Tasha Cobbs Leonard sent the Internet into a frenzy when she released her new song with Nicki Minaj and joined the ranks of Kirk Franklin, Mary Mary and others who have been criticized for their untraditional approaches to gospel music. The criticism resurrected an old and annual debate over the rules and roles of being a Christian artist and beckoned several questions about the future of gospel music, like: If the ultimate goal is to spread the Good News, shouldn’t it be applauded when gospel artists collaborate with musicians who may have a different audience? Can gospel musicians be committed to ministry, while still being artistic? Can they be all things to all people for the purpose of advancing the gospel?
The obvious answer is “yes.” Gospel artists are considered the psalmists of our contemporary world, encouraging us to look to God instead of folding into ourselves in search of healing and hope. They incite the soul of a broken generation. And by grace, dedicate themselves to embracing the binary callings of poet and preacher, artist and minister, hope giver and truth teller.
At last year’s Grammy Awards, when Kirk Franklin won Best Gospel Performance he invited the other nominees on stage to accept the award with him. He told the audience, “I need for you to see these faces. This is the future of gospel music.” Anthony Brown, Travis Greene and Jonathan McReynolds were three of those faces. During a time when millennials leaving the church is a major headline and diversity in gospel music is criticized, they offer a fresh perspective on what it means to have an artistic, authentic ministry grounded in faith.
Artistry then Ministry
“It inhibits gospel artists when we don’t look at both art and ministry individually and then don’t know how to fuse them together,” McReynolds told ESSENCE. The musician and vocalist is known for songs like “Pressure” and “No Gray”.
“It’s important to maintain a level of artistic transparency, but we have to turn that into ministry.”
During a time where people are seeking transparent, candid expressions of faith, McReynolds stunned the Gospel world with his ingenuity and sincerity. While songs like “Gotta Have You” and “Christ Representers” are robust proclamations of God-reliance and identity, most of his songs feel like intimate conversations with God —some confessions, others supplications, all of them resolute in their conviction.
Early next year McReynolds will release his third album, which will include the single, “I’m Not Lucky, I’m Loved.”
“It’s my first ever live album. It was really like a converted living room and gives a fuller idea of where God was trying to go with this album. It brings the church to you,” said McReynolds. And McReynolds’ “church” is full of both art and ministry. During his live shows, he moves between his guitar and keyboard. He goes from jazz scats to church runs. He cracks jokes and offers God-inspired life lessons. Most importantly, he brings the same raw integrity from his albums to the stage.
When he’s not recording or touring, he’s a professor at Columbia College and running his foundation Elihu Nation, but his greatest accomplishment to date is putting a down payment on a condo for his mother. “Getting my mom out the hood. I think that’s something most Black men strive to do, especially (those of us) raised by single mothers.”
Translating Chris Brown to Gospel
Gifting his mother is one of the things McReynolds has in common with Greene, who also relates his biggest accomplishment to his family —particularly for his two sons and his wife Dr. Jackie Greene, with whom he co-pastors Forward City Church in Columbia, South Carolina. Although Greene is most proud of his role as a husband and father, he is best known for his hit song “Intentional” and “Made a Way” from his 2015 album The Hill.
Last month, he released his fourth album Crossover, and similar to The Hill, the album memorializes the bare essence of a life in pursuit of God, but with a more polished delivery. “The Hill is a lot more raw,” Greene told ESSENCE. “It was about capturing the moment. Crossover is more polished in the production. We pulled out some cool sounds, some Chris Brown, some Justin Bieber and translated it in the gospel context.”
As a pastor and millennial, Greene believes the biggest issue facing this generation is the battle over identity. “Everything [in the culture] points away from the cross for identity. But three nails, 39 lashes, a bloody cross and an empty tomb showed us how much we were valued by the Creator of the universe,” Greene said.
McReynolds agrees that identity is a big issue for this generation. “There’s a lot of pressure because of Instagram culture. We’re not satisfied with our gifts and the opportunity to use those gifts because we’re comparing ourselves, ” he said.
Their sentiments are relevant to a larger conversation around millennial disinterest in church. In 2015, CNN reported that millennials were leaving churches in droves. The conversation resurfaced this year, with the surprising statistic that over half of Americans between the ages of 22-35 who grew up in church, no longer attend.
Brown is the Assistant Music Minister at one of the largest churches in the DMV area and has a different perspective. “As millennials are gaining more intelligence, we have less time for things that are fake. We like direct answers, direct information. That’s where the church loses the millennials, but I also think that’s why they are drawn to people like Jonathan, Travis and myself. There’s a sense of authenticity,” he said.
Real Recognizes Real
Brown, along with his band Group Therapy, became known for songs like “Testimony” and “Worth” from their first two albums, and their newest record “A Long Way From Sunday”, released in July, is already climbing the Billboard charts. With standouts like “I Got That”, “Miracle Worker” and “Trust in You”, the album speaks directly to the dichotomy of living between how you feel and what you know and embracing your faith through the process.
“Christians go to church every Sunday, but on Monday your challenges are meeting you,” Brown told ESSENCE. “You can emotionally and mentally get to a place where you feel far away [from God]. The songs speak to those moments.”
Brown grew up in Baltimore and began playing and arranging music at three years old. Despite being the son of a preacher, his parents never discouraged him from experiencing other forms of music and he doesn’t shy away from those influences even now. “There are no accidents in the gifts that God gives. My base is church, but I studied jazz and classical music. I’ve never felt afraid to use other influences,” he said.
This fall, Brown will be taking his talents to the theater, where he has a role in the stage play “Momma’s Boy,” alongside Robin Givens, Shirley Murdock and Johnny Gill. “Anthony has a crazy ability to arrange and think outside the box. Both of them [Anthony and Jonathan] have a fearless edge musically,” Greene said.
While the three are obvious supporters of each other’s music (they collaborated on Anthony’s album and there were even talks of a tour earlier this year), they also have a staple of present and future gospel musicians that influence and inspire them.
“People always talk about Kirk winning everything, but he should win everything. If it weren’t for Kirk Franklin, we wouldn’t even be able to do this. I think everyone knows John P. Kee is my biggest inspiration. [In terms of the future], I love Todd Dulaney and Casey J. I would say Tasha Cobbs Leonard, but it’s disrespectful to call her the future. She’s already legendary status,” Greene added.
“Jermaine Dolly is a young, fresh artist coming up. Miles Caton… There are so many. I think what’s going on is renaissance. The diversity will draw more to God. Sometimes we feel like if people are artistic there’s no room for that, but the church should be just as creative as anywhere else.” Brown said.
As far as the criticism of gospel artists collaborating with secular artists or having untraditional approaches to gospel music, Brown isn’t concerned with the dissent. “I’m most concerned that we’re loving and accepting,” he said. “The most important thing to me is that when people do look at us, we look like Jesus.”