Los Angeles’s Role in the Rise and Mainstreaming of Gospel Music (KCET)
By Nadra Nittle, June 5, 2019
Praise and worship songs stealing the limelight at a secular music festival in Southern California might seem unthinkable, but Kanye West gave a riveting gospel-inspired performance when Coachella coincided with Easter in 2019.
He rapped his hit “Jesus Walks,” mixed the music of gospel legends The Clark Sisters on his turntable and played house music classic “Brighter Days,” with the refrain: “Lift me up! Oh, won’t you lift me up!” It was all part of the music series West calls his “Sunday Service,” but instead of church robes, his choir wore Yeezy sweats.
What happened at Coachella might have been unexpected, but it falls in line with Southern California’s history. Along with cities such as Chicago and Detroit, Los Angeles has influenced gospel music for decades. And transplants like West, who came to L.A. by way of Chicago, have often been the architects of the movement.
“Los Angeles can stand up with any other city in terms of gospel music,” according to Aundrae Russell, program director for the R&B and gospel radio station KJLH. “It’s in the top three cities in the country.”
A combination of factors, including the Great Migration, restrictive housing covenants and musicians such as the Rev. James Cleveland and Andraé Crouch, all helped to make L.A. a gospel music center. But far more known for Hollywood than any other industry, L.A.’s contributions to gospel are frequently overlooked. Now, that appears to be changing. The California African American Museum devoted a 2018 exhibition — “How Sweet the Sound: Gospel Music in Los Angeles” — to exploring the city’s connection to the genre. And the documentary “Amazing Grace,” about Aretha Franklin’s L.A.-recorded album of the same name, is giving the city some long-deserved credit about its impact on the music.