NEWARK, N.J. – The evolution of Gospel music was evident at the 2011 McDonald's Gospelfest event Saturday at the Prudential Center, where performances during the night's talent competition transcended ethnic, geographic and artistic boundaries traditionally associated with the genre.
In its 28th year, the event is known as the biggest Gospel celebration in the New York Tri-State area. This year's show drew a crowd of over 14,000.
During the competition portion of the event, over 80 finalists, chosen from over 40,000 auditions, competed in various Gospel categories including, Soloists, Youth Choir, Adult Choir, Praise Dance, Step, Singing Groups, Instrumentalists and Gospel Rappers.
The night of praise and worship also featured a message from Bishop T. D. Jakes and performances by contemporary Gospel giants Kirk Franklin and Donnie McClurkin, among others.
While Christ-centered message of the Gospelfest performances has remained the same over the years, performers and contestants say they notice that Gospel no longer as just a "black," "American," or "singing" art form.
"It evolves and continues to progress. There is room for the old as well as the new," Grammy-award winning Gospel singer McClurkin told The Christian Post.
"Gospel music is not black and not American. It is global," said the soulful singer, noting that he recently traveled to Cuba and England and will head to South Africa soon. "There are so many different genres of Gospel music. There are so many cultures that make up Gospel music. The thing about Gospel music is that its message stays the same even though the music changes with the times."
Daisuke Ichii, a native Japanese who came to New York City to study English, was one of the singers competing in the Soloist category. The 27-year-old, who attends Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem, received a warm reception from the crowd for his rendition of "My Soul Has Been Anchored" by Douglas Miller.
"Why should only black people sing Gospel? Anyone who believes in God can sing the Gospel," Ichii told CP. "Jesus is my everything and he has helped me so I want to sing for God and for other people who believe in God. Also, for people who don't believe in God, I want to share with them that God is good."
A. Curtis Farrow, an Emmy-nominated producer and director of McDonald's Gospelfest, said the competition has gone international this year. During the audition phase of the competition, he received tape submissions from as far away as Germany, France and Japan.
One of the international submissions that made the cut to compete in this year's Out of Town category came from a choir team from Barbados known as the Silvertones. For their performance, the group sang a Caribbean-inspired Gospel song in a local dialect of their country.
Gospel music was also expressed in non-singing forms too.
A dance group comprised of 12- to 18-year-old girls from Miller Evangelical Christian Union Church in Brooklyn used praise stepping as a way to communicate the Gospel to a younger generation. In stepping, dancers use their hands and feet to produce percussion rhythms, often times in synchronized movements.
"Not everyone likes the same thing so we bring a new style to bring people to God. Step brings out energy and helps us communicate to others. That’s what the teenagers are into now," Savannah, team leader of Miller Phi Beta, shared with CP. The group was the only entry for the Step category.
Kristin, one of the step dancers, commented to CP, "Our verse is from Psalm 100, 'Make a joyful noise unto the Lord.' We use step as a way to express ourselves differently. It's not only singing. It's not only dancing. But we can praise the Lord so we are making a joyful noise for the Lord."
Bishop T. D. Jakes, who spoke in an interview with The Christian Post before heading on stage to preach, said there is always room for new worship methods in Gospel music.
"I think the amazing thing about Gospel music is that not only does it lift up the death and resurrection of our Lord, which is consistent with the Gospel, but it is uniquely communicated depending upon the generation. It's not locked to sheet music, it's not held in a box," said Jakes, pastor of the Dallas-based megachurch The Potter's House.
"There's going to be diversity," he continued. "As diverse as we are, as the people are expressing it, they are going to be equally diverse. And there are rooms for traditional and contemporary and hip hop Gospel music. The methodologies are always different but the message should be the same."
Added McClurkin, who pastors Perfecting Faith Church in Freeport, N.Y., "The message of salvation of Gospel music is always Jesus Christ – his love, his life, his resurrection, his coming again, his ability to forgive anyone and his love that embraces everyone no matter who they are. His love is not for those who go to church. It's for everyone."
"For God so loved the world – not the church – the world. That's the love that we got to portray through our music and our individual lifestyle."