A Look at The Marvin Sapp Phenomenon
After nearly 20 years in the industry, Sapp is having the year that artists merely dream about. The album Thirsty, his 7th solo release, has spent most of the last year at the top of Billboard's Top Gospel Charts and the Christian & Gospel Albums charts. His lead single, "Never Would Have Made It" surpassed Donald Lawrence's "The Blessing of Abraham" as the longest running #1 single at gospel radio. The song spent 26 consecutive weeks at #1 and has spent a total of over 40 weeks as the most popular song in the gospel format. This incredible feat has made music history, as no song of any genre has spent this much time atop its prescribed format.
On top of that, "Never Would Have Made It" has become the most successful gospel single at Urban Radio, as this single has spent considerable weeks as the second most popular song in all of the Urban Adult Contemporary format. This has contributed to the Thirsty album spending significant time in the top 10 of Billboard's Top R&B/Hip-Hop albums, with the album recently peaking at #28 on the Billboard Top 200.
Add a stellar performance as the lone gospel act on the recent BET Awards and his first BET Award as Best Gospel Artist, and you have an impressive year for the Grand Rapids pastor and Commissioned alumnus.
So, the $64,000 question is, HOW did this happen? This is the type of success that EVERY artist, manager, and record label wishes to duplicate.
Much like the United States economic situation, the music world has undergone a creative recession. This recession began several years before its economic counterpart followed suit. Songs with staying power have been replaced with temporal catch phrases touting the power of lip gloss, crunk juice, and super soakers.
In nearly every urban genre, there is an absence of creativity and songs with both universal appeal and longevity potential. The secular arena has pronounced the death of hip-hop based on its transition from producing songs that address social issues to its continued focus on prosperity (i.e., money, cars, and bling) and temporal things. (Sounds remotely like an argument made for the effectiveness of the church, huh?)
Similarly, the world of R&B has watched its lyrical content erode from healthy love and life issues to sex, sex, and more sex. The world has expressed its disdain at its own content in both hip-hop and R&B.
"Then he said to his disciples, 'The harvest is plentiful but the workers are few.'" (Matthew 9:37; NIV)So, while this void has been in the secular marketplace, where are the laborers who will take the message of the gospel to the world? Where are the songs that will have staying power and latch onto the hearts of the world? In the last fifteen years, the gospel genre has produced five to seven crossover hits that have actually infiltrated secular radio.
From Kirk Franklin's "Why We Sing" and Yolanda Adams' "Open My Heart" to Donnie McClurkin's "We Fall Down" and Smokie Norful's "I Need You Now", it has been a challenging feat for a song to achieve commercial success. Perhaps the most successful crossover hit during that time frame was God's Property's "Stomp", which blazed the trail with crossover success, resulting in gospel's first video appearance on MTV and a Grammy nomination for R&B "Song of the Year".
For all of the memories that each of these songs yield, it still becomes baffling to think of why this type of success doesn't happen more often.
There are a few points of commonality that exist among these songs that could unlock the secret of this success and help shed light on the current phenomenon that is Marvin Sapp. First, each song was written from a place of authenticity. In that place of authenticity, writers weren't thinking of creating the next crossover hit. Instead, each song has a story where it was birthed from a genuine place. Let's face it people of God. The world doesn't need another recycled hit. There's an old saying in the urban arena that says "Real recognizes real." The translation for that is this…"Give me something authentic."
To attract the world, we don't need to duplicate what they are already doing. We don't need another Lupe Fiasco, Soulja Boy, Alicia Keys, or Mary J. Blige. Quite frankly, we don't need another Mary Mary, Kirk Franklin, or Tye Tribbett. What we NEED is what the Father intended... a designer's original. Songwriters and artists should seek their distinct voice and present that to the masses. Look to create a signature sound and flavor that comes from a place of authenticity.
So, does that mean that there have only been a handful of authentic songs written over the last 15 years? Hardly. There are countless songs that have been written that are exemplary songs. However, one of the challenges that we face in our gospel genre is the ability to write songs of a holistic nature. So, the second aspect to consider is penning a song with universal appeal.
Unfortunately, our genre is often guilty of producing music that's designed for exclusive use within the four walls of the church. While "church" music is needed, the Great Commission found in Matthew 28:19 tells us to go out into the world. We must remember that the only place to recruit new converts is in the world. Recycling Christians from one congregation to another might grow a local assembly but it doesn't grow the Kingdom.
So we need artists to write songs that can go outside of the four walls of the church. How does one do that? John 10:10 tells us that Christ came that we might have LIFE more abundantly. Then, it seems to makes sense that we being to pen songs about life outside of the four walls of the church. Remember that the unbeliever knows nothing about church jargon like "shekinah glory" and "manifest presence". Those terms work for worship albums or things that are designated to reach a church audience. However, we need to remember that the world, in general, is unfamiliar with the things of God.
So, we need to appeal to them on an introductory level. When Jesus cured the demon-possessed man who was called Legion, He didn't arm him with a pocket-sized version of the New Testament, the Torah, or any commentaries. Instead, He told him to tell the masses the good things that were done for him and, as a result, many were converted.
Our industry needs artists committed to writing simple songs that can reach the unbeliever with the message of Christ's love and ability to make changes.
Finally, no good song can gain appeal of any type without exposure. A primary reason that all of the aforementioned songs achieved crossover success is that someone was willing to take them into the urban marketplace. That responsibility falls on artists, managers, and label executives. We must be musically and spiritually sensitive enough to really recognize a life-changing song and then pitch it to the urban arena. Here's something to consider. When was the last time a gospel album went gold in a week or platinum in four strictly in the gospel arena? It hasn't. However, we can pinpoint countless times where an album went gold or platinum in those time frames in the secular marketplace.
The harvest lies in the world. Note that Marvin Sapp's current success is happening in the secular arena. "Never Would Have Made It" is being played roughly 50% more on secular stations than on gospel stations, equating to over 500 more spins weekly in the secular marketplace.
It is safe to say that there are other songs that could experience that same level of success in this climate with the right exposure. In an environment riddled with economic and social depression, the world is looking for hope. Who else can provide hope other than the body of Christ?
We have the message that the world needs to hear. It's now time for someone to write the vision, present it with authenticity, and expose it to the world. We need artists, producers, and executives willing to be bold, brave, daring and take this message of hope, peace, and love to a dying world. The world really is ready for this life-changing message. Let's add to this success story and continue to take life-changing and substance-filled music to the world. After all, THAT is where the Kingdom is really going to grow.
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