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Memphis Flyer Keeping the Faith

Contemporary gospel artists preach to a hip-hop beat

By Kiva Taylor

SEPTEMBER 8, 1997:  The King is back on top of the music charts.

No, not that king. We mean the King of kings.

Perhaps for the first time since the great Mahalia Jackson, gospel music has found a home in the ears of mainstream music fans. New young and talented gospel artists such as Kirk Franklin -- whose current album with his Nu Nation choir, God's Property, topped not only the gospel-album chart but the R&B chart and has moved as high as number five on the Billboard 200 -- have taken a solid gospel base of traditional church hymns and old African-American spirituals and added the savvy sounds of contemporary R&B in a mix that is luring a lot of listeners outside of traditional gospel circles. Franklin is just one of the many purveyors of gospel hip-hop. But his music, aside from BeBe & CeCe Winans, is the first to cross over and receive airplay on major television networks, like BET and MTV, where he has become the first gospel artist to be played in regular rotation.

Gospel music has been a big part of the music industry boom that began in the mid-'80s. According to the Gospel Music Association, over the last 10 years sales of gospel recordings have increased 290 percent, with 1996 receipts totalling $538 million.

But until recently, if a gospel artist really wanted to reach a wider audience outside of the cloistered gospel scene, he or she had to cross over to pop music like Amy Grant or obscure the religious aspect of the music, as gospel-music veteran Bob Carlisle has done on his current smash "Butterfly Kisses."

That's all changed with Franklin's million-selling God's Property, spearheaded by the infectious single "Stomp." Based on (of all things) an old P-Funk tune and featuring a hip-hop beat and rapping (Jesus, your love is so amazing/ It gets me high, up to the sky), "Stomp" has found its way not only onto mainstream radio stations' playlists but onto club dance floors as well. And Franklin is only the most visible such artist. Others such as D.C. Talk, Fred Hammond and Radical For Christ, Donald Lawrence and the Tri-City Singers, and Memphis' own O'Landa Draper and the Associates are also posting impressive album sales and drawing kudos from the non-gospel media.

For many of today's mission-oriented gospel artists, however, success is mainly a barometer of how many people they're reaching with their message. While many gospel fans still fondly remember the old giants of gospel music -- Jackson, Rev. James Cleveland, Shirley Caesar, the Mighty Clouds of Joy -- for many younger listeners the very word gospel conjures up antiquated images of the congregation crammed into a tiny country church, clapping hands and stomping feet to a song being cranked out of a old out-of-tune upright piano and driven by a tambourine.

But nothing could be further from the truth for contemporary gospel artists such as Franklin. Today's gospel artists utilize the latest high-tech equipment and production techniques to add a fresh flavor to a traditional form. In recent decades, gospel music (not unlike churches themselves) has suffered from the perception of being out of touch with modern listeners, specifically young modern listeners. But by updating gospel with hip-hop beats, raps, and deejays, many national and local gospel artists believe that they can win over young music fans.

Five-time Grammy Award nominee O'Landa Draper, for one, says that he felt he could update the huge sound of the gospel choir into the age of MTV, Michael Jackson, and gangsta rap. "At first, we did a lot of movement and rocking and having a lot of fun," says Draper of his choir the Associates. "People would say, `It doesn't take all of that. Church is quiet.' But you have to let them know that, if you do any studying of the works of God, at any celebration they would dance. ... They would shout and holler. And praises and worship are things we display in that fashion."

One way to reach young people with a positive spiritual message, Draper says, is through the style of music they listen to the most. "Young people say, `We go to church, we just sit there, we can't move, we just lift our hands, we can't rock, we can't sway.' So what do they do? They go home and turn on Video Soul, MTV, and they see all that energy, all that excitement, all that sexual suggestion, and everything. It's not that easy to say no. You have to have some positive help around you. And that's what's so wonderful about what we do. We show the positiveness. You can praise God and the beauty of the Christian life and have a good time with it."

Draper adds that, "We have a testimony that we want to encourage other people that, no matter what, you can make it. You don't have to drop out of school. You don't have to give up. And that's what it's all about."

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