Gospel music gets an update

"It's the same message, different time."

That's how Martin Wilson, a member of the Baltimore-based Choir Boyz, describes the essence of gospel music today. The ensemble will be delivering that message along with Grammy-winner Yolanda Adams in a "Gospel Extravaganza" this evening at the Baltimore Convention Center, presented by the Visionary Marketing Group in conjunction with the NAACP National Convention.


Adams and the Choir Boyz are among a host of artists who have been redefining gospel music, helping to make it speak in compelling ways to new listeners.

Time was when gospel had a sound clearly differentiated from secular music, but the distinction has been blurring over the decades. More and more of gospel's melodic and rhythmic impulses have come from the fields of jazz, rhythm and blues, rock and, lately, rap and hip-hop.


Older generations have been known to take a dim view of this more contemporary style. Even a standard like Edwin Hawkins' "O Happy Day" was once branded too night club-ish for some churches.

"And they used to say that Mahalia (Jackson) was too bluesy," says the Houston-born Adams, whose career took off in 1988. "That kind of reaction has always been there. But you have to reach people where they are. Music is music. You can't change the keys of a piano. A 'C' in gospel is the same 'C' in R&B; or heavy metal. Most gospel musicians have been trained in jazz or classical; they combined all of those things. My own interests in jazz and classical music had a lot to do with the sound I've come up with. They all worked their way into my albums and song-writing."

For Adams, what counts is not so much the style as its potential power to communicate to those who haven't grown up with church music, as she did.

"Most young people today don't know the difference between a hymn and a spiritual, or between a spiritual and what I do," she says. "They just know that my music sounds good."

Wilson agrees.

"The way times are these days, the message has to cater to young ears," he says. "Nothing wrong with traditional music; I love it dearly. But if you want to reach young ears, you can't reach them with traditional music."

For the Choir Boyz, with nearly a decade of cool urban gospel styling behind them, that act of reaching out has a deeply personal significance. Before turning to gospel music, the quintet's members led unspiritual lives, filled with materialistic passions, drug-dealing, guns, even jail time. They want to help others avoid those mistakes.

"We all had a past," Wilson says. "The blessed part is that God brought us through. I believe that God takes you through so you can come out of the other side with testimony to help someone else. The past is a testimony-builder. Our whole message is that if God can change our lives, he can change anyone, he can save anyone. Our sound basically comes from God. We are thankful he chose to use us as his vessel."


Adams, whose "Mountain High ... Valley Low" won a Grammy for "Best Contemporary Soul Gospel Album" this year, likewise brings a strong personal faith to her work.

"But I don't preach in my songs," she says. "My songs are very encouraging, uplifting. People get enough of someone telling them what to do, what not to do. I tell them God is an everyday God and can be worshipped and talked to every day. It's not a formal, dress-up kind of thing."

With her striking looks, wide vocal range and electric phrasing, it's no wonder that Adams has been given the now ubiquitous label of "diva" by PR types.

"That's funny, because I'm so non-diva," she says. "And it's really funny to apply that to a gospel singer."

Another term Adams doesn't want attached to her is "cross-over artist." Although she clearly has what it takes to enter full-steam into the pop realm, she isn't tempted at all.

"The great thing about what we do is that we don't get the tabloids running around after us," Adams says of gospel stars. "It's really cool to have the adulation onstage, but off-stage we can enjoy our lives. People don't bombard us in grocery stores."