Work the Works: The Role of African-American Women in the Development of Contemporary Gospel

Article excerpt

"I must work the works of Him who sent me while it's day, for when the night is come the time for work will be done away. Would you be willing to work for Jesus any time and every day? He'll reward you when He comes to take His bride away."

--Danniebelle Hall, "Work the Works"

The popularity of black gospel music has expanded beyond the grassroots network of churches and small concert venues that powered the genre to new heights in the 1950s and early 1960s. Today, gospel has earned a distinct place on mainstream black radio, and gospel videos have moved from being shown on Sunday mornings between 11 A.M. and noon and are now played in rotation with Missy Elliott, Tupac Shakur, and Mariah Carey on BET and VH1. Recent marketing strategies that include concert tours, music videos, e-mail listservs, downloadable ring tones, concert DVDs, and movies have placed the genre's profits well above other forms of popular music. At the center of this popularity is a creative community of singers, composers, producers, instrumentalists, and independent and major records companies that have drawn from myriad musical styles and production methods.

More important is gospel's meteoric evolution to a form that today is emblematic of the social, economic, and musical beliefs of the urban identities and theological perspectives that developed in the generations that followed the civil rights movement. The term contemporary gospel, much like its counterpart traditional gospel, has served as an umbrella term that represents the stylistic characteristics and production methods that have defined gospel music from circa 1968 forward. Turn on gospel radio today or download the newest gospel single, and you will hear a complex arrangement of sampled bass lines, explosive rhythms, and intricate vocal interactions that are more reflective of the sound identities that each performer, production team, and record company has created than one singular sound. With the growing influence that R&B, jazz, Western art music, and hip-hop have had on contemporary gospel, producers such as Donald Lawrence, Kevin Bond, Kurt Carr, and J. Moss have become as notable if not as popular as the performers.

While the criticism against "secular-sounding" gospel music has grown, and fears that the church has "lost" gospel to the world are nurtured in many traditional circles, the influence of the music--and its accompanying images of dancing choirs, glamorized and highly coiffed purveyors in the newest and hippest fashions--on younger and secular audiences has not lessened.

Central to understanding the history and development of contemporary gospel is the role gender that has played in its basic practice and conceptualization. While black men have continued to hold important roles as composers, producers, instrumentalists, and CEOs in gospel music, women have shaped the performance aesthetic of the genre. It was, after all, the creative textural interpretation and vocal dexterity of female vocalists that gave Edwin Hawkins, Walter Hawkins, and Andrae Crouch their signature sounds. Today, artists such as Yolanda Adams, CeCe Winans, Shirley Caesar, and the Clark Sisters have defined and in some cases redefined the sound and image of contemporary gospel and placed it in the realm of mainstream popularity that continues in the vein of singers Mahalia Jackson, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, and Clara Ward, who spread gospel beyond the boundaries of black churches and popularized it on concert stages and in nightclubs during the 1940s and 1950s.

Framing the present discussion around the post-civil rights generations (1969-present), specific performers, and the performance approaches each has introduced or popularized, I consider the contributions of African-American women to the development of contemporary gospel music. (1) In an effort to bring clearer understanding to the ever-evolving concept of "contemporary," this discussion extends beyond the work of previous scholars, which has focused on the contemporary gospel sound of the late 1960s and early 1970s. …