Outward Is Heaveward

Presenting gospel’s modern sounds in praise and worship

There’s so much going on in gospel music today that you may have missed when Kirk Franklin paused from promoting Hero, his latest chart-topping CD, to go on The Oprah Winfrey Show with his wife to discuss his triumph over video porn addiction. His point? To publicly reduce himself to an imperfect everyman who overcame a troublesome vice with the support of prayer and faith.

Not the sort of high-profile endorsement you’d expect for That Old-Time Religion, but thoroughly in keeping with Franklin’s reputation for fearlessly admitting the mundane faults and trials that accompany every honest walk with Christ. And it’s Franklin’s maverick genius that inspires greater diversity of expression among rising stars like Tonéx, J. Moss, Fred Hammond, and Tye Tribbett, who no longer feel they must inhibit the diversity of their musical ideas to be accepted as gospel messengers.

Nowadays, not only are Christianized rap, jazz, disco, and rock tunes presented right alongside Depression-era jubilee quartets and stately mass choirs, but the newer phenomenon of praise-and-worship ministries has brought dance, theater, and carnival elements to the church experience. Two compilation albums, Wow Gospel 2006 (Verity/Zomba) and Stellar Awards Hits 2006 (Artemis Gospel), celebrate this diversity. The former is a two-CD set offering 30 songs from many of the biggest names in the business, including P. Diddy minister Hezekiah Walker and mellow jubilee revivalists like the Mighty Clouds of Joy, and solo outings from three stylistic scions of the Clark Sisters dynasty. But young iconoclasts like Tonéx (pronounced “Toe-nay”) and the duo Mary, Mary are (along with Tribbett and Donnie McClurkin) among the standard-bearers of the new (but still cautious) freedom in gospel presentation. Tonéx blends the vocal and instrumental unpredictability of Babyface with Stevie Wonder’s compositional ambitions and Timbaland’s rhythmic sensitivities. “When Jesus Came” — credited to his group the Peculiar People and included on Wow Gospel — brings fresh sonic textures to a traditional theme. But of his three studio albums, 2002’s solo turn O2, full of get-happy uptempo stomps and digitized tone poems, best represents Tonéx’s full potential.

The Stellar Awards comp also collects diverse performers, offering a roof-raising Dottie Peoples on “He Said It,” Maria Munizzi’s guitar-stroked Lilith Fair gospel on “When He Came,” and the theatrical female ensemble Rizen, who execute tight harmonies and trade leads like LaBelle, strut like Tina Turner, or even adopt men’s suits and choreography like the Time. “We’ve Come to Magnify the Lord” — also included on 2005’s Rizen 2 — lyrically follows the fashion of praise-and-worship music, eschewing confessional revelations and Old Testament “shalt nots” to commune with God instead of browbeating man.

But music of this sort is most effective when seen as well as heard. Rather than a passive church service where you listen to a sermon and go home, a p&w experience is multi-layered and interactive, as colorful and dynamic as Cirque du Soleil. Shekinah Glory Ministry, launched on a tiny Chicago vanity label in 2001, is now the top-selling group of this kind, and the first black gospel group distributed and championed by the white-Christian-bookstore network. 2002’s Praise Is What I Do has gone gold, while 2004’s Live, which includes a DVD, is climbing in the same direction, with better production values and more haunting, lilting melodies on tracks like “Your Name” and “How Deeply I Need You.” What results is often nothing less than a palpable experience of the presence of God. One Brooklyn buyer on amazon.com writes, “I sat in my car while waiting for my daughter to finish her work shift and as I listened to ‘Yes’ tears began to fall from my eyes. . . . ‘If I told you what I really need/From you/Would your heart and soul say yes?'” If God can speak from a burning bush, why not from a car stereo?

Published in: Village Voice, July 3, 2006