Are Caribbean, African and American Gospel on Equal Footing?

Juliet Fletcher explores the rise of gospel from the Caribbean and Africa, and wonders whether these unique music forms get the same respect as their American counterpart

I sense we have come to one of those sea-change moments, and we can’t do anything about it! Indeed, maybe there isn’tanything to do, because this has been happening for some years now. Do we just go with the flow? That would be my suggestion. The way things are naturally panning out, I think rightly so. What am I talking about?

GOSPEL MUSIC – NO LONGER JUST USA FLAVA

I know some may not like this, but gospel music is no longer just about American gospel sounds. Even our US cousins recognise this.

How do I know? Ever since Muyiwa Olarewaju performed at the BET Celebration of Gospel in 2009, the songs of multiple leading US gospel acts have changed. Since then, a string of popular acts has made a beeline for performing and recording on the African continent more than ever before, particularly worship artists. Examples include Israel Houghton, Todd Dulaney and Travis Greene.

No one can discount noticing that Bethel Music, Leeland, Darlene Zschech and, of course, Michael W Smith are just a few of the popular White Christian acts covering Waymaker by Sinach, who became the first African to receive music industry accolades for this now classic song.

African Gospel has REALLY moved into the heart of American Gospel. When Muyiwa did that first ever BET performance, music out of the Motherland began to be taken seriously by the US gospel and CCM scene. Ever since then, the (African) continent has grown in independent performances, productions and prominence. For example, there’s ‘The Experience’ – the annual event hosted by Paul Adefarasin, Senior Pastor of House on the Rock, Lagos, Nigeria. Artists like Tim Hughes are going there and are ‘blown away’ by what they’ve experienced (forgive the pun)!

African gospel artists alongside Sinach, who are having an impact on the world stage, include Nathaniel Bassey, Joe Mettle, Mercy Chinwo, Benjamin Dube and Dunsin Oyekan.

Our relationship with US music has changed by and large due to the growth of African Gospel, but also from the growing confidence of the UK gospel scene. The original and exciting sounds of styles Africa has given us is, for any true creative artist, a superlative sensational sensation!

Now, I am not excluding the Caribbean gospel experience. What drove that? Some would say it was Donnie McClurkin’s Caribbean Medley, featured on his most successful live recording here in the UK over 20 years ago. Combine that with the rise of Caribbean reggae gospel artists, like Stitchie, Papa San, Carlene Davis, Marvia Providence, Chevelle Franklyn and Sherwin Gardner — to name just a known few. Marvia Providence, in particular, shook up Canada and the UK. We love our Marvia tunes. Reggae gospel is really underestimated — including its sales and growth — although in recent times it has got a bit quiet.

EQUALITY EQUALS RESPECT

Nonetheless, the proverbial ‘cake’ is a different mix. The slices of flavours have changed but have the sizes of the slices?

Music has always and will always go through changes. Most times those who experienced the popularity of one form, style or genre will espouse its virtues as ‘the best’. How many of us will remember the most popular music form of the 1980s? What about the 1990s? Who would have predicted that in 2020s the most popular and financially successful global music genre would be hip-hop/rap? A Black music form, the biggest across the world!!!???  And no, I don’t think hip-hop/rap will be the style to dominate the music out of our churches.

Truth be told, which was well-depicted in the 4-part BBC documentary, Fight the Power: How Hip-Hop Changed the World, it was the people, the public, that made it happen. Marketing, yes. Promotion, yes. Visualisation, yes. But it spoke to people. It represented something to people. It became a language of the people. And the music producers and creative artists spearheaded it all the way to their hearts and minds. Is there a lesson to be learned here by our gospel sector?

I’m not suggesting in any way that we would be or should be seeking world domination. That’s sheer fantasy. However, what we do have is a Kingdom that has world reach; a people that extends across the world. In this Kingdom every tongue, tribe, people and nation has a part, an eternal role. And this will become more evident as we stretch our creative imagination. It’s one of the reasons why I like Integrity Music’s newest endeavour, entitled Songs of the Soil. It’s initiatives like these which will encourage freshness and innovation. It has to be natural – supernatural. This Kingdom we’re in is a naturally powerful place of creativity.

There is a convergence – a coming together. Is it for one genre or style to dominate? Can we rid ourselves of defining a sound to be THE sound? Or can we be satisfied with the ebb and flow of SOUNDS and from this recognise that the character of the sound is what is meant to be the dominant sound? Borrowing the concept from Apostle Paul, who wrote: ‘There are many voices in the world and none of them without significance’ (1 Corinthians 14:10). Every voice or sound has meaning to those who understand that sound. So we need the sound that edifies, that produces fruits of righteousness to each other and to God. Are Caribbean, African and American Gospel equal? Based on our significance: Yes!

What we need above all, right now, is to have R E S P E C T! Respect for what our diversity brings. We need our factual histories, the living stories, the anecdotes of our times. As we commemorate Windrush — 75 years of being a part of the nation on these British Isles, my prayer is that we will see the Caribbean and the African Christian experience as one coin with two sides — different markings, maybe even different images on either side (because we will always see our differences), but we are the same ‘trading coin’.

When we fully value each other, esteem each other, celebrate each other and trade together as one, something much more powerful and valuable will occur. 

Juliet Fletcher is the Creative Director of Green Tree Productions and Windrush Church and Music. She is also the founder of the Gospel Music Industry Alliance.

Written by: Juliet Fletcher

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