The Gospel According to the Charts

The genre has an integral influence on popular music worldwide

Kanye West isn’t the first megastar to borrow from and contribute to the genre: a creative exchange that hasn’t always been welcomed.


Words by Neo Khanyile; Images by Haley Rivera, Junior Gabriel and Rod Long, via Unsplash.


South African artists have a long history of invoking spirituality in their music. For decades, gospel artists regularly outsold secular artists and dominated the charts. Jerusalema, arguably one of the biggest songs of 2020, had the accompanying #JerusalemaChallenge to aid its viral success, but it found favour to the tune of number one spots in Belgium, Netherlands, Romania, and Switzerland. Peaking in the top ten of multiple other European countries, it’s the first SA-made song to hit 100 million views on YouTube.


Further afield – and for some time before the days of Donda – Kanye West is perhaps the biggest name to immerse himself in the world of gospel in recent times. His 2019 release Jesus is King debuted at the top of the Christian and gospel charts. The album – along with his collaboration with the Sunday Service Choir, “Jesus Is Born”, released on Christmas Day – occupied 20 of the 25 available positions on the Hot Gospel Songs chart in the weeks following its release.


Kanye had never shied away from his affinity to gospel music. He’s not the first megastar to borrow from and contribute to the genre: a creative exchange that hasn’t always been welcomed. The single “Jesus Walks” off his first album The College Dropout was a roaring success, catapulting Kanye firmly into stardom. The rousing song featured a choir alongside raps about anti-Black racism, consumer culture, and needing the protective power of Jesus. Christian groups were divided about the significance and appropriateness of the song. This controversy regarding the meaning of the genre seems to be as old as its genesis.

Music that moves the soul

The term ‘gospel’, from god-spell, or “good story”, was once reserved for referring to Biblical texts containing the teachings of Jesus, and was later lent to a genre set apart from church hymnals. Gospel music’s origins are largely credited to the blues-turned-gospel composer Thomas A. Dorsey. In 1921, Dorsey published his first gospel song in the National Baptist Convention’s songbook, Gospel Pearls: “the first hymnal from a major African American denomination to include selections of the new music that would become known as gospel.” Gospel music as we know it is said to have first emerged from the fusion of West African musical traditions, experiences of slavery, Christian practices, and the hardships associated with life in the American South. 


Hymns and sacred songs were often repeated in a call and response fashion, beginning with simple acapella arrangements, with instruments like the piano added as the genre evolved. In Gospel’s early days, most churches relied on hand-clapping and foot-stomping as rhythmic accompaniment.  


Many Black singers started their singing careers in the church. Aretha Franklin attributed the influence of Gospel in her music as it allowed her to deliver rousing, personal, joyful music with a power and force that elevated the popular music to soul-stirring heights. Traditional black gospel is music that is written to express either a personal or a communal belief regarding African American Christian life. Over time, gospel began incorporating traits of secular music—particularly country music, blues, and ragtime—which made the music as entertaining as it was reverent.


Gospel’s influence can be heard in the work of many secular performers, from the folk stylings of Simon and Garfunkel to the soul outpourings of Adele. The soulful sounds of Ray Charles, the earnest wailing of Aretha Franklin, and the bluesy rock ‘n’ roll of Elvis Presley all owe themselves to the resonant and rich sounds of gospel. 


Gospel to pop – and back again

Church-centric Gospel music began to cross over into the mainstream following the 1969 release of the recording of “Oh Happy Day” by the Edwin Hawkins Singers. Based on an eighteenth-century English hymn, it sold more than a million copies in two months (well above average for a Gospel recording at the time) and earned its composer his first Grammy Award.


The relationship between secular music and gospel has always been a tenuous one, walking the thin line between commercial success brought on by popular appeal and adhering to the precepts of a religious community. For instance, Ray Charles started taking gospel lines and turning them into secular songs “This Little Light Of Mine” into “This Little Girl Of Mine,” which raised the ire of those who felt that such acts were tantamount to blasphemy.


While the move from gospel to popular music is common, so too is the borrowing of popular music styles in Gospel. In 2019, the Sunday Service Choir remixed secular songs into gospel, changing Destiny’s Child’s “Say My Name” to ”Call His Name,” Ginuwine’s “So Anxious” to “Souls Anchored” during their performances. This too has received much debate, raising questions about whether the method of delivering the “Good News” ought to matter. Put a different way, how much does the messenger matter?


The desire to reach a broader audience, coupled with the changing styles of American music, ushered in the “contemporary era” of Gospel, which spans from the 60s to the 80s. The “urban” era of gospel followed, which reflected hip-hop’s influence on the genre. Kirk Franklin & the Family debuted in 1993 and topped the gospel and pop and R&B charts. Four years later, Franklin’s God’s Property showed that choirs could make listeners “want to dance and stomp!” inside the church and the nightclub: the 1997 hit “Stomp” fused gospel, hip-hop, and R&B, featuring rapper Salt of the rap group Salt-N-Pepa. It earned Franklin a Grammy Nomination for Best R&B Performance by a Duo or Group with Vocals. While some criticised Franklin’s music for being too secular, many churches played it, noting its appeal to youth.


Gospel music and gospel choirs now form an integral part of contemporary popular music. Pop artists like Florence and the Machine, The Killers, and Laura Mvula have all used choirs to elevate their music. The amapiano genre – a hybrid of deep house, jazz, and lounge music – owes a big part of its sound to gospel music. The electronic music movement gives the most accurate, recent portrait of South African music from the 1990s to today. The genre is largely characterised by synths, wide and percussive basslines, and, importantly, keys. The keyboards used in a lot of early amapiano songs use elements of church organs and pianos. Many amapiano artists reference God and spirituality in their music. Kamo Mphela’s “Nkulunkulu” is literally a prayer (albeit for material purposes).


For some, it’s an expression of faith; to others, it’s an important element of culture. But whatever its meaning, gospel music helped create the foundation for various other genres including, but not limited to rock ‘n’ roll, soul, as well as rhythm and blues.