Good old-fashioned foot-stomping gospel music may not be nudging Gretchen Wilson and Kanye West off the top of the pop charts, but the spirit of one of America's oldest native art forms is - hallelujah! - on the rise.
"The Gospel," a modern take on the prodigal son parable set in a black gospel church, has produced a hot-selling soundtrack after the movie surprised industry insiders with a Top-5 debut last weekend. On the small screen, The Gospel Music Channel, available on cable, marks its first anniversary this month with one of the fastest growth rates for a new channel (4 million homes, aiming for 18 next year). And Kirk Franklin, the only gospel singer to appear on MTV, just released "Hero," which debuted at number 13 on Billboard's top 200 this week.
Faith-based entertainment is moving into the mainstream, says James Roberson, independent producer and ethnomusicologist at the University of California, Los Angeles. Beyond the huge success of such overtly Christian films as "The Passion," Mr. Roberson says the all-important radio market has begun to open up to more faith-based formats, including gospel. He points to Radio One, a major media company, which has recently expanded into the gospel format in major urban markets like Detroit, Atlanta, and Philadelphia.
This isn't the first time gospel has been on the music industry's mainstream charts. A decade ago, some 20 record companies had gospel divisions, including all the majors. Today, that number has dwindled to three. But the three, which includes Sony and EMI, are taking steps to partner with small, but successful independent labels. Roberson's own JDI Records is exploring a partnership with Sony.
Even so, mainstream distribution brings up issues as old as the church itself - how to appeal to a broad audience without compromising personal vision. Roberson points out that diluting the message of the gospel genre was the mistake many companies made 10 years ago, alienating core audiences while failing to attract new ones.
Songwriter Franklin, who composed music for "The Gospel," says it's a difficult issue as he tries to broaden his appeal. "One of the biggest challenges of my music is that it has Jesus in it and all kinds of references to Christianity," he says. The hip-hop stations shun such explicitly religious content, but even so-called gospel stations can blacklist records. Many of the stations with a large Christian audience want what he calls feel good, inspirational messages, "but they don't want the hard-core message about deliverance and redemption in Christ," says Franklin.
The Gospel Music Channel has an intentionally broad definition, including everything from Christian rock to inspirational homilies to traditional gospel.
The channel's "American Idol" copycat, "Gospel Dream 2005," includes all kinds of faith-based music and will audition hundreds of hopeful singers before its Dec. 1 finale. One of the finalists, Raychell Richard of New Orleans, considers herself a traditional church-based gospel singer. The former school administrator says she understands the conflicts that can arise with trying to attract a wider audience. In the past she has shied away from college choral groups that were focused on ticket sales rather than the spiritual message. She says she even questioned her participation in the "Gospel Dream" competition but ultimately decided she would be all right as long as she held onto important, underlying values. "The heart and soul of gospel is not foot stomping and hand clapping," she says. "It's the lyrics that go into the heart and break the captive free."
Ms. Richard speaks from experience. The mother of two evacuated New Orleans twice - the first time to escape hurricane Katrina, the second to flee Rita. The events underlined what she says she already felt - that people need inspirational music more than ever. "The whole world just seems to be in need right now," says Richard.
It's gospel's ability to speak to people looking for meaning that accounts for a resurgence in the genre's popularity, according to Charley Humbard, cofounder and president of the Gospel Channel. After 9/11, the Iraq war, and the hurricanes, "Faith is on people's minds," he says.
The Gospel Soundtrack
Various artists (Verity)
Kirk Franklin (Gospocentric)