Black Gospel Music: Singing Praise in the Streaming Era

In Chartmetric's December 2020 Black Lives Matter piece, we use music analytics to examine how Black Gospel music’s nearly century-old tradition thrives today.

Black Gospel Music: Singing Praise in the Streaming Era
Jason Joven
Jason Joven
December 30, 20204 min read
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Editor’s Note: In our last piece of 2020, Chartmetric continues to honor Black artists in the context of what we normally do: nerd out on music, data, and culture.

Our November installment focused on beloved figures in Rap: Los Angeles’ Nipsey Hussle, Chicago’s Juice WRLD, and Brooklyn’s Pop Smoke. Though their deaths came too soon, data shows that their fans support their legacy long after.

Here, we look at how Black Gospel music’s nearly century-old tradition continues today, honoring its influence on artists around the world.

I sing God's music because it makes me feel free.... It gives me hope. With the Blues, when you finish, you still have the blues.

Mahalia Jackson, the “Queen of Gospel”

Black Lives Matter.

Even as the 2020 holiday season wraps up, it’s easy to forget the influence of religion in our everyday lives. It’s even easier to forget what role it plays in the music we listen to everyday.

If you are not familiar with Christianity, it’s very possible your exposure to Black American Gospel music is limited to pop culture, and lately, that’s been Kanye West and Netflix.

Kanye West’s Sunday Service Choir performing “Lord You're Holy (Ballin'),” a Gospel remix of “Ballin’” by Mustard and Roddy Rich in March 2020 in Paris, France.

Most Kanye fans are familiar with the religious thematics in much of his music, and in 2019 and 2020, his work with the Sunday Service Choir resulted in several recorded releases, celebrity attendees, and rousing live performances, including a Coachella appearance complete with $225 sweatshirt merchandise.

If Netflix singing competitions are more your style, then the streaming video platform served up Voices of Fire in November 2020, headed up by another superstar American producer: Pharrell Williams. In the series, Pharrell, flanked by his uncle Bishop Ezekiel Williams, scour his Virginian hometown to put together a Gospel choir.

Regardless of what you may feel about these pop culture manifestations of Gospel, we can at least appreciate the spotlight they shine on a genre of music so influential in today’s music — yet so inaccessible to those of us who have not experienced the raw power of a Black choir in action.

Negro Spirituals, European Christian Hymns, and African Improvisation

Like much American music, Black Gospel music is based in the Negro Spirituals sung by African Americans during the Transatlantic Slave Trade of the 1700s and 1800s, but it also ties in the European Christian hymns of the 1500s and 1600s and the improvisational Blues style of the 1920s. In the decades since, the incorporation of call and response, secular popular music stylings and instrumentation, elaborate harmonies, and melisma-laden solos have all contributed to the genre’s purpose of making the praise of God more accessible to the congregation.

The use of Blues is particularly ironic, as it was known as the “devil’s music” in many religious circles of the time. But Rev. Thomas A. Dorsey, now considered the “King of Gospel,” was an accomplished Blues musician by the time he pioneered the roots of modern Black Gospel as we know it today. The “Queen of Gospel,” as it were, is Mahalia Jackson, who Dorsey made acquaintance with in Chicago, the birthplace of the genre.

Mahalia Jackson, the “Queen of Gospel,” performing her signature piece, “Precious Lord, Take My Hand,” written by Rev. Thomas A. Dorsey. Martin Luther King, Jr. asked Jackson to perform the song at several civil rights rallies in the US.

Gospel Lives On Today

Any form or derivative of Gospel music, whether it be Contemporary Christian Music (CCM), Southern Gospel, Christian Country, or Black Gospel, naturally has a base audience in its churches and religious listeners, wherever they may be. So it may not be fair to say that Black Gospel is set to dominate the charts, despite its latest pop culture integrations.

But at the genre-level, Gospel continued to grow in 2020. Taking its Top 100 artists by growth throughout 2020, Gospel grew nearly 40 percent in YouTube Channel Views (2.2B to 3.1B views overall). For perspective, that edges out Country (34 percent) and CCM (38 percent), though Rap's growth is nearly double that of Gospel's (76 percent) and Pop's growth is more than 4x that of Gospel's (177%).

Gospel’s Top 10 artists by Spotify Monthly Listeners (which signifies a growing audience, rather than pure stream count) in 2020 reveal a diverse set of talent, from the omnipresent Kirk Franklin (49 percent growth to 1.8M listeners), to the Grammy-winning singer Tasha Cobbs Leonard (36 percent growth to 895K listeners) and the highest-selling female Gospel group in history, the Clark Sisters (154 percent growth to 148K listeners).

Of particular interest at the end of 2020 is breakout Gospel star Koryn Hawthorne. Currently securing the No. 1 spot on the Gospel Billboard charts at the end of 2020, the Louisiana-born singer debuted in 2015 on the eighth season of American television singing competition The Voice, launching a career that includes two Grammy nominations.

Grammy-nominated Gospel artist Koryn Hawthorne delivers her #1 Billboard Gospel chart hit “Speak to Me”, featuring a dressed-down, smooth take on modern Black Gospel. 

Hawthorne’s growth on social media is significant as well, particularly on TikTok. She went from 90K followers in May 2020 to 169K followers in the second half of 2020, which is not easy for artists to do on the track-oriented platform. Her profile features all the things a fun TikTok account does: dancing with friends, looking glamorous, and funny challenges like the #BopItChallenge. Her 439K TikTok Likes in December 2020 put her profile in the ballpark of Anderson .Paak (434K) and country star Tim McGraw (452K).

Whether you regularly listen to Black Gospel music or not, make no mistake: When Ed Sheeran or Ariana Grande tag a bluesy run of notes at the end of a verse, or Justin Timberlake and Chris Stapleton enlist dozens of singers for a powerful chorus, they are incanting the legacy of Black Gospel tradition. For every Pop flourish, there have been countless church performances that were enjoyed only by the immediate congregation present. Though some of us may have never stepped inside a Black church, we are treated to its influence every time we press play. We invite you to explore those carrying the torch of this seminal art form in American culture.

A performance aptly titled, “Best Gospel Solo Ever.” No superstars necessary.