Gospel gets a modern make-over

It used to be gut-busting vocals and massed choirs, but now gospel music is subtle and hip, says Matilda Egere-Cooper
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The Independent Culture

On any other occasion, London's elitist hangout The Playroom would be a centre of excessive decadence, with punters ranging from the wannabe bling-blingers to the untouchable VIPs. So far, there's nothing unusual about the extremely good-looking people at this album launch tonight, who sip drinks and shimmy to the R&B harmonies blasting out of the stereos.

But the performers are a different bunch. They take to the stage in trendy hip-hop couture but, rather than singing tales of illicit love affairs or ill-gotten gains, these kids are only zealous about one thing. "We praise you Jesus!" announce the members of Ekklesia, a four-member group from London.

The flawless harmonies and captivating music they use for this declaration are so tight, you almost can't help but agree with them. Performances from R&B lads 4Kornerz, Birmingham trio Nu Life, a rapper called Jahaziel, and Raymond & Co are just as invigorating, fuelled by the compelling sounds of soul, R&B and hip-hop. "God says no limits!" proclaims Raymond & Co frontman Isaiah-Raymond Dyer, before his group wrap up their set to deafening applause.

There's no sign of robes, droning organs or an overzealous choir-leader, for this is the introduction of a new style of gospel music that has been bubbling on the UK underground for over a decade. With an unprecedented collaboration between Sony BMG and Integrity Music - the biggest independent gospel label in the world - this modern style of gospel music could soon become commonplace.

The companies have teamed up to launch it to the masses with a compilation album featuring the best of US and UK gospel acts. "It's not your traditional gospel, it's not how people's perceptions have been of gospel over the past two years," explains Janine Levy, head of marketing and A&R for Integrity Europe. "It has changed. And this is the first time that gospel music is going to be in every mainstream outlet, and all the secular outlets. If Sony BMG does invest some time in this, it's a potential goldmine."

Gospel music is already big business in the States. Acts such as Kirk Franklin, the biggest-selling gospel artist of recent years, and Mary Mary, a sibling duo from California, are practically gospel royalty. Franklin is a friend to heavyweights such as Bono, Mary J Blige and R Kelly, and it was only five years ago that Mary Mary took the number five spot on the UK singles chart with "Shackles" becoming an unlikely club smash.

"The language of gospel has changed," says Levy. "Before, it was so religious and now it's much more contemporary and down-to-earth." Unlike traditional gospel music, a jubilant, happy-clappy form, littered with amens and gut-busting vocals and relying heavily on groups, this music is in tune with the times. It is aimed at young audiences who'd opt for Gnarls Barkley on their MP3s rather than a song about Jesus. Inspirational lyrics are grafted onto R&B hip-hop, dancehall, reggae and even grime beats, delivered by singers or lyricists who are predominately young , hip and black.

Jahaziel, a reformed drug-dealer from south London who has dedicated his life to God since 1995, is one of the few rappers on the compilation. The 29-year-old, who's the nephew of the reggae star Maxi Priest, has accumulated a strong following in hip-hop communities for his unique dancehall style, and has been tapped by Daniel Bedingfield, Lemar and Craig David for collaborations . "The music is just really a vehicle to get that message out there," he says. "I can stand on the street corners with a megaphone, but most people probably wouldn't hear me, or give me the time of day. But put that to a beat, and make it sound fly, and people will listen."

This is something Raymond & Co also adhere to, as the leading gospel group in this country. The group was formed in 1994. Its debut single, "Playing Games", was critically acclaimed, and by 2001 they had won the first GMTV Gospel Challenge. This secured them a contract with Integrity Music and, since then, they've received a number of accolades, including Mobo award for best gospel act in 2004 and 2005.

"Modern gospel music is basically the message of Jesus Christ in a format that relates to people in our present time," says Dyer.

It's no wonder that Will Young picked the group to be his support act on his 2004 tour. As Dyer says: "Will didn't have to have us there. He could have had anyone. People normally pay to go on a tour like that. And to have a black gospel group singing urban gospel . . . the response was phenomenal."

Modern gospel music has grown so much in popularity on the underground that there's even been a sharp rise in the number of gospel raves across the nation. At these events, believers and sceptics alike can shake a leg to the coolest of gospel tracks.

James Freeman, aka DJ El Nino, is one of the renowned DJs on the gospel circuit, and has developed a niche combining urban and Latin gospel. He's also the co-director of the gospel entertainment site United By One and says that the growth in talent has aided the development of a modern gospel subculture. "When I first came in as a DJ, it was a big struggle to find tunes that were club-friendly, and find something I could really drop in the club and just get everyone moving, so it's been a gradual process," he says. "But where it's at now, there's some really strong material, and artists are now being able to merge the best of both worlds: the quality and the production values of the mainstream music industry alongside the powerful lyrics that gospel music brings."

Modern gospel music, isn't, however, without its detractors. Many traditionalists aren't keen on how these artists have blurred the line between the gospel and the secular, and non-believers in the UK (in sharp contrast to the audience in the United States) have been put off by the purpose of the message.

"It's funny," says Jahaziel. "People seem to have less problem with me being controversial rapping about guns and murder, than they would with me rapping about the love of peace of God - which I find really strange."

But Yolanda Sutherland, from Ekklesia, believes anything can be acceptable now - even God. "Jesus was always cool, as far as I'm concerned," she says. "He's no longer taboo. And if nonsense can be out there, then why can't Christ?"

Gospel music offers a real listening alternative. Hip-hop's occasional misogyny and pop's lyrical dullness pale in comparison with gospel's constant optimism. "The lyrics are more positive, and once people get tired of hearing the booty-shaking and the bling, bling, gospel's a healthy outlook for them," says Dionne Williams-Hepburn, from Nu Life.

The success of gospel in this country has a way to go before it can be matched by that in the US. A gospel channel on Sky, R Music, has only just launched this month and you'd be hard pushed to find a British record label even devoted to the genre.

A group such as 4Kornerz are lucky to have a decent management deal with DJ El Nino's United By One offshoot, UB1 music, but even they are realistic about the scene's current state. "In America, they are light years ahead of us," says Deji, the group's lead singer. "In the UK, we're catching on slowly. We see it as an opportunity to strike a chord in the consciousness of society."

This new compilation may be the catalyst for a bigger future for the music. "It's going to show that there's a very small gap between America and the UK in terms of gospel music," says Dyer. "It's going to show there's a united message coming from around the world. It's going to show that the format of gospel music is ever evolving and ever changing. People are going to listen to this and think: 'Wow! I didn't know gospel music could sound like this!'"

'The New Sound of Gospel' is out now on Sony BMG/ Integrity Europe