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January 10, 199
Gospel artists achieve harmony through spirituals, hymns
By Eugene Bowen
Daily Arts Writer
This article is dedicated to the
memory of the late Mahalia Jackson,
the grandmother of gospel. Her death
in 1972 at the age of61 created a void
God has yet to create someone to fill.
We miss you, Grandma Jackson.
Spirituals. Hymns. Gospel. Before
rap, before R&B, before jazz, there
We spirituals. And hymns. And gos-
. From the slave quarters of the past
to the Missionary Baptist church around
some inner-city corner, there was and
still is that unmistakable sound. Spiri-
tuals, hymns and gospel.
My memories ofmy childhoodgrow-
ing up in the Baptist church are fond
ones. I remember immaculate choirs
singing songs as much from their hearts
as from their mouths. I remember the
v, deeply felt solos sung by big-
boned alto women in their 40s or 50s
who were almost always in tears by the
time they finished. I remember the fast-
paced music with organ, piano and
There is a
" gopelmusic. It
nve/os itself in
a humbleness, a
tranquility that no
other musical form
diums playing in unison while the con-
gregation, ontheirtoes, smiled, shouted,
clapped, and a member or two "caught
I remember the minister who started
his sermon calmly, but during his two-
hour soliloquy shouted, jumped,
screeched, fell on his knees, and did six
or seven jumping jacks, a back-flip or
two, the electric slide and a dramatic
dition of "Raisin in the Sun" while
ing us we were sinning and going to
Finally, I remember the entire con-
gregation rising and singing something
like "We Shall Overcome" or "Stay on
the Battlefield" while holding hands.
The entire church was electric.
Yet, when service ended, that feeling
of African American closeness, the
hugging, kissing and shaking of hands
s to be no more until the following
Sunday. That religious stuff wasn't
meant for the secular world - not be-
cause of the First Amendment but be-
cause it just wasn't the "in" thing to do.
This separation of church and state
could be found in black music as well.
Besides a cursory thanks to God "for
giving me this talent and allowing me to
share it with the world," little was men-
tioned on artists' albums about God,
worship or anything religious, a fact
t probably broke many Southern
Baptist mothers' and grandmothers'
Of course there have always been
exceptions to this fact. This is espe-
cially true of those artists whose careers
began on the choir stage like R&B
greats Aretha Franklin and Vanessa
Williams. Few exemplify this fact like
Patti LaBelle, arguably the greatest
R&B vocalist of all time. LaBelle has
always had an obvious gospel influence
in her music, and she doesn't hesitate to
admit it. Every LP she's ever released
features religious inferences and at least
one song dedicated to the Lord. She was
a lead vocalist in the all-black choir that
performed in the 1992 film "Leap of
Their songs, which also appear on
the soundtrack, include "Ready for a
Miracle," "Rain Celebration Medley"
and "Blessed Assurance" (a solo by
Albertina Walker). LaBelle's most re-
cent album, "Gems," in modeling her
earlier releases, features the religious-
inspired "Come As You Are," with
LaBelle blowing her amazing vocal
splendor all over it.
But, with the exception of these ex-
ceptions (hope that's not too many ex-
ceptions for you), blacks in the '80s
were more concerned with "Fight the
Power" and "Fuck the Police" than with
"Pass Me Not Oh Gentle Savior."
As the '80s began to roll into the final
decade of the 20th century, many artists
began to take a greater interest in in-
cluding a little gospel or gospel-like
stuff in their works. En Vogue gave a
little tribute to God with "Thanks/
Prayer," the final song on the quartet's
"Funky Divas" album. The all-male
quintet N-Phase did the same on their
self-named debut release. The song,
"Jesus Is Love," is a rarely heard gem.
Faith Evans sang a nice 55-second
"Thank You Lord" interlude on her
debut release, "Faith."
Even rappers have begun to get the
religious feeling, though its spreading
in the hip-hop world has been much
slower. MC Hammer is a notable ex-
ample whose "That's Why We Pray"
was probably his greatest hit next to
"Can't Touch This." On his "Too Legit
To Quit" album, Hammer also released
a religious song that, unfortunately,
didn't get much airplay as this was
about the time that Hammer started to
get wack. Nevertheless, "Do Not Pass
Me By," which featured The Voices
choir and gospel diva Tramaine
Hawkins (who, by the way, has her own
CD entitled "A Higher Place"), was an
outstanding song that many gospel cho-
rales chose to copy.
Even more spectacular than lay mu-
sicians' growing willingness to sing
some secularized versions of their fa-
vorite religious songs is the large de-
gree to which many religious singers
and groups have changed the way in
which they present their music-using
less gospel-like beats in exchange for a
popular-music sound - as a way to
draw a greater portion of the consumer
market. Their efforts are working.
Take, for example, the Sounds of
Blackness. Although this choir had been
together for more than two decades, its
The Sounds of Blackness choir, one of gospel's more well-known groups, bring religious songs to a secular audience on their latest release, "Africa to America: The
Journey of the Drum."
name was relatively unknown. They
first claimed some real public attention
when they sang the hit "Keep Your
Head to the Sky" on "House Party 2."
Sounds of Blackness' newest release,
the outstanding "Africa to America:
Journey of the Drum" has a huge num-
ber of religious songs performed to the
groove of secular sounds. Neverthe-
less, the gospel underpinnings of their
songs are so great as not to be over-
Scores of University students got to
see just how spectacular Sounds of
Blackness is firsthand when they per-
formed at the Power Center in January
of last year as the finale to this year's
Martin Luther King Jr. Day celebra-
Another marvelous example of this
adoption of modern-day music to
present an age-old message is the amaz-
ing a capella sextet Take 6, which has
among its ranks a University School of
Music alum. This group is so good they
wouldn't let Brian McKnight join them
because he didn't sing well enough.
With the release of their newest
record, "Join the Band" (which I voted
the best release of the 1994-'95 aca-
demic year) Take 6 shows that when it
comes to putting on a pure, untarnished
a capella show, groups like Boyz II
Men and Jodeci really fall short.
Another name in the gospel world
that is beginning to gain some recogni-
tion is Kirk Franklin and his choir,
which he refers to simply as "Family."
Their debut, self-entitled album, which
was released in 1993, was recorded live
at a July 25, 1992 concert at Grace
Temple Church in Fort Worth, Texas.
They gained a great number of listeners
in the Motown area as a result of radio
attention given to "This Is Why We
Sing." It was played on 97.9 FM twice
each workday morning until it was
pulled in exchange for the hilarious
comic skit "Reverend Brother Pastor
Deacon Doctor Doug."
Even the idea of gospel rappers -
still as humorous as your averageknock-
knock joke-has begun to take root. If
we had to vote on a fore-rapper of this
movement, more likely than not the
winner would be DC Talk, actually not
a rapper, but rather a rap trio.
But no story about Black gospel in-
fluences would be complete without
mentioning the first family of gospel,
the Winans. Both the duo, BeBe &
CeCe, and the quartet, Carvin, Marvin,
Ronald and Michael, have released al-
bums fairly recently, "Relationships"
and "Heart & Soul," respectively. The
Winans have garnered more critical
acclaim from even secular circles than
many wordly performers have, and they
are sometimes credited with first"secu-
larizing" the worship of God and turn-
ing gospel music into a marketable mu-
There is a refreshing beauty about
gospel music, both in its traditional
manifestation and its more recent ex-
pressions. It envelops itself in a humble-
ness, a tranquillity that no other musi-
cal form possesses. It takes all the
complexities ofthe world and lifts them
from your burdened soul. Then your
soul, now free to fly at loftier heights,
takes you away. Away to that little
Missionary Baptist church where secu-
lar concerns are set aside to deal with
more imposing concerns of the spirit.
Away to a place where only love is
welcome and brotherhood is expected.
A place where the language of love and
devotion is sweet, simple and straight to
It is communicated in spirituals. And
hymns. And gospel.
JOIN THE DAILY. Come to our mass meetings, Tuesday, Jan. 16;
Thursday, Jan. 18 and Wednesday, Jan. 24 at 7 p.m. All meetings
are at the Student Publications Building, 420 Maynard St.
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