Last month, Donald Lawrence, an acclaimed gospel veteran with a half-dozen hits, attended a preview party for Kanye West’s Jesus Is King album at the Auditorium Theatre in Chicago.
“He did a song called ‘Selah’ that was rap and choir,” Lawrence recalls. “When they got to the hook, it was ‘hallelujah’s’ from an old song, very much an Eighties choir type of thing. To watch a crowd that was probably 25% African American, 75% caucasian — hip-hop kids from the suburbs — go bananas when the choir came in [was amazing]. [West] had to do the song again, play it twice.”
This was an especially uplifting moment for Lawrence, a passionate advocate for choirs who fears that gospel’s mainstream has turned its back on massed vocals. “It took a rapper to remind you just how beautiful a piece of art you created,” Lawrence says, addressing himself to the gospel community. “I don’t know why anyone would get rid of choirs.”
To some, the music of the black church and choral singing might seem synonymous. But there are a mix of genres and approaches, according to Birgitta Johnson, an associate professor of ethnomusicology at the University of South Carolina. And in the last decade-plus, the focus shifted to emphasize the work of “smaller praise teams” singing, Lawrence says, rather than large choirs. Lawrence is hoping that West can reverse this trend.
The decline in the prominence of choir-first gospel is mirrored by a decline in group singing in other genres — especially R&B, which has traditionally had a close relationship with gospel. Vocal groups were a constant presence in R&B from its inception up through the mid-2000s. But no ensemble has enjoyed sustained success on the R&B charts since Destiny’s Child broke up. Either the mainstream music industry has de-prioritized a multi-vocal approach or listener demand for it plummeted — or both.
Professor Johnson believes that industry forces are responsible for the move away from choir-first music in commercial gospel. “The gospel music industry got subsumed by the major [labels] and the conglomerates in the late Nineties,” she says. “They and the program directors at radio stations are deciding what type of gospel is being played. So while you have community choirs, church choirs, professional choirs, the industry is literally telling program directors, we don’t want to hear choirs on radio.”
What does the industry have against choirs? First, they’re expensive to maintain and fly around. “It’s cheaper to have four or five singers and a lead, usually a male,” Johnson says.
Second, what’s known as “praise and worship” music is thought to be more flexible and easier to grasp than choir-based music. “It’s often got more of a rock sound to it; it sounds more like secular music,” says Phillip Carter, a gospel artist who leads a Bring Back the Choir event twice a year. “Some of the chords they play during praise and worship, especially in Contemporary Christian Music, came from people like U2, light rock, classic rock.” The singing in praise and worship is supposed to be more accessible and thus more engaging — by deemphasizing complicated vocal runs and intricate choral harmonies and playing up simple unison singing, everyone in the congregation can join in.
The combination of these factors means choirs have been pushed to the background. “For a long time, the people who are in love with gospel choirs have been feeling slighted by radio,” says Jacquie Gale Webb, who helms a weekly gospel radio show for WHUR. Just “two or three out of the top nine [at radio right now] could be considered somewhat choir-based.” Lawrence suggests that you can count the number of choirs able to score radio hits in recent years on one hand: His own along with Charles Jenkins & Fellowship Chicago, Ricky Dillard & New G, and Hezekiah Walker.
De-emphasizing choirs in gospel doesn’t just impact the sound and texture of the music — the medium affects the message as well. “Praise is thanking God for what He’s done, worship is loving Him for who He is,” Lawrence explains. “It’s a little more vertical, not horizontal, in message, meaning it’s about you and your relationship with God. But it doesn’t always allow you to tell stories. Some other songs reach out, speak in second person, talk to the listener, encourage the listener.”
So Lawrence found it refreshing at West’s Chicago event to hear narrative songs like “L.A. Monster,” which grapples with “the challenges of being in L.A. and what it can do to you.” “[West] just talked about his life,” Lawrence says. “That’s something praise and worship doesn’t allow you to do.” (“L.A. Monster” did not make the final cut for Jesus Is King.)
While Professor Johnson acknowledges that “the richness of the gospel genre is suffering” right now, she’s not entirely convinced West can reverse this trend. “When people send me videos of what he’s doing, I don’t really see a choir,” she says. “He’s taking choirs and turning them into a sample. They don’t get to sing full verses, full choruses.” Sometimes, she worries West is “using choirs as a prop.”
And it’s true that while West opens Jesus Is King with the Sunday Service choir and follows that track with “Selah,” the choir is often an accent, rather than an entree. In addition, Fred Hammond, one of the featured artists on the album, is proudly associated with a style he dubs “urban praise and worship.”
But Carter believes West’s endorsement of choirs is already having ripple effects in the gospel community. “People are starting to see the value of having well-trained choirs coming together to sing gospel music again,” Carter says. “The tide is turning in a large part because of what Kanye West is doing.”