With God on Our Side

Today's Pop-Gospel Albums Affirm the Persistence of Faith Through Adversity

Much the way there are no atheists in foxholes, you'll find even fewer unbelievers in Black America. Constant danger, risible ironies, and ontological uncertainty remain spirituality's best friend. An index of our particular attachment to Judeo-Christian beliefs can be found in the music we make based on the tenets and parables provided by the Old and New Testaments. Black Americans claim and transform Judeo-Christian traditions as if they had never been used to justify American chattel slavery. We continue to rework these traditions in our own image because geopolitical history shows us key Biblical events taking place comparatively "close to home" in parts of Asia and Africa. And contrary to vintage white Anglo-Saxon Protestant propaganda, Africans didn't need to be enslaved by WASPs (or Catholics!) to have access to monotheism and the good news of Christ. Not when Christian, Muslim, and Jewish converts were wandering the Mother Continent long before European slavers got there. Not when the Apostle Mark wrote down the first of the four transcribed Gospels while establishing the Christian church in Egypt 15 years after the Crucifixion.

So we skeptics needn't begrudge Black America its Judeo-Christian obsessions, especially when they yield such delights as the following five gospel albums. The first thing you'll notice is that each record incorporates a regional flavor. Chicago's status as the "golden era" gospel stronghold is the stepping-off point for the praise and worship team known as Shekinah Glory Ministry. The sophisticated swing of New York session players pervades the black Israelite choir Voices of Shalom. Aaron Neville steeps his eclectic selection of folk hymns and pop-rock spirituals in the multiethnic sensuality of New Orleans. Detroit-bred evangelist Dorinda Cole-Clark does justice to her hometown legacy of Aretha Franklin, Motown, and the Clark Conservatory of Music with soulful solo testimony. Meanwhile, Kirk Franklin survives being sued by members of the Family—his first big crossover choir—to dance and shout like a Texan tent-revival leader through an ambitious autobiographical recording so rich in stylistic diversity it should have been titled "Songs in the Key of God." All five albums exist largely to affirm the persistence of faith through adversity . . . which is actually the main characteristic they have in common.

Producer Tinker "El-Uriel" Barfield is one of about 25,000 Black Israelites who live in the New York area, mostly close-knit families who've been quietly keeping kosher, celebrating Passover, and bar or bat mitzvahing their children since the 1930s and '40s. Before called to help lead his father's Brooklyn temple, Barfield had been a ranking member of the local session scene that produced Chic, Luther Vandross, and a host of other r&b innovators. His wife, Alfa Anderson (now a school principal), had been half of the "Lucy & Alfa" team fronting Chic singles like "Le Freak" and "Good Times." In the early '90s Barfield channeled his songwriting energy into the female vocal group Voices of Shalom, featuring Alfa among the lead vocalists. Their second independent CD, Daily Bread (voicesofshalom.com), surrounds the linear melodies a temple cantor might sing with subtly orchestrated melismatic colors derived from blues and funk. And where it departs most from Christian gospel is in God-centered lyrics with no mention of Jesus. Otherwise, their radio-friendly tunes deploy the same MIDI magic and driving syncopation that keep Mary J. and Destiny's Child on the pop charts.

Less obvious in its mainstream applications is Shekinah Glory Ministry's independent double CD Praise Is What I Do: Vols. 1 & 2 (Kingdom Records/Point of Grace). Not a choir so much as a portable "praise and worship" ensemble, Shekinah's collaborative team was dreamed up at their pastor's request by the music director of Chicago's nondenominational Valley Kingdom Ministries. Numinous promptings moved Elder Rose Harper to attempt to record an interactive church service in which music would invoke and demonstrate the palpable presence of Deity. What you hear on these two CDs is everything that transpired in the studio, without editing or overdubs. When asked why a Christian troupe would name themselves after a mystical Jewish term for the feminine aspect of God, they say because "Shekinah" also means "the manifest glory of God."

Kirk Franklin and Dorinda Clark-Cole were only two of the multiple winners worshiping alongside Shekinah at January's televised Stellar Awards. Franklin had taken most of the evening's top honors, and although it didn't cross over to pop radio like God's Property's "Stomp," the kinetic psalm "Hosanna" from The Rebirth of Kirk Franklin (GospoCentric) had all the youthful bounce and stylish pizzazz of his previous stab at progressive soul gospel. Though billed as a solo album, Rebirth sports a slew of star cameos from Shirley Caesar to Donnie McClurkin, making Franklin come off like the Quincy Jones of black religious music. In some ways Franklin's current material dovetails with that of his labelmate Dorinda, the author of five cuts on her eponymous debut. Both admit the human frailties of clergy: Clark-Cole during "It's Not Me," and Franklin on "911," a poignant duet with Bishop T.D. Jakes.

And both artists divide their work between slow songs reminiscent of those in old-school hymnals and danceable "new wave" gospel. Kirk's "Brighter Day" could have come from Earth Wind and Fire, while Dorinda's "I'm Coming Out" (not the Ross hit) was Britney-esque enough to support frontline dancers as well as a full choir during the Stellar Awards.

Such strategically broad appeal is more than matched by Aaron Neville on his pop-gospel release Believe (EMI Gospel). But Neville is not a gospel artist per se. That's why his approach to devotional music is so intriguing when judged against the work of self-identified saints and preachers. Neville's angelic tenor, embellished with occasional blue triplets, is as lovely on Hank Williams's "I Saw the Light" as on a version of "Ave Maria." Because he doesn't have to prove himself saved or sanctified, he takes on the intrinsic authority of whatever song he sings. What makes his reworking of "Oh Happy Day" a triumph is how he doesn't adhere to some straitlaced rule book of gospel execution. Each of the artists here is a bit rebellious in that respect, but Neville—with his tattoos, gangster lean, and biker physique—is at ease with this rebelliousness in a way currently impossible for the "elect" of any church.

Unburdened by doctrinal disputes and freed of the responsibilities of congregational leadership, Aaron Neville gives voice to a breezier, happier form of faith. His work may lack an aura of supernatural genius and iron discipline, but it glows with the lambent grace of genuine humility so difficult for the most talented and influential defenders of Black Judeo-Christian traditions to attain.

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