We weren’t going to post anything about Kanye West and his new album. Frankly, he gets enough press already and most of his music isn’t designed nor does it lend itself well to be considered “congregational.” But the latest news of him claiming to be the “greatest artist God has ever created” does open up an opportunity to explore that claim and learn about some church music history.
So here’s a list of 10 artists who Kanye obviously doesn’t know about that we think are worth mentioning when discussing the “greatest artist God has ever created.”
1. Theological Mastermind: Ambrose of Milan
Often called “The Father of Western Hymnody,” Saint Ambrose of Milan was a key figure in solidifying the idea that Christ was not a creation of God, but rather a full part of God from and of the beginning. Can many other artists in our history or today claim that they literally shaped and then defended a key tenant of the Christian faith? Check out one of his hymns we still sing today, “O Splendor of God’s Glory Bright.”
2. Composer & Theologian: Hildegard of Bingen
Given credit for founding scientific natural history in Germany, this 12th century nun is also one of the most well-known Pre-Reformation sacred composers. Just listen to this stunning performance of one of her chant arrangements.
3. Tune-Writer: Louis Bourgeois
You know the branch of Christianity called “Reformed” and “Presbyterian”? Well, the music that they sing was and is largely influenced by Louis Bourgeois who was largely responsible for the milestone “Genevan Psalter” in the 16th century. Most famously he’s credited with composing the tune OLD HUNDRETH, which is sung by countless congregations each and every Sunday. Here’s a great a cappella singing of the tune from a recent worship conference:
4. Composer & Theologian: J.S. Bach
It’s hard to find a composer who more carefully and skillfully combines music and theology than J.S. Bach. Organ, Orchestra, Voice…you name it. So many of his compositions are considered masterworks and are performed across the world each year by multiple ensembles that we don’t know where to begin. So here’s a playlist of the “best of Bach” for your listening pleasure.
5. Concertized Sacred Music: G.F. Handel
While much of Handel’s music is unremarkable when it comes to the “greatest” conversation, his oratorio Messiah has been continually sung/performed for over 270 years and counting. In 2014/2015, 13 of the 22 largest American orchestras performed the work 38 times. When people think church music, they think Messiah. Here’s a full performance:
Also, how can we mention Messiah and not also link to the “Soulful Celebration” remake from 1992?
6. Song Writer: Fanny Crosby
A blind woman living in the late 1800s, she wrote more than 8000 hymns and gospel songs and over 1000 secular poems. Her most popular hymn, “Blessed Assurance,” has appeared in over 900 hymnals and continues to be sung today. We were going to mention Charles Wesley, but we couldn’t leave out Ms. Crosby who wrote more hymns than he did!
Here’s another setting of Crosby’s hymn from the black gospel tradition:
7. Composer and Scholar: Harry T. Burleigh
The grandson of a partially blind ex-slave, Harry T. Burleigh did arguably more than anyone else in history to preserve and advance the music of Black Americans. For an introduction to his life and legacy, you can click here.
8. Secular/Sacred Crossover: Duke Ellington
One of the greatest and most influential jazz musicians, Sir Duke was not only a jazzer but a dedicated christian. His concerts of sacred music were a unique cross-over that paved the way for the church and the secular music industry to meet and influence each other.
9. Sacred Album: Aretha Franklin’s Amazing Grace
After her recent death, if you weren’t aware of the life and legacy of Aretha Franklin, you should be now. Her iconic album “Amazing Grace” was a game-changer for sacred music.
10. Contemporary Artist: Kirk Franklin
If you listen to Kanye’s new album and you’re familiar with the history of church music, and specifically black sacred music, you’ll hear a lot of influences in there. In fact, it’s hard to hear very much that is new at all. In particular, Kirk Franklin was paving the way for much of what you hear on Kanye’s album. If you’re not familiar with Franklin’s work, one of his most well known early albums is “Hero”:
Finally, this list is in no ways official or comprehensive. In fact, it’s very particular to a European and then white & black American history of church music. Other than Kirk Franklin we didn’t even mention any other music contemporaries like Marcos Witt of CanZion Productions whose music and educational ministries have reached Spanish-speaking Christians across the world with numbers in the millions (thanks for this tip, Adam Perez), or Shirley Erena Murray whose hymn texts are at the cutting edge of ecotheology, 21st century Christology that is in concert with scientific thought, and expressing non-western Christian worldviews. Our list is also hyper focused on music instead of art as a whole (remember the claim was on being the greatest “artist”). And, or course, there’s also the question of what the definition of a “great” Christian artist is, which most people would have to agree has to have different metrics than what the popular music industry gives us.
So, in short, no. Kanye is certainly not the “greatest artist God has ever created.” Seriously? Is there even such a thing? Probably not. We’re all made unique and are given a particular calling by God, not to mention there have been some seriously talented artists in the past and will continue to be in the future. Maybe a more accurate claim would be that Kanye is the greatest Prosperity Gospel Christian Rap/Hip-Hop Artist God has ever made who gave his life to Christ in the early 21st century. That’s probably true.
Author Brian Hehn is the director of The Center for Congregational Song.
FeliciaPatton is a lifelong Chicago native and worship leader at Urban Village Church. Felicia received an undergraduate degree from North Park University followed by two graduate degrees from Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary.
Come, descendants of Jacob, let us walk in the light of the Lord. (Isaiah 2:5, NIV)
How do we tell the story
How do we tell the story of Jesus through song? I have asked myself this question every year when starting to plan for the Advent/Christmas season. When I first started as a choir director, I pulled out all of the bells and whistles in order to give the congregation a story they would never forget. There were fireworks, and Jesus came down from the ceiling (please note that liberties were taken in the retelling of stories for entertainment purposes only). My conducting baton was a light-saber that would light up purple and lead the ensembles in a magnificent dance of liturgy and song. The ideas that flew out of my brain were endless. I loved everything about planning it. After every successful Advent/Christmas season, I would nap and have a good burger. I deserved it; I had made God proud. I could rest. But after a few years of consistent work and fatigue, I found myself dreading the upcoming seasons. The expectations had been set, and I was struggling to find inspiration. The demand for something new and familiar had me stuck in my own head. My brain was empty and dark. I wondered how I could spark the light within myself while telling the story of the light of the world. See what I did there?
The expectations had been set, and I was struggling to find inspiration.
I struggled to find a response to that question. How could I find new inspiration within the biblical stories that have been told for many years? In order to find new inspiration, I had to step away from what I knew, and I had to listen. I got so comfortable with what I thought I knew about these stories that I didn’t turn to God for inspiration. In order to get out of this rut, I had to stop and reflect on my practices as a leader and develop new practices in order to lead the communities that I have been privileged to serve in a thoughtful and informed way.
The first practice I implemented was to start each season with a renewed mindset. Think about it in relation to a physical light. When a light goes out in our house, we would change it, right? If we cannot find the light (inspiration), we might have a burned out light source. If we are depending on a burned out light bulb which initially had light, but is not a source of light anymore, then we should change it. Are we listening for the voice of God, the light, or are we depending on what God gave us in a previous season? But what do we do with the light we have used? We recycle it. We can recycle this wisdom and impart it in the people that we lead. When led by the voice of God, any light can burn out, but is not unusable.
Are we listening for the voice of God, the light, or are we depending on what God gave us in a previous season?
A Light Source
Working without a light source is not a good way to lead. As leaders, we have to refresh and renew our ministries. We cannot do this without a light source. One of the texts in the 2019 planning guide for the United Methodist Church is Isaiah 2:5: “Come, descendants of Jacob, let us walk in the light of the Lord.” That brings to mind the song, “Jesus, the Light of the World” written by Mrs. James Vincent Coombs. The text speaks of walking in the light, a phrase that resonates with me deeply. If we are to have light in our ministries, we have to “walk in the light” of God in our everyday lives. If our relationship with God is constantly being renewed and allowed the space to grow, the light will never burn out. But the only way to have space for the “light” is to make space for it. We cannot get so weighed down by expectations that we do not allow ourselves to grow as leaders. If we do not make space or change the bulb periodically, the light within us is doomed to burn out.
Jesus, the Light of the world
Beautiful light (well it’s a beautiful light)
Come where the dewdrops of mercy shine bright (Oh Lord)
Guest Blogger Joslyn Henderson is a full-time graduate student at Truett Seminary and Baylor School of Music, having first earned her Bachelors in Music, Vocal Performance from Spelman College in Atlanta. When she finishes at Baylor, she will add a Master of Divinity and Master of Music in Church Music to her education. She is a prolific gospel singer and worship leader who travels across the state and country magnifying God’s great name. In addition, Joslyn is also an active member of the Waco Alumnae Chapter of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Incorporated.
Black Gospel Music Tradition
I grew up going to a church deeply rooted in the Black gospel music tradition. No matter the Sunday or the choir that was singing, I was sure that on that morning I’d be hearing Black gospel music when I got to church. In a lot of music belonging to the genre, the soloist can make or break the songs. I think of the classics that I remember from my childhood, and the songs I remember the most are the ones with highly adlibbed vamps from anointed, gifted, and skilled soloists. In the following entries, I will talk about some of my favorite gospel music songs that feature a power gospel soloist, someone whom without their rich, vibrant, strong voices, these songs would not have the same impact. Though everyone who leads on these tracks is not a Black person or an African-American person, the genre being Black gospel music justifies using a title like Strong Black Lead to describe these soloists. They seat themselves in a musical tradition deeply rooted in Blackness, therefore even though they may not share the culture with those from whom it derives, their musical presence signifies a Strong Black Lead.
“Don’t Take Everybody to Be Your Friend”
by Sister Rosetta Tharpe
“Don’t Take Everybody to Be Your Friend” was written by Rosetta Tharpe and was performed by she and the Sam Price Trio. Though there have been over 30 recordings of this song, this is the original recorded by the composer for Decca Records. The recording that I heard was part of the Black Gospel Music Restoration Project, and the date of its original release is unclear. The site says between 1955-1975, while other sites say 1947 for the earliest release. The lyrics speak of the singer’s relationship with other people. It is quite clear that this song is not meant for use in church, though it mentions God at the beginning. God is brought in as a mediator between Tharpe and friends, the song warns the listeners of people who may enter into friendship with you for their own personal gain. She tells us repeatedly, “don’t, don’t take everybody for your friend.” The song feature Rosetta as the main vocalist and the Sammy Price trio as the instrumentalists. Tharpe is a guitarist herself, and subsequently accompanies herself on this track. The song is an example of a subgenre known as the Gospel blues. Horace Boyer says that Gospel blues specifically denotes a sixteen-bar form linked to AABA song structure. Michael Harris, however, says that Gospel blues signifies a blending of sacred texts and blues tunes. Both of these are apparent in this song. While Georgia Tom (Thomas Dorsey) was spreading his music around Chicago and the world thanks to Gospel Pearls, Tharpe and her gospel blues toured all across America and Europe. Around the time that this song was recorded, rock music was just beginning to gain traction. Gospel blues is considered a predecessor to rock-and-roll, and Tharpe is credited as the mother of the genre. Because of this, the gospel blues style is what made Tharpe a name to be remembered up to this day.
by the Walter Hawkins and the Love Center Choir
In June of 1975, Walter Hawkins and the Love Center Choir released the Love Alive album, containing a track that would that would heavily impact Black gospel music for decades to come. Employing such musical techniques as secondary dominant passages and shifting tonal centers, the title of this song is exemplified musically throughout the song. This song was written by Walter Hawkins. This album also contained “Goin Up Yonder” and “God Is Standing By” and sold over 250, 000 copies, becoming one of Black gospel music’s most successful albums of the 1970s. It is likely that he wrote this song with his then-wife, Tramaine, in mind. She was featured as the lead vocalist. The song is intended for use in church and wherever people need to know about the change that has come over you since encountering Jesus Christ. One of the distinct features of this song is the beginning of the track where there is a bit of a call and response between the choir and the lead. Tramaine begins the song with, “A change, a change has come over me…” and is followed by the choir singing, “He changed my life and now I’m free.” In this phrase the musicians move from an Eb tonality to that of Ab. The music is “changing” along with the lyrics. The Hawkins brothers, Walter and Edwin continued in the vein of gospel musicians that stretched the boundaries of traditional harmonies. The chord progressions that dominate this song were uncommon for that time, and the way that he uses imagery to convey the lyrics is different from those who were making gospel music prior to this era. This was a fresh sound, and the evidence of that “freshness” is apparent in its longevity.
“He Cares for You”
by Milton Brunson and the Thompson Community Singers
There are distinct names, voices, and sounds that came out of Chicago gospel music. Milton Brunson and the Thompson Community Singers are the people who come to mind first when I think of Chicago gospel. Milton Brunson was for Chicago what James Cleveland was for Southern California. He broke boundaries, set records, and gave Chicago what the city had been used to for years: a healthy appetite of gospel music. Written by Percy Bady during the early 80s, “He Cares for You” was an instant hit featuring Tina Conley-Watson on lead. This song first appeared on the If I Be Lifted album released in 1987. Tina’s biting soprano timbre cuts through the choir at the end of the song, demonstrating her expansive range. She begins the song singing softly with “so you think that you can’t make it through.” By the time she builds up to the repeat of that phrase after having sung through the verse once, she sings with much more fervor and intensity. This song was written for a community choir with the understanding that it would be used in churches across the city (and eventually, the country). The rhythmic acceleration to handclapping in the vamp at the end of the song is typical for Percy Bady/Milton Brunson collaborations, as we will see the same thing return on “There Is No Way” later in this paper. The piano plays a prominent role in this song, but Tina Watson is truly the star of this recording. When this song was released, many other gospel artists were on the scene doing music, but this sound, the instrumentation, and the lyrical content was characteristic of Chicago gospel music. The sounds that Andraé Crouch, Edwin Hawkins, and Walter Hawkins were using in California varied in that their music was very electronic and held on to stylistic elements of popular music in 1970s. This was not the case for Milton Brunson at this time. He used 4-piece rhythm section, spectacular soloists, and gifted writers to carry the music he released. This formula is what keeps us talking about the Tommies in the 2010s when they had their album debut in the 1980s.
“Take It By Force”
by Carlton Pearson (ft. Karen Clark-Sheard)
Any gospel music aficionado would consider Karen Clark-Sheard and her sisters one of the royal families of gospel music. On Carlton Pearson’s first live album, Live at Azusa, Karen Clark-Sheard lends her voice to a track with a 100-voice choir in a large arena at Oral Roberts University. The album was released in October of 1995, but the music has lived on to this day. The Live at Azusa recordings (of which there are five) grew out of the Azusa conference that took place yearly. Though the music is contextualized, it can be used widely. This is a choir song with a strong lead vocalist, so it would easily translate to a Sunday morning service. Karen Clark-Sheard is known for her belting skills, guttural sounds, precise melismatic phrases (runs), scats, and grunts used in her vocal performances. This song features all of those typical “KCS” characteristics. Even as a child, I memorized every adlib and lyric of this song because I wanted to sound like her when I grew up. The Live at Azusa album climbed to #5 on the Billboard Gospel Charts within weeks of its release. Featuring many other strong vocalists such as Daryl Coley, the album’s success was due in large part to the event people were attending. With the sound of the Hammond organ, bass guitar, drum set, keyboard, and synthesizer, this music was very reminiscent of the gospel music genre in 1995. Carlton Pearson did not seem to be creating a new sound in gospel music but jumping on the wave that had already worked for Kirk Franklin, Helen Baylor, Donald Lawrence, and John P. Kee. Pearson, however, found a sound that worked for him and had a very successful music career building on “Live at Azusa” and the street revival Pentecostal legacy.
“Now Behold the Lamb”
by Kirk Franklin
There are not very many Christmas seasons that pass in mainline Black churches where someone doesn’t sing or dance to Kirk Franklin’s “Now Behold the Lamb.” Making its premiere on the album Kirk Franklin & The Family Christmas in November 1995, this song has had a lasting effect on gospel music today. The composer of this song is Kirk Franklin and this track from his Christmas album is the most well-known recording of it. As I mentioned at the outset, this song is contemporary gospel music meant for use in the church. This was long before Kirk Franklin moved from choir music to that of ensembles and background vocalists. This song can be sung on a Sunday morning during the advent and Christmastide season in church. The song features two soloists and a choir. It opens with a distinct melody in the piano, that when played gives the listeners the signal they they’re about to “go in” (common Black church jargon for being slain in the spirit). The acoustic piano is the main instrument in this track, but Kirk Franklin layers in the musicians, beginning only with piano and drum set. As the choir repeats the verse, the synthesizer joins, padding underneath the melody in the piano. After the synthesizer enters, the Hammond organ is heard entering the musical landscape. The bass guitar is also heard on the track. Musically genius in its arrangement, this song is emblematic of the compositions of Kirk Franklin. The types of poetry that Kirk Franklin writes on this track leads the way to the future of gospel music with lines like, “born into sin that I may live again.” Kirk Franklin comes up with metaphors and similes that transport the listener into a euphoric state of reading as they listen to his music. The two soloists on the track are Tamela Mann and John Gray. Tamela has gone on to see major success in gospel music, radio, film, television, and the play stage with and without her husband, David Mann. John Gray is a popular television preacher known for his television shows, marriage, and work in Lakewood Church and at his new church, Relentless Church. It is hard to believe that this song would have reached the success that it did then and still does now had Kirk Franklin chosen different soloists to lead it.
“I Love the Lord”
by Whitney Houston
The 1982 album that contained Richard Smallwood’s “I Love the Lord” spent over 80 weeks on the Billboard gospel chart. Composed in the basement of the Fine Arts department at Howard University, this song would gain him international acclaim over a decade later. Whitney Houston loved the song and knew that when she filmed The Preacher’s Wife that the song had to be included. There are quite a few songs that become popular largely because of the soloist and not the composer or the arranger; this song was one of them. Though Richard Smallwood had already achieved commercial success with his albums with Howard Gospel Choir, he would never have never foreseen the success of this recording. This song has great crossover appeal, evidenced by the many people who have taken it and arranged it for choir, solo, instruments, and more and is a personal favorite of the writer to perform, the most recent performance being for an Ash Wednesday service recently. This 1996 release features string instruments and many other instruments that most musicians would expect to find in classical music. However, this is the characteristic of the writing style of Richard Smallwood. Though many of his compositions are quite classical in arrangement, he also composes music for 4-piece rhythm sections on a Sunday morning. Much of his earlier music shows off the breadth of musical knowledge he brings to his compositions. Even in this track, in addition to the stringed instruments, brass can be heard on the part where the choir (and soloist) sings “and trouble rise.” This song is not only a beautiful solo, but a work of art. Employing great musicality, Whitney Houston flips between her head and chest voice varying dynamics to deliver the melody and the lead of this great gospel standard. Her voice being featured on most of the album made The Preacher’s Wife soundtrack the best-selling gospel soundtrack of all time, even to this day. Undoubtedly, this track had much to do with that success.
Part II of this blog, including a list of resources mentioned in this post, is now posted.
This episode is with music professor and leading expert on Music of the African Diaspora, African American Culture, the Black Church, and Christian Worship, Dr. Emmett Price. It was recorded at the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship at their annual Worship Symposium.
Season 2 – Episode 4
In this interview with Dr. Emmett Price, we hear about his personal journey through song that informed his role as a pastor and now as a scholar focusing on the musics of the Black Church.