When Kanye West debuted his “Sunday Service” sessions at the beginning of 2019, performing gospel-influenced reworkings of his songs and backed by a Black gospel choir, it was met — like most Kanye West undertakings — with both praise and skepticism by fans and critics. It didn’t, however, come as much of a surprise. West had already flirted with gospel music in “Jesus Walks” from his 2004 debut album and again in 2016 on The Life of Pablo’s “Ultralight Beam,” which featured gospel superstar Kirk Franklin and a 10-piece choir.
But West’s embrace of gospel, most recently with his gospel-rap album Jesus Is King, is nothing new or revolutionary in hip-hop or R&B. The Game, Pharrell, Mary J. Blige, Charlie Wilson, Chance the Rapper, even Snoop Dogg — who released the surprisingly decent gospel double album Bible of Love in 2018 — have participated in gospel music. Two decades before West put a gospel choir behind his music, Sean “Diddy” Combs brought out a choir at the 1997 VMAs to perform the Grammy-winning hit “I’ll be Missing You,” his tribute to the late Biggie Smalls.
Gospel music has been the thread connecting Black music for a half-century, the source to which the winding rivers of Black music inevitably return. Much of gospel music’s bond to the Black community owes to its twin messages of faith and deliverance that have sustained Black Americans in the long struggle for emancipation and equality. Yet, while other Black musical innovations have routinely been appropriated by White artists — whether jazz, blues, rock ’n’ roll, or hip-hop (see: Post Malone’s 2019 American Music Award win for Favorite Rap/Hip Hop Album) — gospel music still remains largely an African American market. How that came to be is a story of numerous factors, some more innocuous than others. However, with the increasing likelihood that the time is nearing its end, it’s worth celebrating gospel’s evolution and existence as one of the last predominantly Black artforms left on the cultural landscape.
“Gospel songs are the songs of hope,” Mahalia Jackson once said. “When you sing them, you are delivered of your burden.” During the Great Migration, when tens of thousands of Black Americans migrated north and settled in urban centers like Chicago and St. Louis, the spirituals and jubilee singing of the South came with them. The term “gospel” had been in use since the late 19th century to denote hymns and revival music, but not until the early 1930s, when these religious songs united with the secular strains of jazz and blues, would gospel music begin to develop as its own genre.
“Gospel music emerges as slavery ends and as Black people are moving into the north and into big cities,” says Deborah Smith Pollard, a literature professor at the University of Michigan, Dearborn, author of When the Church Becomes Your Party, and longtime host of contemporary gospel radio programs in Detroit. “And they are creating three different musical forms: jazz and gospel and blues. They’re all cousins.”
The 30-year period between the mid-1940s and 1970s, credited now as gospel music’s golden age, saw a rise in gospel music’s success. Not only was performing gospel seen as a popular and innovative occupation, but, according to Robert F. Darden, a journalism professor at Baylor University and author of numerous books and articles on gospel, the genre’s golden age parallels the greatest organized struggle for equal rights and the movement to end racial segregation in America.
From Jim Crow to the civil rights movement, gospel music was the soundtrack to Black emancipation. “There is no music like that music,” wrote James Baldwin in his 1962 essay “Letter From a Region in My Mind,” “no drama like the drama of the saints rejoicing, the sinners moaning, the tambourines racing, and all those voices coming together and crying holy unto the Lord.”
Of course, White musicians, too, have performed and recorded Christian music — though it’s been typically designated separately, either as Southern gospel or that most dubious of genres, contemporary Christian music (CCM). The gospel or traditional gospel labels are, by and large, the exclusive domain of Black artists. Of the 50 artists on Billboard’s Top Christian Albums of 2019, only three are non-White: Kanye West, rapper Lecrae, and biracial singer Tauren White. Of the 50 artists on the Top Gospel Albums of 2019, only one artist, the White singer Tori Kelly, is non-Black.
As gospel rapper Da’ T.R.U.T.H. told Rapzilla magazine in a 2016 interview, this segregation is rooted in radio programming. “There’s CCM radio, there’s quote-unquote ‘Black Gospel’ radio,” he said. “There’s the Dove Awards which is 99.9% white, and the Stellar Awards which is 100% black. So we look at our industry and how polarized it is … to me it all starts with radio.”
Gospel music’s decades-long connection to the Black community is, above all, a result of its overt and resolute Christian message, particularly its focus on emancipation and deliverance.
In 2012, the Recording Academy streamlined the Grammy Awards ceremony, reducing the number of award categories from 109 to 78. As part of that, the gospel categories were drastically restructured: The entire gospel field became known as gospel/contemporary Christian music. The Academy explained its decision after determining “there are two distinct wings to the gospel house: Contemporary Christian Music (CCM) and Urban or Soul Gospel, and these two groups share in their overall mission. Additionally, it was determined that the word ‘Gospel’ tends to conjure up the images and sounds of traditional soul gospel and not CCM. With this in mind, it was decided not only to rename each of the categories, but also the entire field.”
In other words, White people weren’t winning gospel awards, so the Academy separated them into their own category.
Regardless, the ascendancy and endurance of African Americans in the gospel field isn’t solely a matter of Grammy categories, the recording industry, or radio programmers. Gospel music’s decades-long connection to the Black community is, above all, a result of its overt and resolute Christian message, particularly its focus on emancipation and deliverance.
With an increasing number of Americans identifying as nonreligious or religiously unaffiliated, African Americans still value religion at a higher percentage than others, with 79% of African Americans identifying as Christian and about 61% of Black millennials saying they pray at least daily, compared with 39% of non-Black millennials. Unlike other forms of Black entertainment, gospel music is fundamentally inseparable from the continuing relevance of the Black church. “Yes, there is a huge gospel music industry,” says Mark Burford, a music professor at Reed College and author of Mahalia Jackson and the Black Gospel Field, “but there’s no way the industry could exist without some sort of connection — logistical, audience-wise — with Black Christians, with Black worship.”
This could perhaps be why White people haven’t approached gospel music in the same way they have engaged with (or appropriated) other historically Black art forms. Whereas jazz, blues, and rock ’n’ roll requires not much else than an appreciation for the form and a certain musical aptitude, gospel music demands much more from its performers and audiences alike. As Burford suggests, Black gospel cannot be removed from Black worship and praise — creating a bridge White musicians have been unable or unwilling to cross.
Recent years, however, have seen an interest in so-called “traditional” Black gospel music from White consumers. Like the White college students in the 1950s and ’60s who “discovered” Southern blues artists such as Mississippi John Hurt, Skip James, and Lightnin’ Hopkins, today’s gospel record collectors go to great lengths and pay top coin for rare LPs and 45s from virtually forgotten golden-age gospel groups. Meanwhile, White-owned record labels — Jack White’s Third Man Records, David Byrne’s Luaka Bop, Mississippi Records, and others — have released compilation albums featuring long-dead Black gospel artists. In many respects, some of these record companies and collectors are helping to preserve a history that might otherwise become irreparably damaged or lost; that was the inspiration behind Baylor University’s Black Gospel Music Restoration Project, spearheaded by Darden (who is White).
But if Black gospel is to endure, to continue to give Black Americans “hope in the midst of despair,” the Blackness of gospel music — its uniqueness, its connection to the Black church, and its ability to adapt to new innovations in popular music — must be maintained and respected. As Black Americans continue to face systemic inequality and disenfranchisement, Black music and entertainers will continue to embrace gospel music, crying holy unto the Lord while fighting for salvation.
“There’s an investment in the Blackness of gospel for Black Americans, and there’s an investment in the Blackness of gospel on the part of White Americans,” Burford says. “They’re nonidentical interests — but the Blackness of Black gospel matters.”