Christian Music's Crossover Artists Critical in Spreading the Gospel Far and Wide
It's an age-old debate in the Christian music industry: Should artists attempt to "crossover" to mainstream audiences, or should they reserve their gifts and talents for the Lord and His followers?
Kirk Franklin, one of the most successful artists in gospel music history, was met with considerable flack when he burst onto the scene with his contemporary blend of R&B, hip hop and traditional gospel. On his 1997 album, God's Property from Kirk Franklin's Nu Nation, he began the lead single, "Stomp," with a pointed message:
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For those of you who think gospel music had gone too far; you think we've gotten to radical with our message? Well, I've got news for you: You ain't heard nothing yet!
Fittingly, the song featured Cheryl "Salt" James, member of the groundbreaking, all-female rap group, Salt-N-Pepa. Fueled largely by that single, God's Property from Kirk Franklin's Nu Nation rose to the top of the (mainstream) R&B chart and #3 on the pop chart, and it has since gone triple platinum.
On the CCM side, rock/pop band Sixpence None the Richer found themselves embroiled in a similar controversy following the release of their self-titled album in 1997. Despite the fact that the project contained considerable faith-based subject matter, it was a love song that garnered all the attention.
"Kiss Me" thrust the group into the national spotlight and was featured in the films She's All That and Not Another Teen Movie, as well as the uber-popular television series Dawson's Creek.
So what gives? It is really a bad thing for Christian and gospel artists to have fans outside of the church? Geoff Szabo, songwriter and music publisher with Szabo Songs says no - and he actually believes that artists should strive for mainstream acceptance.
"I believe [Christian artists] sell themselves short by not trying to reach the largest audience possible," says Szabo. "I think it's an erroneous assumption that Christian artists, or Christian music in general, will not appeal to the mainstream. If the point is to spread the word of God then, by all means, it is reasonable to appeal to those who may not see themselves as Christians at the moment, but are right on the cusp."
"I don't believe that every artist will have crossover appeal, and I don't believe that's the mission of every gospel artist," Artis says. "I would say probably every song in gospel that has crossed the last 15 years were songs that I worked. For most of those songs it was probably just because the mood of the country pointed in that direction, or that programmer or music director thought that song would be one that would minister to their audience."
But even though Artis doesn't believe that every artist should intentionally seek secular acceptance, she acknowledges that the larger body of gospel music fans can help drive a song or artist's success.
"What I've noticed most often when someone from the gospel community crosses to the urban community, is that they've already garnered a lot of support from their own industry," adds Artis. "If we as gospel consumers believe that there's a message here the world needs to hear, I think we can help usher it in.
In the end, artists who are popular in both mainstream and faith-based circles are all beneficial to the Christian music industry as a whole - and its overriding mission - regardless of their path to the top of the charts. As Mark 16:15 states, each Christian is called to go and preach the Gospel in all to every person, regardless of religious affiliation (or non-affiliation).
"In Biblical history it was the worshipers that went out in front of the warriors," says Bridgett Gutierrez, an account executive for marketing and communications company Cranium 360 and a former praise and worship leader.
"[It's] proof that praises and a heart of worship usher in the power of God. If the heart is a heart of praise, then why not allow these musical warriors to usher in the presence of God amongst people who will never step into a church. What does one benefit from stopping it? What good does judging it do? Prevent it from reaching anybody?"
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