by Dom Jones
The last time I was super, super into contemporary gospel music, Mary Mary had just released their second album, Incredible. I was a young soprano in my own church, trying to find my voice as a vocalist and also be “cool.” By the time I was sixteen years old, I’d written at least three dozen gospel songs, and finding my voice as a songwriter also helped me find a more analytic voice for what I was hearing when I listened to church music. As gospel music evolved, there seemed to be this great divide occurring: on one side there were the Hezekiah Walkers and Dorinda Clark-Coles who erred on the more traditional side with slight (but never overt) contemporary additions, and on the other were the Kirk Franklins and Mary Marys who released music that could more easily be played in a mix of soul and R&B. I was shocked when my older sister came home and told me that they had played Kirk Franklin’s “Stomp” in the club that she’d gone to, and though I loved both sides of where gospel was headed, the dissension it caused in black church culture endeared me to it less and less. The latter group of musicians were often maligned on Sunday mornings for their sound being too “secular,” and the people who enjoyed their music were often maligned as well. If gospel means “good news,” then why was this music creating such bad energy?
In my late teens, I wrote my first R&B song, and my friends and family all seemed blown away by it – even my mother, a devout Christian missionary, who expected me to become a gospel star, if I were going to pursue music at all. That was all I needed, and I went full steam ahead writing R&B, soul, pop, alternative, and any other kind of song that came to me. I stopped paying attention to what was going on in the gospel world, except for whatever I heard in the few church services I’d attend and when I watched Sunday Best with my sister. Usher, Brandy, Badu, Amel Larrieux, D’Angelo, and others took over my playlist as I worked hard to grow in my new lane as a songwriter.
When I came to Berklee, I hadn’t sung in a church choir, written a gospel song, or paid attention to the gospel music industry in years. At that point, Mary Mary had a reality tv show, was releasing songs like this, and I was more uninterested than ever. The church culture is strong at Berklee, though, and one of the first friends I made invited me to church with him on Sunday. Though I groaned about it, I went, and the music was the thing I enjoyed the most. Then, one of my friends posted this video of The Walls Group and it reminded me of my childhood, singing with my older sisters and all of our friends from church. I assumed it was just a random video on Facebook of a nameless group of siblings who could sing, but more videos kept popping up on my timeline, the more I added people from Berklee.
This past March, this video popped up on my timeline, and I decided to see who the heck this group was.
Signed to Kirk Franklin’s label in 2014, when you listen to their debut album, Fast Forward, it feels like the merging of the aforementioned groups. The traditional influence of gospel is heard, but so is the contemporary influence. Songs like “God on my Mind” allow the young listener to hear the “good news” without diverging too starkly from the sound of either gospel or R&B. The same song’s songwriting is authentic, not purporting a life of perfection or blithely ignoring life’s tragedies or questions just because of one’s beliefs. Brandy’s seamless feature on the song accomplishes the end of an argument that has been a distraction from the music for so long: jazz, blues, gospel, soul, and R&B are all inextricably connected and will likely influence each other forever. To try to separate them through some ridiculous hierarchy of morality because their content is different is silly. Sonically, The Walls Group are the children of The Clark Sisters and Darryl Coley, but also of Kirk Franklin and Mary Mary, and create the necessary bridge between traditional and contemporary gospel music. They do this in all ways: sonically, aesthetically (there are no big church hats or suits), and energetically. The believer and non-believer can listen to their music, enjoy it and feel inspired, without feeling judged.
I’m not the only one who agrees, as they are Grammy-nominated, Stellar Award-nominated, and their debut album charted at 39 on Billboard. As gospel music evolves with artists such as Lecrae making making their foray into genres that gospel has historically avoided, The Walls Group finds themselves in the number of artists using the “good news” to unify instead of divide. And so, I find myself breaking down the wall I built between myself and my origin genre, and peeking my head back in.
FIND OUT MORE ABOUT THE WALLS GROUP HERE.