British Gospel is as ‘old’ as the first generation of Black-led churches, which makes our living history at least sixty – yes, 60 – years old!
This made me think about the scale of change I’ve witnessed since I was a young girl. Often we write our history in terms of an individual’s achievement, which is right, great and necessary. But how about a history that reflects the impact gospel music has had on different spheres in our society – social, civic, as well as the cultural and commercial marketplace? In other words, if we had the ability to fast forward twenty-five years into the future, what kind of evidence would we see to describe the good that gospel music has brought to the bigger picture of life in Britain?
My brief ‘rough guide’ attempt to answer this question is demonstrated in three areas: education, community and entertainment. All three of these involve reaching mass audiences, audience participation and engaging the minds of the public.
Gospel Music in the Education System
Gospel music in the education system is a relatively recent development; yet, in my view, it’s arguably the most enduring and impressive. It first came to my attention as a genuine trend in 2002, that is, gospel music choir directors and musicians running workshops and sessions in schools. Individuals, like Ken Burton (London), Clyde Forde (Birmingham) and Freddie Kofi (Nottingham), numbered among the early peripatetic tutors introducing ‘a Taste of Gospel’ in music departments.
Freddie Kofi told me he started working in schools in 1995. He explained, “Children were enthusiastic, as they even attended singing on Saturdays. It was about teachers acknowledging the effect of the music upon the kids – and upon them too – encouraging real spirituality.” His work with them went on for ten successful years, and engendered further involvement with schools throughout the region.
Since the turn of the century, schools accommodating gospel music-driven singing programmes have introduced children from Key Stage 1 (KS1) all the way through to KS5 on the sounds, style and history of the genre. Literally thousands of schoolchildren and parents gather at various events around the country, purely on the basis of singing gospel-inspired renditions. Directors like David Levale and Rachel Thomas, who produce iGospel’s ‘Singinspiration’ at London’s Royal Festival Hall, and Tyndale Thomas MBE (the first person to receive a Queens Award for services to gospel music) are among an elite number who specialise in mass schools projects. Now there is a generation who, from their youth, are educated and have embraced wholeheartedly the form. This is making certain a future audience will buy into the genre as general audiences in the US and Caribbean do.
John Fisher, who leads ‘We Sing U Sing’, a schools-based event that has established itself annually at Croydon’s Fairfield Hall with over 2,000 attendees, says: “Our motivation is giving these young children an alternative message – a different song – positive and inspirational in their hearts and minds.”
There are over eight million schoolchildren in more than 24,000 schools, and less than 200 gospel music tutors. This tells us we are probably a blip on the horizon, but at least we’re on the radar.
In 1982, when the London Community Gospel Choir was formed, the members were from churches of various denominations, some representing different theological interpretation of Scripture. Through the choir there was one main focus: singing as one voice unto the Lord and for the Lord.
Choirs are now an established way in which charities, companies and other organisations engage with gospel music. University choirs are part of this mix; they are extra-curricular activities for students. Over 3,000 students are involved in UGCoY – University Gospel Choir Of The Year – an initiative started by former student, Lorraine Wright, in 2009. Based on a Sister Act-style format, choirs enter the competition and, at a high quality finale evening performance, a single winner emerges. Lorraine describes the impact of the work. “Students have let us know how much their choirs support and helped them stay in their studies, when otherwise they would have quit.”
The groundwork for developments like this come from individuals like Andrea Encinas, Creative Director of British Gospel Arts, an organisation set up as an educational arm of LCGC. Andrea spearheads the BIG Choir and other choir-based projects, engaging mass activities at London’s South Bank. The ‘Big Sing’, founded by musician/songwriter, Howard Francis, and his wife, Gemma, is another outfit, which works at setting up community choirs in local communities. Super choir directors, like Karen Gibson, Colin Vassell and Audrey Lawrence-Mattis, have also helped to swell community-based choirs. It is now one of the fastest growing areas of the scene that needs better review and analysis by practitioners.
Gospel Music in Popular Culture and Entertainment
Out of all the areas where we have a past that connects us to the present, it’s that which relates to British gospel music in popular culture and entertainment, which occurred within the first ten years of establishing Black-led churches.
This I find quite fascinating: that one of the first things the Lord did with our music was to release it into the culture of the day. The now-famed Soul Seekers claimed to be the first successful electric-pop style gospel band of the late 50s. The family group, The Singing Stewarts, were very popular both on TV and radio in the 60s. In the 70s, The Heavenly Hopes were the first gospel group to participate in a national television talent show, Opportunity Knocks – the equivalent of X Factor or Britain’s Got Talent.
It was the 80s-90s, which I coined as the ‘Golden Age of British Gospel’, because every element of the music seemed to blossom – whether it was choirs, soloists, groups of various configurations – both a cappella and music-based, female, male or mixed… they all seem to have a moment to shine in that precious period, and in demand by commercial record labels, like Virgin, Island and Polydor. Unfortunately it didn’t quite happen in a sustained way. But other good things did.
We have all experienced gospel music on TV now. The plethora of satellite channels has changed many things, mostly for good. But we are disappointed that we don’t get enough programming on the terrestrial set, aren’t we? Although it was over 30 years ago, people still ask for that groundbreaking series, ‘People Get Ready’, which was co-hosted by John Francis and Juliet Coley and featured both UK and US acts.
The excitement now is that film and theatre have become a part of the strands through which our music is paving a way in popular culture. Leading pioneers of gospel plays include Mervyn Weir, Mark Grey and Alan Charles. The latest musical from Alan Charles – writer of the hit play, Love, Sax And All That Jazz – is I’ll Be Getting There, which features a stellar line-up of female vocalists, including MOBO Award-winning Lurine Cato.
I would conclude that our contribution is good, but we are not in a position to rest and pat ourselves on the back – yet. What do you say? Write in – I’d love to hear from you.
Elder and music minister at Faith Chapel for PAW (Pentecostal Assemblies of the World)
Songwriter, music director, pianist, organist
Music teacher, choir director, mentor, promoter
Key member of The Heavenly Hopes – the first band to perform on national TV talent show, Opportunity Knocks, with host Hughie Green.
Key member of Kainos, UK’s first leading contemporary gospel group of the 80s pre-Brit funk era.
Promoter/co-founder of Peak Promotions, a leading promotion company of the 90s to mid-2000s
MOST RECENT ACTIVITIES:
Single release: 28th August 2015 – charity single, entitled Time for A Change, raising funds for orphanages and schools in Ghana and Jamaica for The June Cranston-Young Missions Foundation.
Concert launch and album release at the end of November 2015 at Faith Chapel, 198 Bellenden Road, SE15 4BW
Music available from
www.joepittmusic.com. Email: email@example.com. Look out for download release on iTunes