m not here to entertain you, but to minister.” Yet someone may ask, since I’ve paid for my ticket to your concert or show, aren’t you meant to entertain me – at least in part? Why can’t an artist both minister and entertain – at the same time?

It’s absolutely impossible to have someone stand in front of you to sing or play, and not consider the quality of what they are doing. The currency transaction is this: If you like them, you’ll either pay to see them again, or you’ll buy their music. That’s the ‘simple exchange‘ in music industry terms. The ‘Divine Exchange’ is the add-on. As a gospel singer, I’m helping you to either become aware of God or encouraging you to express your emotion to God. I take you beyond the pleasure of artistic experience into the power of a spiritual experience with God/Jesus/the Holy Spirit.

Sometimes, the level of artistic excellence can be so high, it’s very close to a spiritual encounter – that is the power of artistry. However, the idea of engaging with the holy, sacred or divine through music and the arts, we believe, brings a higher purpose, greater demand and accountability.

So what is this ‘tension’? A mental or emotional strain that invariably has a negative impact. And how is it demonstrated? In the case of gospel artists or musicians, it is interpreted that the person’s motive is to either receive admiration or adulation from people, or only for monetary gain or fame and – at its worse – losing their faith and righteous standing with God.

This tension seems to be an occupational hazard – regardless of the level of success. It can affect an individual or a whole group or choir at any one time, and change their output or outlook.

LIVING WITH THE TENSION

Earlier in April this year, we were all deeply saddened to learn of the passing of Lavine Hudson (6th April 2017) aged 55 years. She was our first British gospel star. Lavine was a singer, songwriter and (though most of us didn’t realise) also a musician. She holds the achievement of signing the biggest lucrative record deal with Virgin Music, and found international success that was only curtailed when a debilitating illness robbed her of a long-term active career.

As I read interviews about Lavine’s life, I also recalled a particularly personal conversation with her during the time she was making her second album, ‘Between Two Worlds. The album features songs written and co-written with superstar Phil Collins of the pop group Genesis. It is quite ironic that this extract from an interview, conducted in 1991 with James Atlee, a journalist from Cross Rhythms music magazine, still proves so relevant to this piece.

The article is entitled ‘Lavine Hudson: A straight-ahead gospel singer trying to make sense of the pop/r’n’b world’ and it is prefaced with this introduction:

Britain’s most heavily promoted Black gospel singer, LAVINE HUDSON, talks to James Attlee about her humble beginnings, exciting present, and the tensions existing between rootsy church and glitzy showbiz…

JAMES ATLEE: There’s a clue to the tensions that a performer from Lavine’s background experiences in the music business in the tide of the album.

LAVINE HUDSON: It’s called ‘Between Two Worlds‘ because, coming from a church background that is very strict, and still being a gospel artist, but reaching out to a non-gospel audience, it causes a pressure on me; I’m constantly walking a fine line. The worlds are far apart, the church world and what we call the secular world. I’m in the middle, almost like a mediator… rooted in the Church, but reaching out to people who are not in the Church. Different churches have reacted differently to what I’m trying to do: traditional Black churches are a bit tough on it; they don’t give me their full support. More contemporary churches, like Kensington Temple and Victory Church, are 100 percent behind it. I have to hold to what I believe in, and not be manipulated by tradition, because a lot of tradition doesn’t stem from the Bible; it’s a lot of man-made laws on top of that.

“Some people from the gospel scene see me as ‘selling out’, because I find that, once you have exceeded their audience, they want to cling onto you; they want to hold you for themselves. If they can have you just singing to them in church, they’ll love you to death. Once they’re not controlling you, and you’re doing the same music, they’ll shy away from you. It’s tricky, but I’ve dealt with it.”

JAMES ATLEE: So would she still sing on a bill with some of her gospel peers?

LAVINE HUDSON: “Oh yeah, it depends on the concert… I still do a lot of church singing, Victory Church invited me to sing at their convention, and I went to sing… I don’t want to just be on a gospel bill, because it’s the same audience. I like to do gospel and reach a new audience, like when I supported Joe Cocker. I don’t see the point of always singing to the same gospel audience. A lot of them don’t understand that, but that’s the way I feel. My new album is still gospel, in that the root of what I’m trying to say is gospel, but it’s in a more contemporary form, so the people on the street can understand it.” END QUOTE.

It has been 18 years since Lavine did that interview, and its sad lessons still seem unlearnt. Then again, an understanding has to be repeated to each generation of artists, which is the aim of this article.

Here are more quotes from artists today, who shared with me their experience of living with the tension between ministry and entertainment:

LCGC are billed as Britain’s most celebrated gospel choir. Their principal Director and Founder is the charismatic Bazil Meade. Recognised in their own right, they have sung everywhere across the globe, and with probably every key celebrity entertainer you can name…

BAZIL MEADE: “Early in LCGC’s journey, I accept I felt the pressure of the tension. It distracted and at times caused a dysfunction, because I was struggling with it all. Now I don’t care what people say. There is no tension in ME, as I’m firm in where I know my, and the Choir’s, calling rests. Being in the entertainment environment is NOT for those who are NOT called to be there. I’ve learnt there are at least two types of artists: those who are the ‘Keepers of the Lord’s house and serve in His temple’ and there are those, like the Apostle Paul, called to go out and be ‘all things to all men…that I might save some’ (1 Corinthians 9:19-23). I think the Keepers of the Lord’s house suffer more from the tension.

You don’t change the message, but the method changes. Jesus told the disciples to fish outside of their traditional knowledge or comfort zone (Luke 5:4, John 21:6). We’ve seen the lives and the perspective of people’s minds changed through what we do. These seeds to sow is our work, but we cannot take any credit whatsoever for the fruit. That’s God’s work.”

World class, award-winning guitarist, Michael Brown, has been at the forefront of musicianship for more than two decades. He is renowned for his live and studio work, in and out of the gospel scene. He prefers to call himself a minstrel. Michael was hand-picked by master producer, Quincy Jones, to be in the band that played in his ONE NIGHT ONLY London performance in September 2014.

MICHAEL BROWN: “My journey was very specifically led by the Lord. It’s only in your relationship with, and by listening to the Holy Spirit that you prove God’s calling. He told me He had a special task for me to do. I kept seeking His face, and every time He told me not to play somewhere, I obeyed. Then one day, through certain connections I did not manufacture, I became the guitarist for the pop star George Michael’s band. It was one of many doors open to me to be that minstrel, as well as professional person to mainstream acts. When I play in any environment, I am placing those notes and sounds at a sonic level in a spiritual context. I toured and worked for more than ten years with George, and from the very first tour he requested me to lead prayers with him and the band before every performance. The conversations we had were oftentimes deep. It is a privilege for me to serve in this context.

I have seen people healed while I’m playing, or a prophetic word spoken that’s come to pass. It’s easy to perform and do guitar tricks, but it’s much harder to obey and play where you know the Lord has governed what you do. The tension for me is between my obedience to God or following myself. Living the godly lifestyle in front of those you work with in the music industry settings demonstrates the rest.”

Probably the most dynamic and vibrant contemporary gospel choir on the scene today, VOLNEY MORGAN & NEW YE have stamped their brand of British gospel full front and centre for the past five years. They performed as featured guests for BBC’s Gospel Proms last year, and more recently at the Premier Gospel Music Awards won Best Choir for the second year running.

VOLNEY MORGAN: “We don’t set out to entertain. That’s what we naturally do! A lot of people see us and may take it as entertainment, but that’s only the packaging. In the beginning, a lot of people thought that we were jumping and getting excited in the flesh. It was hard being misunderstood. But we persevered. I mean, if someone gave you your dream house, would you just say ‘Oh yeah’ in a nonchalant way, without a smile? No! You’d be jumping up and down like crazy. We are truly and genuinely excited about the Lord, what He has done, and what He will do for anybody who trusts Him. And we are stating that as clearly and as specifically as we can in the style of our exuberance. It’s not a pressure for us now. People like Tye Tribbett and Kirk Franklin have helped make it ‘the norm’. A lot of people know who we are now, and understand what our ministry’s about.

Those who want to merge ministry and entertainment, just stick at it and, if it’s really you, people will begin to love you for who you are. Our legacy is that we want people to be free to worship, free to dance, and free to have passion. The audiences we minister to, what they can’t understand spiritually they should be able to understand through the entertainment, because the Holy Spirit is empowering us.”

A CALL THAT RELEASES THE TENSION

I could have written twice the length of this article and still not end the expressions and experiences I garnered from talking to different people. Like thoughts from gospel singer, Dawn Thomas-Wallace, who emphasised to me the importance of having an authentic Holy Spirit-inspired performance that is backed by excellence – the entertainment value then takes care of itself; and journalistic commentator, Marcia Dixon, spoke of leaders who have genuine concerns about releasing talent from the Church into unsavoury environments. She feels there’s a real need to teach a theology that is practically applicable for all types of artists.

My conclusion

Firstly, we need to be confident when we use the prefix ‘gospel’ (singer, choir, group, etc). It should immediately put us at ease that we have identified ourselves and are identifiable. Confirmed in this calling of the Lord should provide us release from the tension that seeks to paralyse us or distract our focus. Secondly, whether a traditional artist or contemporary, within our own selves we must be bold with the assurance of our purpose, and go forward into any arena. Thirdly, ‘entertainment‘ is not a dirty word, and saying the word ‘ministry‘ doesn’t make you good. It’s hard, consistent work, undergirded by the powerful working of God. To quote our Lord: “By their fruits you will know them.” Fourthly, we must be persuaded that our lyrical and musical message provides a key to our physical performance, and concludes with a Christian lifestyle off stage. Fifthly, good spiritual covering and support will always help keep us aligned to our calling. Remember, others have trodden this path before.

Please feel free to make contact with me anytime. Watch out for part 2 in the next issue!

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