Sound of the Season: Praise & Worship Comes to Light
“There’s a sound for every season and I believe praise and worship is the sound for today,” says Jonathan Nelson. “I call it kingdom music.” He would know. As one of a cadre of praise & worship artists, whose top 10 smash “My Name Is Victory” spent 65 weeks on the Billboard Hot Gospel Songs chart in 2008, he’s seen the genre’s popularity skyrocket and the music head straight to the top of the charts.
Last month alone, five of the top ten selling and charting gospel albums were from praise & worship artists, including Israel Houghton, William McDowell, Micah Stampley and VaShawn Mitchell, whose album Triumphant – which peaked at No. 2 on Billboard’s Top Gospel Albums Chart, features the single “Nobody Greater,” dubbed by some as the “worship anthem of the year.”
Fact is, over the last decade – with the rise of multi-cultural and mega churches – praise & worship has enjoyed phenomenal growth not only in the church but on the charts, thanks to such pioneering artists as Judith McAllister, Alvin Slaughter and Byron Cage.
Today, gifted praise & worship leaders are taking center stage in the industry as well, many landing lucrative recording contracts. Their increasing popularity has paved the way for a cottage industry of clinicians, musicians sought by churches around the country to train their own music departments, while the success of songs like “Nobody Greater” forge even greater inroads.
“It’s such a huge song in the church right now, not just the melody in the music, but because it speaks to people in such a powerful way…,” says Nelson. “Radio announcers are saying ‘they sang this song on Sunday.’ That gives us more of an opportunity to have a platform on radio.”
“Songs like ‘Nobody Greater’ reflect the growing hunger for praise & worship,” says Micah Stampley, whose latest project, Release Me, debuted late last month at No. 3 on Billboard’s Gospel Albums chart. “Black churches – particularly mega churches – are trying to bridge the gap and be multi-cultural and the industry is getting to a point where they’re more receptive to it.”
“‘Nobody Greater’ has become the anthem for the season because it has birthed a new sense of the greatness of God for people in general,” says VaShawn Mitchell. “Not just for Christians but some – who don’t go to church – have written and told me how it’s changed their life. So it’s good to know that we don’t have to change our message or go out of the four walls of the church to do that.”
Given the participatory nature of choir music, praise & worship is seen as a means to usher congregations into a spirit of worship, and to set the tone for the rest of the church service. To that end, these artists take their work seriously.
“Praise & worship is not just a song. It really is a lifestyle,” says Nelson. “The songs and melodies have a lot of depth to them.”
“It’s really about the condition of the heart, the willingness to exalt God and to worship him,” observes Mitchell. “Praise & worship points us back to God as a source. I believe that’s why it’s becoming so popular because everybody wants to connect.
Currently at No. 9 on Billboard’s Gospel charts with his live CD As We Worship, William McDowell says God told him before the release: If you speak what I’m speaking, I will make a way for my message to be heard.
McDowell, who ministers at churches and conferences around the country, says his ministry assignment is to declare the truth of God’s word by releasing an authentic sound that ushers people into the presence of God. His goal is to equip others in the Kingdom to carry out that same assignment, revolutionizing the way churches view the simple act of “loving on God,” one congregation at a time.
“God is not obligated to our needs,” says Micah Stampley, who came to international prominence in 2005 as the flagship artist for mega-pastor Bishop T.D. Jakes’ Dexterity Sounds/EMI Gospel label. His inaugural CD, The Songbook of Micah, debuted at the No. 3 slot on Billboard’s Top Gospel Albums chart. That year, Billboard magazine placed him on its Top 10 Gospel Music Artists of 2005 list.
“I try to display His word in my music and not play with people’s emotions to get a tear,” he continues. “We need victory in our lives, so my wife and I try to stay [lyrically] on Him.”
Stampley, who released two CDs on his own independent label, recently forged a partnership with Matthew Knowles and his Music World Records for his current project, which is a re-release of materials that didn’t get the exposure when he was working on his own. Unlike some choir music, most can sing praise & worship tunes, which is the reason many have attributed the decline in popularity of gospel music to the explosive growth and acceptance of the genre.
“[At our church,] we have the lyrics on a screen. Once people have grabbed a hold of the hook or the melodic pattern of the song, they’ve got it,” Nelson says. “Churches are moving more in that direction because we’re in the age of that technology. People are not left out. Vocally every audience can appreciate the music.”
Still, both Nelson and Mitchell are quick to add that the music is not in competition with the choir experience.
“The choir sound has not left. It’s up to us to restructure the sound that meets the need of the body at large,” reports Mitchell, who serves as minister of music at Higher Living Christian Church just outside Atlanta in Hampton, Ga. “They’re both important. The goal of my CD was to merge the choir sound with praise & worship.
“We’re born to worship God and what’s great is each church has its unique sound for praise & worship. Can everyone lead us in praise & worship? I don’t believe so. There are some people anointed to lead us, but everyone can participate. Everyone wants to get the next sound, the next chart-topper, the next song everyone sings, because everybody wants to have their song connect.”
About the Writer
Lisa Collins, a Los Angeles native and resident, is a syndicated columnist, writer, publisher and former Billboard Magazine columnist. Her career in gospel began in 1988 with her creation of "Inside Gospel," a daily/weekly syndicated radio series that provided news, profiles and product updates relative to the gospel music community. For the next eight years, she would also serve as executive producer of the show that was broadcast in more than 100 markets nationwide. Collins has also served as a segment producer for BET and authored well over 300 articles on a variety of issues for a number of national publications from Essence to Upscale. Her background in the field of entertainment reporting is extensive, featuring cover stories and interviews with the likes of Richard Pryor, Michael Jackson and Prince.
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