Urban contemporary gospel

Urban contemporary gospel
Urban/contemporary gospel
Stylistic origins Traditional black gospel
Cultural origins Late 20th century African-Americans
Typical instruments Guitar, bass, drums, piano
Christian hip hop

Urban/contemporary gospel is a modern form of Christian music that expresses either personal or a communal belief regarding Christian life, as well as to give a Christian alternative to mainstream secular music. Musically, it follows the trends in secular urban contemporary music. Urban/contemporary gospel is a recent subgenre of gospel music. Christian hip hop is a subtype of urban/contemporary gospel music.

Although the style developed gradually, early forms are generally dated to the 1970s, and the genre was well established by the end of the 1980s.

The radio format is marketed primarily to young African-American adults.


Origins and development

Protestant hymns and African-American spirituals make up the basic source material for traditional black gospel music, which in turn is the most significant source of urban/contemporary gospel. Urban/contemporary gospel has kept the spiritual focus of the traditional black gospel music, but uses modern musical forms.

Urban/contemporary gospel derives primarily from traditional black gospel music, with strong influence from, and strong influence on, many forms of secular pop music. Due to strong racial divisions in 20th century American culture, urban/contemporary gospel developed specifically out of the African-American musical traditions (Bream 1991). The equivalent music from white American culture is contemporary Christian music (Bream 1991). Although the racial lines have blurred in some areas, particularly with urban musical styles, these divisions are still evident in the industry (Burdick 2009). The color line divides artists with extremely similar musical styles on the basis of their race, and unites artists with divergent styles (such as rap and pop) on the same basis in industry reporting, marketing choices, and awards like the Grammy and Dove awards (Bream 1991).

During the 1970s, hit songs like Edwin Hawkins's "Oh Happy Day" and Andrae Crouch's "Take Me Back" were significant milestones in the development of urban/contemporary gospel music. Andrae Crouch is called the "godfather of contemporary gospel" (Waldron 2006).

Sacred ministry or entertainment?

Like most forms of Christian music in the last two centuries, artists have been criticized by Christians who see the new forms as too similar to secular music styles or insufficiently focused on traditional religious sentiments. Artists in the urban/contemporary styles have taken a variety of approaches to address these concerns from their fan bases (Darden 2004:302).

Artists in this genre are expected to convey a committed Protestant Christian religious viewpoint and to treat their musical performances as a sacred service to God. In a distinctly Protestant-American touch, artists in this genre are expected to pray publicly, to "testify" about the artist's personal, emotion-driven conversion, and to make an effort to convert non-Christians to Christianity (Darden 2004:55).


The secular version of this music is urban contemporary music, which is musically indistinguishable, but which takes non-religious subjects for its lyrical content.

Urban/contemporary gospel music is characterized by dominant vocals, usually performed by a soloist. Common instruments include drums, electric guitar, bass guitar, and keyboards (Darden 2004:285).

The lyrics very often have an explicitly Christian nature, although "inspirational" songs feature lyrics that can be construed as secular in meaning. For example, a song about a father's love for his son may be interpreted as God the Father's love for God the Son, or as a human father's love for his human child. This lyrical ambiguity echoes the double-voicedness of 19th century spirituals, and may have musical crossover appeal to the larger secular market (Darden 2004:79-80). Common themes include hope, deliverance, love, and healing (Waldron 2006).

In comparison with traditional hymns, which are generally of a statelier measure, gospel songs are expected to have a refrain and a pronounced beat with a syncopated rhythm. Compared to modern praise and worship music, urban/contemporary gospel typically has a faster tempo and more emphasis on the performer. Like traditional black gospel music, the performer's emotional connection to the audience and the lyrical content of the song is valued highly.

This style encompasses Christian hip hop, including rap music with Christian lyrics.


Rock 'n' roll, country, and rhythm & blues were influenced by traditional black gospel music, and these forms, as well as disco music, funk, jazz and many secular genres, influenced urban/contemporary gospel music.

Perhaps the most significant musical influences on urban/contemporary gospel are hip hop and R&B (Waldron 2006). Like contemporary gospel, R&B developed from traditional black gospel music (Bream 1991). Soul music and Christian rock are also significant influences on contemporary gospel.

Sales and marketing

The gospel market is smaller than the secular market, but popular artists have sold millions of units.

Compared to traditional black music, whose sales are steady, urban/contemporary sales are rising, as a result of more significant marketing efforts (Johnson 2008:86).

Representative artists

  • Tramaine Hawkins is a gospel singer who has won two American Grammy awards, as well as Dove and Stellar awards. She has recorded in nearly every subgenre of gospel music at some point, and has worked with secular stars like M.C. Hammer. She expands her commercial appeal by recording some "inspirational" music to provide alternatives for the secular market to the misogyny and violence that dominates urban music, which has resulted in criticism about whether she sees her music as a ministry or as entertainment (Darden 2004:303).
  • John P. Kee, called the "Crown Prince of Gospel", is a pastor, singer, and songwriter. He has formed several mass choirs and taught many gospel workshops. His albums are often a mix of traditional and contemporary gospel styles, with strongly Christian lyrics. He stopped performing in 1996 to form a church in the neighborhood where he became addicted to drugs as a youth, but has since recorded several albums and received many awards (Darden 2004:304-307).
  • Vickie Winans is a singer, actress, designer, and comedian. Her performances and recordings showcase her "multioctave voice and old-time gospel energy" (Darden 2004:309). As she performs both secular and religious music, her career is marked by controversies about her choices. She has won multiple Stellar Awards, and in 1991, her then-label, MCA Records, sent her to the Stellar show to perform with dancers that were condemned by her fans as too "worldly" (Cummings 2007). Under pressure from her conservative fans to do more explicitly Christian lyrics, she also felt pressure from the label to self-censor her lyrics to make them more appealing to the secular market (Cummings 2007). She performs 200 to 250 times per year, and represents herself, earning the description "the hardest working woman in gospel music" (Darden 2004:209).
  • Donnie McClurkin, a multi-platinum artist, earned his first Grammy nomination in 1996, for his first album, Stand. A gifted pianist, his career began after his aunt introduced him to Andrae Crouch. His signature songs include "Stand", which reflects his testimony and life story as an abused child, and "We Fall Down". He has appeared on the Oprah Winfrey Show and founded a church on Long Island, New York, where he preaches (Darden 2004:310-312).
  • Yolanda Adams is a singer and radio show host. Her music frequently features "sizzling beats and bass-heavy contemporary accompaniment" (Dearden 2004:314). She has won multiple awards, including four Grammy Awards, four of the Gospel Music Association's Dove Awards, one American Music Award, seven NAACP Image Awards, one Soul Train Music Award, and three BET Awards. She is one of the few female gospel artists to have sold millions of copies of her albums (Darden 2004:321).
  • Kirk Franklin is a multi-platinum soloist, choir leader, and book author. He has won many awards, including seven Grammy awards. Musically, his style is based on the secular music he was exposed to during his youth, including non-American influences. Albums like Stomp feature funk and hip hop. However, his lyrics are anything but secular, and have been described as "very orthodox" and "transparently religious" (Darden 2004:318-319).


See also


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