Sam Hailes interviews gospel artists on both sides of the Atlantic, and discovers an abundance of songs, albums and artists worth shouting about.
I’m talking to a Grammy Award-winning gospel artist on the phone from America. But that doesn’t narrow it down much. In the US, gospel music isn’t just tolerated, it’s celebrated. And that means plenty of writers and producers of Christian music have at least one Grammy to their name.
Today’s artist in question is Kierra Sheard. Her mother was one fifth of The Clark Sisters and her grandmother, Mattie Moss Clark, revolutionised gospel choirs in her role as Head of Music for COGIC US, the largest Black denomination in the US.
Kierra is hugely grateful to her ‘legendary’ family. She believes that the same gospel music that her family helped birth is set to increase in influence.
“Gospel music is going to be much bigger, and I’m looking forward to that. I love singing in churches, but I want to be able to sing in theatres and arenas, where there are people who don’t know Jesus Christ, and where their lives are changed by coming to a concert. That’s what I’m looking forward to.”
Kierra’s future vision isn’t as far-fetched as it sounds to British ears. The secular-sacred divide is being continually broken down in the United States. It’s a world where worship leaders win Grammys, and Kirk Franklin’s songs follow Usher’s on urban radio stations.
VaShawn Mitchell knows from experience the potential that gospel music holds. His unashamedly God-focused single, Nobody Greater, crossed over into the mainstream in 2011.
“Why did the song do so well?” I ask. “It’s the message,” he replies. “No matter where you were in the world, people started to see some type of calamity, loss of jobs, losing homes, and they needed that message of hope to point them back to the source.
“That song related to people in church and out of church, who just wanted to know that, regardless of what they saw, regardless of what they were going through, there is still a God who is bigger than that. The message was so huge I believe it had to go throughout denominations and cultures. It was one of those sounds that had to get out!”
Breaking through the somewhat serious mood, Pastor Charles Jenkins wants readers to know he “enjoys BBQ potato chips for Jesus’ glory” and is the “chocolate Michael Phelps…the drug free one”. His wife says he also has a spiritual gift of beat boxing.
As well as a cracking sense of humour, the pastor, entrepreneur and poet has an outstanding gift in music. His latest offering is called The Best of Both Worlds. The live recording has been very well received and praised for its diversity.
“It’s comprised of the best of traditional gospel music to get your hands clapping, feet stomping, blood pumping and, on the other side of the spectrum, praise and worship music, and it’s more ballad driven, more contemplative. The concept was to create simple, sing-able, theologically-sound music that could add to the catalogue of great gospel music.”
Aware of the power that music holds, Pastor Jenkins reveals how one song impacted Martin Luther King’s anti-war campaign.
“He was going in and out of churches and community events, talking about wanting to end wars and his commitment to non-violence. I understand he was booed as he went around giving talks and speeches, and Marvin Gaye came out with a song with exactly the same message called What’s Going On? Marvin Gaye’s song swept around the world and built this non-violent movement in a way that Martin Luther King’s speeches were not able to do.
“That story reaffirms in my mind the power of putting message to melody. The excitement and energy around music can be pointed in a positive direction that can bring about social good.”
New artist on the scene, Anita Wilson, agrees. “Music can make you feel all kinds of ways, so when you think about gospel music, the hope and intent is that you listen and hear that Jesus loves you and Jesus cares about you, and you feel good and better and uplifted when you listen to it.”
While she is “incredibly excited” and “all smiles” about her debut album, Anita is also aware of the dangers of being a singer. “I call it ‘when we believe our own hype,’” she smiles.
“The way I personally guard against it is I know that there are many singers who can sing much better than Anita Wilson. They may be prettier, thinner, so I know that it is the grace of God that gives me the platform to sing, minister, travel around the world and have this record deal. It’s a privilege; this is not something owed to me. I don’t get used to it. If someone wants a picture of me or an autograph, it freaks my mind out, like, you’re asking for MY autograph?”
While both the UK and US cultures share an obsession with celebrity, they couldn’t be more different when it comes to the prevalence of gospel music. Myron Butler hasn’t just worked with big names, such as Smokie Norful and Kirk Franklin; he’s a best selling artist in his own right. What does he think about the apparent disconnect between US and UK gospel?
“We (in America) have all of these things at our disposal, like awards ceremonies, that we take it for granted sometimes. When I’ve gone abroad, I’ve noticed a passion to understand more about the gospel music industry.
“When I was in London, I was at a small nightclub that they had used as a venue to have a gospel programme on a Sunday night, and people there had such a desire and a passion.”
Perhaps the UK is where the US was 20 years ago: dreaming about the day when gospel music would be taken as seriously as mainstream music? One of the UK’s most well-known gospel artists disagrees.
“What US Gospel is doing now, UK Gospel was doing in the 80s, and that’s a fact,” Muyiwa states confidently.
“I know of the times when Richard Branson personally authorised the signing of an artist with full artistic control, with enough money in the bank not only to start a nice life, but also to travel to America, and work with writers and producers. I know of a time when UK Gospel had its own TV show, that had a light entertainment budget, not a religious budget, but on one of the terrestrial channels in this country.
For Muyiwa, the problem isn’t lack of artists or musicians. “We’ve got enough artists making music till Jesus comes back!” he says, only half joking. With the right marketing and promotion, he believes the UK could follow the US in seeing gospel music go mainstream again.
With the UK being a much smaller market than the US, Muyiwa highlights the power the Church could have over the charts. He points out that it would only take a handful of churches to unite in buying a gospel album, to make it hit the Top 10 of iTunes.
But, rather than getting songs into the charts for the sake of it, Muyiwa wants to see the music changing lives.
“My ultimate isn’t crossover,” he says. “My judgment of success isn’t seeing a gospel song in the charts. That’s not how I judge success, because of course you can have a gospel song in the charts that’s making no difference to people’s lives. My judgment of success is a song that’s doing the mission that we’ve been given to spread the Good News.”
That mission is one that plenty of British people are taking seriously. Enter Black Grape Records – an entertainment company which started in a university bedroom, and now promotes up-and-coming gospel artists, such as Divine Divine – a new group recognised as having huge potential after they won the first ever Time 2 Shine talent search.
Preacher Boy Entertainment, which promotes Jahaziel and New Direction Crew, is another example of UK Christians taking the initiative in getting new music out to the masses.
Popular UK Gospel artist, Noel Robinson, wants to see greater cohesion between churches and artists. He points out that movements often have a worship leader who backs them. Gerald Coates’ Pioneer had Noel Richards leading worship. Mike Pilavachi and Soul Survivor raised up worship leaders such Tim Hughes and Matt Redman.
Noel would not only like to see this kind of collaboration within the gospel music world as pastors work with worship teams, but he also wants to see greater unity between Christians of different denominations and backgrounds.
“My remit is that I believe we need to work together. In this country, we have an opportunity to do something brand new that’s very Kingdom – where worlds meet.
“There has to be some place where the world looks at the Church and goes, “Oh my gosh, look at all those Spanish people, look at all those Portuguese, Africans, Caribbeans, English, the nationalities, the Black and the White, the Church of England, the Pentecostal Church; there’s a place they come together.
“There’s a whole generation that needs to be empowered. In this season, I believe there’s something more God wants to do with the bride of Christ.”
Music has power in itself, so it’s not surprising to hear Noel get excited about what can happen when songs are accompanied with Gospel power. If gospel music continues to have greater impact on both sides of the Atlantic, then the potential for greater Church unity, greater evangelistic outreach and greater Kingdom building could be unlimited.
And, on a grassroots level, a new social media campaign could well help push gospel music out to a wider audience. The Worth Shouting About Facebook (facebook.com/worthshouting) and Twitter (@worthshouting) pages aim to link the UK Church with top gospel resources. Anyone can join and recommend products, and the creators are hoping the resource will help to grow interest in Christian music, both inside and outside of the Church.