The Gospel Music Industry vs. The Gospel

What we have here is a music industry that’s lost its way somehow, spitting out albums they hope will appease an increasingly disinterested audience, while doing, apparently, nothing of significance to expand that audience. Expanding the audience for Gospel music requires the industry to create more Christians. If the Gospel music industry began functioning more like a ministry instead of a business, putting their dollars into evangelism instead of into their own pockets, God would breathe on it. Absent such a change, we’ll remain where we are: with a industry business model at odds with the very Gospel it allegedly represents.

What we have here is a music industry

that’s lost its way. Expanding the audience for Gospel music requires the industry to, well, create more Christians. To my observation, evangelism has never appeared to be a high priority for labels marketing black Gospel music. They are, rather, selling entertainment to Christians. To my experience, it is the rare black church that is interested in creating more Christians. Most black churches are aggressively pursuing more members, but, as with the Gospel music industry, that’s more about money than about souls. The black church’s concern over souls has been, to my personal observation, tepid at best, as compared to their zest for collecting members—usually church folk from other churches. It would seem to me that the record industry’s interests would be best served by their banding together and spending money—a lot of money—promoting Jesus instead of promoting their stuck-up, self-absorbed artists. If the companies invested in outreach, invested in evangelism, aggressively supported churches’ efforts in those areas—wouldn’t that increase the audience for their product?

Instead, the Gospel music industry continues to do what it has always done—mimic the secular industry. The same slick ads, the same “star” treatment, the same promotion and glamorization of self. Money spent in the same ways, the same basic business model, which puts a lie to the notion that Gospel music is a “ministry.” It is, in fact, a business. It is about promotion, it is about airplay, it is about revenue. The Gospel should be free. Gospel artists should be more vested in preaching the Gospel than they are in selling records. Gospel music websites, especially, tend to give me the creeps because there's all of this idolatry going on there—this fawning over stars and who's hot and when their project is dropping.

If the Gospel music industry threw out the secular business model and began functioning like a ministry instead of a business, God would breathe on it. Those efforts would find success and blossom as never before. If the Gospel record biz put their dollars into evangelism instead of into their own pockets (or, just as commonly, up their nose), we might just see a renaissance and industry surge that would return tens of dollars for every dollar spent. But, first, two things need to happen: record executives need to have vision beyond the corner of their desks, and black pastors have to start caring about souls again. Absent those two events, we’ll remain where we are: with a business model at odds with the very Gospel it allegedly represents.

Which can and does often lead to the Arrogant Gospel. The I’m The Joint Gospel. Artists who have clearly lost their way and fallen into self, and neither they nor those of you buying their CD’s will hold them accountable for it. Backsliding is a lot like getting fat. It kind of creeps up on you. By the time you notice your pants don’t fit anymore, it’s too late. Self-aggrandizing, pompous, sneering photos glamorizing the artist rather than the Creator is the loudest and most obvious hint that the artist has backslidden into self, whether they themselves realize it or not. I mean, I can’t possibly imagine what was going through Kurt Carr’s mind when he signed off on this arrogant photo (below) for the cover of his latest CD. I’m The Joint.

Carr, who has become wealthy using a kind of reverse of the old Pat Boone-steals-Little Richard’s-music formula, would seem to want a broader appeal than his comical attempt at butching up might suggest. By borrowing the rules and formulas of white praise and worship music and bringing that back into the black church, where those chord progressions and themes seem fresh and new, Carr has carved out an interesting niche as a brother who really isn’t terribly funky (though he indeed has his moments). The creative talent behind In The Sanctuary and Byron Cage’s Presence of The Lord would, at first listen, seem to be as far from this bling-bling’ed threatening thug photo as one can get. He looks like an idiot. But he is likely surrounded by people trying to get something from him and terrified of offending him, which is the real pitfall of achieving fame: the more famous you get, the fewer people you have around you to keep you from looking like an idiot.

I'm The Joint: Would Jesus pose for these CD covers?

What would possess a Gospel artist, a Christian,

to pose for a photo like this? I mean, really, what on earth was on Kurt Carr’s mind to strike this quasi-“gangsta”/deer-in-headlights I’m The Joint pose? The image projects ego, arrogance, pomposity. There is nothing, and I mean nothing, evocative of Christ in this photo, an image obviously intended to up Carr’s style points so he can walk among the pantheon of fellow arrogant self-absorbed artists Kirk Franklin and Hezekiah Walker. Both men have released several albums and a raft of publicity stills showing them to be The Man: the arrogant sneer, the sexual prowess, the material wealth: these are the prominent image systems at work. What happened to meekness? To love, joy, peace?

While I hold out the possibility these guys are simply getting bad advice, I’m going to assume Carr and his pals sign their own checks and make their own decisions and that nobody was holding a Glock to their head when these photos were taken. They wanted to look tough. They want to show bling. They want to project the tough, macho, sexual Alpha Male image. They want to compete, visually, with Usher and 50 and John Legend, while missing the point that neither of those guys have ever posed in such leering, ridiculous monkey poses.

I’m not quite sure what the point is supposed to be or why these men feel the need to make it, but they look stupid. And I really can’t get past the imagery they project to the music inside because, if Carr is so spiritually bankrupt that he’d actually pose for a moose-face photo like that, I have to suspect he’s backslidden. That he’s allowed his fame to sabotage his testimony, and now it’s all about him rather than about Him. And what does that say about us, that we can’t wait for these CD’s to hit the shelves? That we preorder and snap them up soon as the clerk gets the box open? Where’s our spirituality? Where’s our spiritual discernment? For that matter, where’s our love for these men? For, if we truly love them, in the love of Christ, we wouldn’t encourage this manner of foolishness by putting more money in their pockets.

Franklin, a guy I consider creatively and ideologically bankrupt, has made a career out of stealing other people’s music and calling it his own, perhaps most notoriously "Hosanna," from his Rebirth album, which is a blatant rip off of Vanessa Williams’ brilliant "Save The Best For Last," from her breakthrough album Comfort Zone. Franklin is listed, officially, as sole writer for Hosanna, which should be keeping attorneys for Phil Galdston, Jon Lind and Wendy Waldman (who wrote Save…) pretty busy. Franklin’s Melodies From Heaven has almost exactly the same chord structure as Tony Toni Toné’s brilliant classic Anniversary, and several other Franklin hits ring mysteriously familiar. I am less familiar with Walker’s work, other than that Hezekiah Walker holds a unique distinction in my personal history in that his album Family Affair was the only CD I have ever returned to the store and demanded my money back. It really was just that bad.

Carr’s music I just don’t like. Black folks from coast to coat have been turning cartwheels over his "In The Sanctuary" and "For Every Mountain," but I find both songs to be ideologically starved, substituting silly progressions and needless modulations for actual composing chops. This is empty music, milkshake music, made to seem important by jumping a half dozen keys for no apparent reason. But Carr himself always came across as friendly if not downright cuddly. The photos inside the new CD booklet are more of the macho crap, with but one “prayer” pose where Carr still seems so arrogant, even in prayer, that he seems to be telling God, “hurry up, I’m busy.”

Hey Deitrick, Who's Jesus?

Who Does This Glorify? "Gospel" artists getting lost in ego.

None of this glorifies God.

And, when we give these people our money, we don’t glorify Him, either. Like it or not, there’s a different standard in sacred music. That standard is that the conduct and image of the performer has an impact on the music in a way that bad conduct on the part of secular artists do not. Andraé Crouch was once king of the world until a routine traffic stop found cocaine in his Benz. His career never recovered.

It’s not our place to judge, surely, but it’s not our place to be idiots, either. I’m as liberal as the next guy but, to me, the standard of worldliness is not the length of your hair or even the beat of your music but the content of your character. Your kids get a very confusing mixed message from Franklin, leering from the curtain on the cover of Whatcha Lookin’ 4 in a way most men reserve for booty calls. I don’t know what he’s thinking and, frankly, I don’t know what we’re thinking when we pay money for this.

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I’m not sure what these guys are thinking, but, for me, I want my character to reflect my values and those values are Christ Jesus. Maybe in some twisted ideology Carr and company are trying to project “street” (Carr’s music could not possibly be farther from “street,” he’s barely a chord progression to the left of Johnny Mathis), and so fly under the homie radar. But I’d take that as a lame excuse for what is likely going on here: egos run wild. And men who have lost perspective on what they’re supposed to be doing and who, in fact, they allegedly represent.