Gospel music is one of the oldest and most influential musical genres. You can see gospel music’s footprint virtually everywhere, from modern rock and roll to blues. Although it might seem similar to contemporary Christian music, gospel has its own flair and style, often focusing on perseverance in the face of obstacles.
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Definition: What Is Gospel Music?
The definition of gospel music is a bit tough to pin down entirely. Essentially, it’s a sub-genre of spiritual and Christian music, but its roots go much deeper than that. Many of our most beloved gospel standards come from the spirituals of enslaved people. When you think about it in that context, it makes sense that many gospel themes revolve around overcoming enormous challenges and finding dignity even in the worst possible circumstances.
Although there are some white gospel singers, the genre is mainly populated by Black artists. Gospel also spans a range of different types of music. Some of it is very akin to traditional church songs, whereas other varieties have a bluegrass, country, or even rock feel to them.
Gospel Music Characteristics
Although you get tons of different variations in gospel music, a few common characteristics really define the genre.
Gospel is all about the crowd. So engaging people, be they in a congregation or a dance hall, is critical for successful gospel artists. One of the essential ways gospel artists get people motivated to join in is by employing catchy and easy-to-follow rhythms.
Artists encourage plenty of clapping or even chanting back certain parts of the song. You know that you have an excellent gospel tune going when the entire crowd is engaged.
Deliberate Use of Performers
Although most music genres hinge on the charisma and likeability of their performers, gospel takes it a step farther. There are plenty of acts that fall underneath the gospel umbrella, and how many dynamic performers you need for each really depends on the message of the song and the crowd.
For example, a single gospel soloist can take a church service to the next level, whereas a trio or quartet is able to crank out powerhouse songs with plenty of harmonies.
Heavy Piano Music
Gospel tends to be fairly heavy on the piano music, although it’s hardly ever the only instrument involved. Although the piano carries the tune, you’ll get guitar, tambourines, and sometimes even horns. If the gospel in question is a bit more of the rock-and-roll variety, you might even get some serious drum solos.
Straightforward Clear Lyrics
One of the key differentiating factors of gospel music is its straightforward lyrics. You’ll never be left guessing what the song is about. These lyrics accomplish a few different and important things. First, they give the crowd a roadmap to follow, allowing them to echo certain parts of the song and participate. Secondly, they communicate a very basic and strong message without any guesswork.
Although gospel’s lyrics tend to be clearer and more straightforward, the songs are still incredibly moving and timeless.
7 Examples of Gospel Music
Although there’s more great gospel music out there than one can ever hope to put in a book, let alone an article, there are a few songs that truly stand out.
“Thank You For It All” by Marvin Sapp
Marvin Sapp’s Thank You For It All is the classic example of what a great gospel song should be. This song focuses on praising God no matter what’s happening in your life, and thanking them for giving you the strength to persevere and triumph. Sapp begins with thanking God for the good, bad, ugly, great and small things in his life, then acknowledging that the challenges in his life allowed him to grow.
He also talks about the importance of God being there for him when he needed it the most, and reflects on how it’s only through looking at the bigger picture that he’s able to truly understand divine mercy. Marvin Sapp’s Thank You For It All is an excellent reminder that even painful or challenging things in our lives can be learning opportunities if we allow them to be.
“Same God” by Elevation Worship
Same God by Elevation Worship hits on older topics and themes, invoking a sense of the past and making us realize that God is always in our corner. In their first line, they mention the Biblical figure of Jacob specifically, then go on to talk about Moses parting the Red Sea.
In the song, Elevation Worship talks about how they need the strength of that God to faced their own obstacles, mentioning David and Goliath, and mother Mary. It’s an excellent song that reminds listeners of all of the amazing things that God did in the past, and how they are still capable of performing incredible miracles for everyday citizens.
“You Know My Name” by Tasha Cobbs Leonard
Tasha Cobbs Leonard is one of gospel music’s iconic performers, and there’s a good reason why. Her work has a Motown, catchy feeling that makes it easy to sing along to. With fun lyrics, a fresh beat, and an upbeat message You Know My Name is one of her finest pieces.
The title really says it all. The song starts off by acknowledging that God knows our names, has our backs and walks with us throughout every day of our lives. Tasha Cobbs Leonard also mentions that she sees God as a personal friend who will never let her down. If you’re feeling troubled, this is a great song to listen to.
“I Smile” by Kirk Franklin
I Smile by Kirk Franklin starts off a little bit low, with talk about depression, unemployment, and recession. In fact, Kirk Franklin dedicates his song to these things, mentioning the darkness in his heart and the lack of sunshine with no blue skies in sight. He delves deep into despair, referencing that sometimes it’s hard to find happiness and peace anywhere, and hitting rock bottom before surging back up in a beautiful gospel track.
Kirk Franklin explains that he can still smile, despite all of the negativity and suffering in his life, because he understands that God is always on his side. The idea of an ever-present Lord is a true theme in many gospel songs, and Kirk Franklin’s piece is a wonderful reminder to always remember that the Lord works in mysterious ways.
“Mercy Said No” by CeCe Winans
As with I Smile, CeCe Winans’ Mercy Said No hits on some of the darker aspects of life, before talking about God’s grace and mercy. CeCe Winans is a Nashville legend, famous for her riveting church services and catchy gospel tunes. She’s also a published author and speaker. Mercy Said No gives us the best of CeCe Winans; a simple message with a heartfelt and hopeful core.
The song talks about how when her soul was tempted to sin, the Lord’s mercy stepped in and stopped it from taking over her life. As such, sin would never have power over her. CeCe Winans ends by thanking God and understanding that no matter what happened, they would always take care of her.
“I Thank God by” Maverick City Music
Sometimes the best gospel music doesn’t have to be a solo performance. Maverick City Music is a gospel group that truly embodies the genre, especially with their song I Thank God. This song had a long run on Billboard’s Gospel chart and is easily one of the catchiest tunes on our list. As with some of the other songs featured here, Maverick City Music doesn’t shy away from the darkness. They open by talking about being weary and wanting somewhere to hide.
Quickly, the song turns around as the tired soul comes face to face with God, who assures him that he’s not alone. Newly saved, the hero of the song talks about how he won’t have to go to hell or live in darkness and fear. One thing that really sets this song apart is that it’s a beautiful, relatable, and eloquently-told story of redemption. Maverick City Music really nails it.
“Mary Don’t You Weep” by Aretha Franklin
Aretha Franklin is one of the most iconic American singers ever, and her rendition of Mary Don’t You Weep is timeless. As with some of the best gospel music songs, Mary Don’t You Weep was an old spiritual, and a beautiful tribute to perseverance and joy in the face of huge odds. Aretha Franklin does it justice, and it’s one of gospel music’s most cherished standards today.
Mary Don’t You Weep digs deep into the Bible to reference some of the books’ best stories of ordinary people overcoming massive odds. It starts by talking about the defeated Egyptian Pharoah, and Moses parting the Red Sea. It also references Lazarus and Jesus’ miracles. If you’re new to gospel music and want to appreciate a true classic, give Mary Don’t You Weep a listen.
Top 5 Gospel Musicians
Although there are many legendary gospel musicians, there are a few that really helped shape the genre and still impact its music today. These titans not only influenced gospel music, but also helped pave the road for prominent jazz, blues, country, and rock musicians.
Reverend Gary Davis
Reverend Gary Davis was a man of many talents. Born in 1896, he’s one of the first and most respected voices in gospel music. Not only was Reverand Gary Davis exceptional in singing blues and gospel songs, but he also played the harmonica, guitar, and banjo. Reverend Gary Davis lived and performed long enough to see several different offshoots and genres come from gospel.
He initially sang and played blues but changed to gospel music once he converted. His work was also instrumental in inspiring many American folk musicians. Bob Dylan and the Grateful Dead were both big fans of his.
Although Andrae Crouch was a little later than Reverand Gary Davis, his work was still very influential in shaping what we know as modern gospel music today. Like Gary Davis, Andrae Crouch was a pastor. He penned now-classic tunes like Soon and Very Soon and The Blood Will Never Lose Its Power.
Like the Reverand Gary Davis, Andrae Crouch’s work spanned genres. His talent caught the ear of musical heavyweights like Chaka Khan and Stevie Wonder. Not only did he work with some of the biggest names in the industry, but many important artists also covered some of his original work. Bob Dylan, Elvis Presley, and Paul Simon were fans. He also kept working into the 80s, performing with superstars like Madonna and Micheal Jackson, and his work was featured in classic films like The Lion King.
Shirley Ann Caesar-Williams
Shirley Ann Caesar-Williams has the incredible honor of being called “The First Lady of Gospel Music”, and if you check out her long career, you’ll understand why. She started very young, recording her first music when she was only twelve years old, and only picked up steam from there. She produced forty records, collaborated with top names in the business, and even wrote a handful of musicals.
Shirley Ann Caesar-Williams is also philanthropic, regularly donating large amounts of money to needy people during the holidays. She’s been the recipient of tons of different awards, including Grammys, Dove Awards, Essence Awards, and NAACP Lifetime Achievement Awards. She’s also performed for some very prominent people, including past presidents.
While Shirley Ann Caesar-Williams might be known as “The First Lady of Gospel Music”, Mahalia Jackson is one of its founding members. Throughout her entire life, Mahalia Jackson made her mark on the genre, and breaking tons of records on the way. Her album Move On Up A Little Higher sold one million records; a first for gospel music. If there’s anyone who popularized the genre and helped put it on the map, it was Mahalia Jackson.
The other thing that really stand out Mahalia Jackson is how successful she managed to be during the Jim Crow era as a Black woman. Although Mahalia Jackson’s roots were always in Black churches, she brought gospel mainstream, eventually playing to sold-out shows in huge venues. You can make the argument that Mahalia Jackson is to gospel what Bessie Smith is to blues; a pioneer and legend in her own right.
Tamela Mann is a modern-day gospel singing legend, performing with stars like Bono and Mary J. Blige. Her gospel records generally get very high acclaim, and Tamela Mann has plenty of Grammys under her belt. One of the most interesting aspect of Tamela Mann is that she’s got a lot of cross-over talent. Although she’s clearly a great musician, she’s also an impressive actress.
You can find Tamela Mann in many of Tyler Perry’s movies and plays, as well as Tyler Perry’s Assisted Living. Since this star shows absolutely no signs of slowing down, she also has her own clothing line and continues to make gospel music for many different big and small-screen productions.
Although Tamela Mann might not be a pioneer, the same with that Reverand Gary Davis or Mahalia Jackson are, she makes gospel music accessible to the masses. She’s one of the reasons why the genre is still going so strong after all of these years. Plus, Tamela Mann is able to introduce young people to gospel music, opening up doors for them to explore other gospel stars from the past.
Get one, or more of these musicians into your regular rotation today. There’s a good chance that you might just discover a brand new genre, or sub-genre of gospel that you love.
The History of Gospel Music
Gospel music’s history is very intertwined with the art and songs of enslaved people. It’s evolved over the years to encompass other types of music and influences. Today, you can find more traditional gospel music right alongside rock-and-roll versions. Truly, there is a type of gospel music out there for virtually everyone.
One thing that a lot of this music shares, across sub-genres, is its simple and optimistic message and heavy undertones of reverence.
How It Started
Gospel music started in the early 1800s, as spiritual songs and hymns were sung by enslaved people. Gospel was a combination of traditional music from various African countries, mixed with some very early Americana.
Powerful, compelling songs like We Shall Overcome were important rallying cries for enslaved people, and continued to be relevant throughout the terrors of Reconstruction and Jim Crow. Other old spiritual songs include This Little Light of Mine; a popular children’s hymn. We Shall Not Be Moved is another gospel classic that became especially relevant during the Civil Rights Era.
Over time, people changed and adapted these spirituals and songs to reflect more modern messages, or to speak to a particular audience. Other classic spirituals that were either adapted or sung by gospel greats like Aretha Franklin or Mahalia Jackson are as follows:
- I Will Move Up A Little Higher
- Oh Happy Day
- Take My Hand, Precious Lord
- Mary Don’t You Weep
- Touch The Hem Of His Garment
- Through It All
As with many popular and iconic musical genres today, we can thank enslaved people for giving us the roots of gospel music.
How Popular Is It?
Gospel music is very popular, even today. One of the reasons why gospel music maintains such a huge following is that it is very versatile. Today, you can listen to rock-centric gospel music, folk, or traditional music.
Plus, there are plenty of famous artists, like Stevie Wonder, who delve into gospel music from time to time. Not only does Stevie Wonder’s gospel music draw gospel fans, it draws fans of his regular music too.
Plus, older classics are always being brought back the center stage. Aretha Franklin is one of the top names in gospel music, and her work is still extremely popular. Often, movies and television shows will feature famous gospel songs like Amazing Grace, sparking renewed interest in the genre.
Since there are so many great ways and variations to listen to gospel music, it doesn’t seem to be waning anytime soon. Plus, old favorites often get resurrected or referenced by modern artists. It’s not uncommon for secular artists to branch out into gospel from time to time.
All of this means that gospel music’s popularity isn’t likely to go anywhere anytime soon.
What Is the Gospel Music Scene Like Now?
Gospel music’s scene is very interesting now, with mainstream stars like Kanye West delving into the genre at huge music venues. In 2019, the audience at Coachella were treated to an incredible gospel performance courtesy of West. Although it might have marked the first time that gospel music came to a popular festival, it’s doubtful that it will be the last.
Although we might think of gospel music as a southern United States thing, it’s actually sung, played, and practiced all over the country. There are substantial gospel communities in California, including trendy spots like Los Angeles. You can also find it in other unexpected areas of the country, like Chicago, relatively easily.
The reason why gospel started flourishing up north is relatively simple. Although it began as an artistic expression by enslaved people, it quickly expanded beyond the south during the Great Migration. The Great Migration happened when newly-freed Black people left the tyranny of the Jim Crow south for a better life up north. They brought their music with them.
In addition to finding exceptional gospel music in unexpected places and venues, the gospel music scene is also a whole lot more diverse than it was before. Although you will still find a lot of traditional piano music in gospel, you’ll also hear guitars, drums, and even more off-the-beaten-path instruments.
Also, although the genre continues to uphold God and encourage faith, you might find some more modern-day references in there that talk about our personal struggles in today’s world. You can also find a fusion of styles, as shown by Kanye West’s Jesus Walks, where he uses his excellent rap talent alongside a traditional gospel choir. An additional but older example of this genre-fusing is Madonna’s Like A Prayer.
Although mixing gospel with more modern genres, like rap, is one way to switch it up, artists are also going a little further back in time. Today, it’s not uncommon to see gospel music mixed with classical or other choral music. Artists like Elevation Worship and Maverick City Music are topping the charts with new favorites like Old Church Basement, a profoundly modern ode to playing guitar with your friends at church.
All of these things mean that gospel as we know it and more modern takes on gospel aren’t going anywhere.
What Is Gospel Music? Final Thoughts
Gospel music has its roots in the art and music of enslaved people and has since grown to represent a hugely diverse genre with its fingers in rap, classical music, soul, funk, rock-and-roll, and so much more. It’s one of the most important music movements in American history, the bedrock for modern music today, and a vital part of any music lovers collection.