Three British artists showcased on the best selling urban gospel sampler were quizzed by Tony Cummings.
Samplers come in all shapes, sizes and marketing intentions but few have made such an impact as the April release of the double CD 'The New Sound Of Gospel'. Here was a compilation - going into mainstream record shops as well as Christian retailers - which vigorously challenged those ancient stereotypes that 'gospel music' meant choir robes, organ accompaniments and tambourine thrashing. Also confronted was that equally blinkered view that gospel came exclusively from the American Church. For alongside 'The New Sound Of Gospel's presentation of top American urban gospel acts like Kirk Franklin, Mary Mary, Trin-I-Tee 5:7 and Kierra 'Kiki' Sheard and newcomers like Pee Wee Callins, Charles & Taylor and Ramiyah were a healthy representation of the grassroots British gospel scene. Some of the acts like Nu Life, The Company and Seven had tracks showcased which had been previously released but several others on the compilation had mouth-watering new track exclusives. Cross Rhythms talked to three of these - established gospel hitmakers Raymond & Co, holy hip-hop man Jahaziel and London collective Ekklesia. Here's what they told us about themselves and where they feel The New Sound Of Gospel is heading.
RAYMOND & CO
One of the killer tunes on 'The New Sound Of Gospel' is Raymond & Co's "All That I Am". The group's leader Isaiah-Raymond Dyer spoke about the song. "'All That I Am' is an R&B song of dedication. It's really saying, 'Lord, all that I am and ever will be I give it over to you.' It also speaks about the challenges of life, the fact that though we desire to give our all to the Lord, whilst we are human and humanity means we may not always be 100 per cent perfect yet we can dedicate ourselves over and over whilst looking forward to seeing Jesus face to face!"
Although Raymond & Co are still sometimes referred to as 'overnight successes', the truth is that there have been years of dues-paying to get Raymond & Co (Isaiah-Raymond Dyer, Gillian Nembhard, Lisa Allen, Christopher Gordon and Janine Dyer) to their current position as Britain's highest profile gospel act. While in prison, awaiting sentencing for armed robbery, Isaiah turned to Christ. He started Raymond & Co in 1994. After years of grassroots concerts and church ministry the group began recording in 1999 almost by accident. Raymond's father was co-promoting a Kirk Franklin concert in Wolverhampton and told the group they could be included in the show if they released an album. Against all the odds the independent release 'I Wanna Be' was recorded in a week to meet the challenge.
But the big breakthrough occurred in 2003 when Raymond & Co entered GMTV's Gospel Challenge contest. UK grassroots gospel artists took part in four regional heats throughout the country and the ultimate winners were Raymond & Co. Part of the prize for winning the talent search was a contract with Integrity Music UK. As it turned out, it took almost two years before Integrity released Raymond & Co's 'Playing Games' album but it made considerable impact when it did come out. Raymond & Co have been pioneers in bringing R&B and hip-hop rhythms into gospel music. Isaiah-Raymond spoke about the cultural cross-fertilisation. "Although on one hand hip-hop and R&B rhythms appear to bring something new to gospel music, from a conceptual viewpoint it's an old occurrence. Gospel music is ever evolving and has done so since its inception. Thomas Dorsey made a form of gospel that was criticised for being too 'secular influenced' and pioneers such James Cleveland, The Hawkins Singers, Kirk Franklin, Mary Mary etc have been in the same position. I think that it's like really selling a well known brand drink in a new package, the drink is really the same; it just looks different. Packaging appeals to people differently and so can cause some to see the drink as a new brand. I think it's a good idea to introduce new 'packaging' for the 'gospel juice' as long as the 'flavour' of the 'gospel juice' remains potent and undiluted! That's a new way of seeing 'Oh taste and see that the Lord is good'."
When released, 'The New Sound Of Gospel' got an extraordinary amount of publicity. It was even featured on a BBC arts programme who were clearly intrigued by the "brand new phenomenon" of funky and even (gasp) hip-hop-orientated gospel. Isaiah-Raymond sees the interest as part of the same process that catapulted an obscure London gospel group onto prime time TV. "The Lord just seems to continually grant us opportunities to share the message in the most unlikely yet likely of places, based on where he's scripturally commanded believers to go (the highways and the byways). We've expected these openings and we're ever so grateful each time we get the chance to share the message of Jesus in terms of gospel music, etc. Also, I believe all the years of consistent seeds sown in terms of appearances in secular places has reaped a continual harvest of open doors."
There are close to three million CD buyers who've enjoyed the rapping of Jahaziel though only a small minority will recognise the hip-hop man's current moniker. Back when Jahaziel was going under the name Solid R.O.C.K., he recorded the rap for the opener "Blown It Again" on Daniel Bedingfield's smash debut album 'Gotta Get Thru This'. Two years later in 2002 a Solid R.O.C.K. EP 'Blow The Trumpet' was released independently. But it was when the gifted rapper changed his name to Jahaziel and signed with UB1 Music, who will soon be releasing his debut album, that things fell into place. Jahaziel told Cross Rhythms about his troubled background in London. By the time he hit his late teens he was in all kinds of trouble. He said, "The company I was keeping went from bad to worse and I found myself getting involved with hard drugs and guns. I never intended to end up in this situation but it felt like my life was just spiralling out of control. It was around this time I ran into an old friend who I hadn't seen for a while. He used to take drugs and rave but now he was talking to me about God and referred to himself as a 'born again Christian'. I was impressed by his uncompromising convictions and his courage to follow them. After a couple months of my friend sharing the Scriptures with me and various other instances that I couldn't call coincidence, I was convinced that God was calling me.
"Eventually I accepted my friend's invitation to visit his church and as I sat there midway through the service I just cried and cried. I knew I had sinned and needed God's forgiveness so when I was asked if I wanted to be saved I said 'yes'. I prayed what some call the sinner's prayer which was to confess my sin, profess faith in Jesus for the forgiveness of my sin and invite his Holy Spirit into my heart and change me. This seemed a bit far fetched at the time but it was the turning point of my life. From then on my thinking took a change for the better and I felt uncomfortable living a life that was displeasing to God. One of the major outward changes that took place was the way that I rapped music. I used to write a lot of raps and had ambitions of being an entertainer. Most of my lyrics though revolved around boasting about myself and dissing others. After my conversion however I started getting inspired to write lyrics of a much more positive nature. The more I learned about God the more my perspectives changed and my lyrics reflected that. That's why I like to refer to my music as not 'gospel rap' or even 'Christian rap' but 'God inspired music'.
An example of this 'God inspired music' is on 'The New Sound Of
Gospel'. Jahaziel described his track "You've Got Yours". "Musically,
it's a smooth, kinda summer vibe with my man Melody from Nu Soul
singing the hook. The song is an encouragement to do, be and try your
best in life because life is a gift that God gave us to live fully. In
the midst of a culture that equates living fully with materialism and
lawlessness, I'm also saying that life is not just about what you own
or what people think of you. Have dreams that are bigger than yourself
and chase them - in doing so you will find true meaning and purpose
As for an album, it's on the way! I'm way tired of people stopping me on the streets saying 'Where's your album?' so something has definitely gotta get out this year!"
Jahaziel provided his take on what constituted The New Sound Of Gospel. "We talk about the 'new sound of gospel' but essentially the gospel is not a style of music, it is a message. The word gospel means 'good news' and the music is just the vehicle to carry it. Different styles of music will carry the good news to different people and cultures so I see it as greatly important that we (Christians) employ every musical style necessary to communicate God and his word to every nation, tribe and tongue (that's everyone!)."
Of all the top quality cuts on 'The New Sound Of Gospel' is a new-to-CD track which has gone on to get extensive airplay (and even momentarily topping the Cross Rhythms chart), "Blessed" by London-based collective Ekklesia. Like Raymond & Co, the group first came to prominence through the 2003 GMTV Gospel Challenge competition which they narrowly missed winning. They subsequently recorded two independent CDs, the EP 'Good News' (2003) and the single "Can't Be Hurt" (2004). But it was the delicious summery vibe of "Blessed" which has made everyone sit up and take notice. Ekklesia's founder Nadine Lee spoke to Cross Rhythms about the song. "'Blessed' is a song that talks about God's continuous grace to us, even though at times we may feel we don't deserve it. The song is a wake up call; it reminds us God is there all the time. It also reminds us of Matthew 5:1-11. In all the longsuffering God says we are still blessed if we act according to his Word. 'Blessed' was written so that all who sing this song would speak blessings into their lives. It's a positive song with a catchy rhythm - everyone will sing along to this anthem!" Group member Simone Beccan added an interesting aside: "The song was written in Nadine's car on the way to the studio!"
Ekklesia were formed in June 2001 when Nadine had a vision about forming a gospel collective. Later on that year Yolanda Sutherland, known as Yoko, was asked to join the group. Yoko took up the story. "This was a big gamble for Ekklesia, as I had just had a baby. Being an unmarried, single parent was not and is not something that was wanted advertised in and around the church circuit. But God had his own plan to use this situation for his glory. So I joined Simone Beccan, Nadine Lee, Kevin German and Shaneeka Simon and became part of this collective. It was just so much fun coupled with lots of hard work. As time and years have pasted group members have changed and the line up is now set. Sim, Kev, Nads and myself Yoko. It's a pleasure to work with them all - my Ekklesia family!"
Nadine spoke about 'The New Sound Of Gospel' and the serious spiritual intent behind the album. "New sounds and new rhythms are very important. People have different tastes; we all come from different backgrounds and cultures, etc. So for a message to get across to ALL we need to appeal to all. I must say that most gospel artists still respect and have found a lot of inspiration in the old school gospel. I believe it's beautiful when the new school goes back and understands and ministers the songs of old, because whether we like it or not that is where we have come from."The opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily those held by Cross Rhythms. Any expressed views were accurate at the time of publishing but may or may not reflect the views of the individuals concerned at a later date.