The Ever-Changing Package

Derrick Noble In this editorial, Derrick-Lewis Noble writes on the always-hot issue of how to define Gospel music. The ever-changing format of the music is always a relevant topic.

Noble, cited as one of the top 20 young Black preachers in America by African American Pulpit, is President/CEO of Derrick-Lewis Noble & Associates, LLC, through which he facilitates speaking events, motivational seminars, and corporate training.

"Who is singing that mess?" he gasped.

My response was "Thatís Woody Rock —itís a couple of years old... and itís not mess."

"Everybody clap your hands, everybody jump for joy, everybody make some noise, if you love the Lord..."

"Get that hip-hop stuff out of there, Derrick. Iím trying to stay in the Spirit."

Trying to stay in the Spirit? I wanted to say with a smirk, "Hey bruh, youíre in my carÖin the passenger seat... riding for free; donít raise a fuss, leave the driving to us."

Actually, I really wanted to navigate the stormy waters of a theological discussion with my friend centered on this dangerous notion of hopping in and out of the Spirit much as one would do with a pair of Fubu shorts... but Iíve learned to choose my battles.

Instead of becoming defensive, I became inquisitive: "And what is your definition of real gospel music?"

Rev. James Cleveland and Woody Rock He proceeded to give me an almost comically verbose answer, ending with "No one has made an authentic gospel record since James Cleveland died, except maybe for Shirley Caesar."

And he was quite serious.

We are the best of friends and, I must admit, he and I have argued like this since we met as young preachers walking the hallowed halls of the Morehouse School of Religion. He was preaching at a church in my city, and naturally I volunteered to take him back and forth from his hotel to the host church so that we could catch up on old times.

So there we were —right in the middle of another one of our... um... "discussions."

Our upbringings are quite divergent. His preacher-father raised him in church, and his home reverberated with the sounds of Rev. C. L. Franklin, Mahalia Jackson, The Soul Stirrers, The Sensational Nightingales, and countless other gospel quartets. From an early age, it had been instilled in him that all other forms of lyrical expression were "the devilís music." I, on the other hand, was also raised in church, but my musical exposure ranged from The Love Center Choir to Andrae Crouch & The Disciples to Dizzy Gillespie to Al Green (both pre and post grits) to Luciano Pavarotti to Earth, Wind & Fire... and I loved all of it.

But on this day, as I gingerly steered my car down a rain-soaked highway, I began to give serious contemplative attention to a subject which has for years been a divisive matter in the evolution of gospel music... a struggle which continues to this very day.

Is there an actual, God-ordained dichotomy between so-called traditional gospel music and so-called contemporary gospel music? Is one real while the other is merely some type of worldly hybrid, or is this simply a case of wrapping an age-old message in a modernized package?

One has but to take a cursory glance at the history of gospel music in order to see that this is no new discussion at all. The late Thomas A. Dorsey often lamented the fact that he was barred from singing in churches because his new hit song sounded too much like a blues record. Today, that same song, "Take My Hand, Precious Lord" is heralded as traditional, old-school gospel. Andrae Crouch, who initially came under fire for his music that contained too many elements of pop and rock for gospel music purists, is now considered a standard-bearer of gospel music. Many of his compositions have deservedly found their way into hymnbooks, though I wouldnít hold my breath for hymnody to embrace his work on Madonnaís "Like A Prayer." Even John P. Kee, whom my former pastor so lovingly described years ago as nothing more than "a club singer in sheepís clothing" is viewed by many as now being part of the "old guard."

Are you beginning to notice what I have noticed?

As the hours morph into days, as days yield to weeks, as weeks grow up to become months, and as months lose their identities with each passing year, the musical landscape changes and gospel music evolves into something different than it was yesterday. What one generation considers being "the real thing" doesnít always carry over to the next generation. What is considered radical when measured by the standards of one age-bracket is regarded as mainstream by another.

This is not your fatherís Oldsmobile!

It sneaks up on you, actually. While sitting down to dinner just last week with close friends of mine, their teenaged daughter asked me what my favorite gospel albums were. Actually, she said "CDs" but I was born in the 70ís so I still say "albums" from time to time (maybe one day Iíll forgive recording technology for displacing my 33 1/3ís and 45ís, but I digress). Actually my list was rather varied. My top five were:
  • Love Alive I by Walter Hawkins and the Love Center Choir;
  • Iím Encouraged by The Thomas Whitfield Company;
  • Hymns: In The Garden by Kirk Whalum;
  • Live In London by Andrae Crouch & The Disciples; and
  • Godís Property from Kirk Franklinís Nu Nation."
The only one with which she was familiar was Kirk Franklin. Her top 5 list included artists such as T-Bone, Flame, and The Cross Movement. Just as I opened my mouth to say, "Hey, but theyíre not...í —I caught myself, chuckled and said, "Great list. Iím
Another Editorial: "Jesus Walks"
Click for editorial Gerard Bonner writes an editorial on the emergence of artists such as Kanye West, R.Kelly and Mase in Gospel radio charts. Click on the photo of Kanye West above to go straight to the editorial.

so glad you donít listen to gangsta rap and bump-n-grind music. You know, I kinda like The Cross Movement."

Our grandchildren will undoubtedly one day consider Woody Rock, Dawkins & Dawkins, and Salvador as old-fashioned. These generational discrepancies are, I believe, the real issues behind this on-going debate. If gospel music is true to the Creator, then the package will change as the times change, but the foundational message of the unconditional love of Jesus for an annoyingly imperfect world remains unchanged, unscathed, and untroubled. Since none of us is untouched by the seed of imperfection, then we all ought to be careful about putting on our Holy Hats and determining for all posterity whose spirituality is "real" and whose is not. The last time I checked, I wasnít God. I donít even come close to qualifying for that job —and neither do you, my friend.

But, is there some type of line in the sand that can be crossed in the name of contemporizing our musical presentation? Is there some amorphous state of musical existence known as "too far?"

Allow me to suggest that there are some non-negotiables that make our music "gospel" music. To the anticipated chagrin of some modern day purists, none of these essentials have anything to do with musical style, beat, or the formality or informality of the clothes the musicians or singers wear while ministering. Iím convinced that none of those factors matter to God as much as they matter to some of us. For me, the 3 non-negotiables are:
  • Music is gospel music only when it flows from a heart that has truly had a life-changing encounter with the Holy One. Singing about the Lord without intimately knowing the Lord about whom you sing may be an exercise in vocalizing, but it is not ministering the gospel through song.

  • Music is gospel music only when it is based upon scriptural truth. If your lyrical ideas have no biblical foundation, then they become as sounding brass or a tinkling cymbal —and nothing more. And, finally and perhaps most importantly...

  • Music is gospel music only when the message is very clearly about God as revealed in Jesus the Christ. To simply say, "You are my reason" without boldly calling the name of Jesus is to leave our music devoid of the greatest power under heaven and earth. The world doesnít need a weak witness filled with enigmatic pronouns such as You, He or Him. The name of Jesus is a strong tower. It is the only name in history that God has highly exalted; higher than any hurt, any problem, any dysfunction, any pain, any sin, or any impossibility. I agree with V. Michael McKay and Daryl Coley: "How dare we fail to call Your Name, Jesus!"
As long as the message is clear and the vessel is sincere, then we should not haggle about the ever-changing package in which the message is wrapped. With Jesus as its center, gospel music retains the power to change our world for the better. Call the Saviorís name!

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— editorial opinion by Derrick-Lewis Noble
August, 2005

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