Thousands Return to Atlanta to Celebrate Gospel Music

Ron Harris | 7/31/2014, 12:21 p.m.
As the nation’s top black attorneys were wrestling with how to legally help African Americans at the Marriott Marquis, just ...
Bishop Albert Jamison

By Ron Harris

As the nation’s top black attorneys were wrestling with how to legally help African Americans at the Marriott Marquis, just across the street, an even larger group of black people from across America were looking to help themselves and others through a different medium – God and the soothing power of gospel music.

The Gospel Music Workshop of America (GMWA) and its more than 6,000 members wrap up their 47th convention Thursday (7/31) at the Downtown Hyatt Atlanta after returning to the city following a 20 year absence, and the head of the organization said returning to Atlanta has been a pleasant surprise.

In fact, he said, he never imagined it would be this good.

“We knew we would get a better crowd, but nothing like we’ve gotten,” said Bishop Albert L. Jamison Sr., chair of the GMWA board and pastor of Pleasant Gove Tabernacle Full Gospel Baptist Church in Brooklyn, N.Y. “We’re very excited about being here. We’re experiencing growing pains. Rooms are filled to overflowing. It’s like a revival. It’s magic.”

The response has been so good, Jamison said, that Atlanta has catapulted into the running with Los Angeles as the site for the organization’s 50th convention.

“We would have been here sooner if I had known this,” he said.

The convention was founded by the gospel legend the Rev. James Cleveland. Participants this year hailed from across the U.S., Europe and even as far away as Japan. A 40 plus-member Japanese mass choir brought the audience to its feet with applause and wild cheering during its performance Tuesday night in the Hyatt Hotel’s main ballroom as Gospel legend Edwin Hawkins looked on from the front row.

Numerous gospel artists are performing at the event – James Fortune and FIYA, Isaac Carree, Lisa Knowles and the Brown Sisters, the Brat Pack, featuring Ricky Dillard, Donald Lawrence, Hezekiah Williams and Kevin Lemons and Higher Calling and famous guest artists. Many of the shows are open to the public.

Meanwhile, each night features gospel showcases, including 3,000 quartets, dozens of mass choirs, individual artists and more.

Additionally, the convention offers 69 classes for its 1,800 attending students. The classes ranging from gospel organ to understanding the Bible to intermediate keyboard theory to advanced liturgical dance to percussion to voice to alternate activities for children and Christian hip hop and the African-American church.

“Where are you going to get all that,” Jamison boasts.

Gospel, which originated out of the African American experience during slavery, has grown dramatically from the days of Fisk Jubilee Singers in the 1920s to Kirk Franklin.

It has taken some of its most dramatic leaps over the past 20 years, both in the number of followers and also in the various musical style styles. What was once one genre has splintered into traditional gospel, mass choir, Christian hip hop, gospel jazz, southern gospel, gospel blues, urban contemporary gospel and even more.

With the different styles have come controversies among gospel followers about whether some styles are truly gospel.

None of that bothers Jamison.

“Gospel is like chicken,” he said. “You’ve got Kentucky Fried Chicken, Church’s Chicken and Popeye’s Chicken. You’ve got chicken fingers, chicken strips and chicken nuggets. But it’s all chicken.”

“That’s how gospel is. Whatever you call it, it’s all gospel. It’s all praising God. Different people like different styles. My wife likes Kentucky Fried Chicken; I like Popeye’s. My wife likes chicken nuggets. I like the chicken pieces.

“That’s the same way with gospel. Some people like mass choirs. Some people like quartets. Some people like hip hop or gospel jazz. It doesn’t matter. It’s all gospel.”