Ray BLK; Samm Henshaw (centre) with EARTHGANG (Photo by Gina Canavan via PR)

Why Gospel’s Impact on Black British Pop Means So Much Now

Artists have always chucked choirs into secular music, but this latest trend holds specific meaning for the UK's west African and Caribbean diaspora.

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11 February 2019, 10:00am

Ray BLK; Samm Henshaw (centre) with EARTHGANG (Photo by Gina Canavan via PR)

Rising UK soul artist Samm Henshaw is on his way to a photoshoot, telling me about one of his mum’s more creative Sunday wake up calls. He remembers “one time when she chucked a bucket of water on me”, and in that moment we bond over extra Nigerian mums who don’t take no for an answer when it’s time to get up for church.

You might have heard a similar energy in his latest single. “Church” is a jovial, shoulder-shaking anthem soaked in gospel textures and featuring a verse from EARTHGANG. In its rollicking four and a half minutes, you’re hit with an ascending piano riff and three-part harmonised choir oohs. Henshaw’s vocal cadence recalls that of a preacher before he bursts into the chorus hook: “wake up and get yourself to church yeahhh” – not unlike a human alarm clock. With this latest track, Henshaw follows artists from Stormzy and Lotto Boyzz to Fleur East in bringing elements of the black British church to the charts. But this feels different from past gospel touches in pop, because of what it says about the sense of identity for parts of Britain’s west African and Caribbean diaspora.

Using a gospel choir to elevate the mood is songwriting 101. Madonna enraged American conservatives with her quasi-spiritual “Like A Prayer” and its music video’s black Jesus in the 90s. Keedz brought the Good Lord to French electropop more than a decade ago. Pick a rapper and they probably have too: Drake, Common, Loyle Carner, Ghetts and of course Kanye, who’s peppered gospel choirs through pretty much his whole back catalogue.

When I call MOBO-winning grime and rap artist Guvna B – whose faith-based music regularly features on the usual black UK music outlets – he emphasises that musicians invoking God “is not groundbreaking”. (He worked with the Kingdom Choir, of Royal wedding fame, on his most recent track). What he says makes sense, when you consider how secular acts across genres have turned to gospel touches to lend their music gravity. Artists know that a swell of voices makes it hard not to feel emotionally swayed. Pick an uplifting, major chord progression, throw in some harmonies and with the added religious connotations, and a basic song becomes transcendent.

But until recently, a pop song like Samm Henshaw’s “Church” almost felt impossible. You could talk about faith in a sexy, metaphorical sense – it worked for Hozier – make a vague allusion, or if in doubt, chuck in that choir. But to be unironically happy to talk about – *whispers* – God was not cool and no one wanted to hear about faith. “I don’t think I would have been able to write it five years ago,” Henshaw admits, as we talk over the phone. “I remember being in some sessions... and people would be like, ‘oh don’t do that; it’s too gospely or too churchy’.”

Guvna B tells me he can relate. While overbearing labels or advisors are less of an issue in a more DIY industry, he notes, artists themselves still fear backlash: “I don’t think people are as free to share their faith or religious views without being afraid that it can ostracise some of their fan base.” Henshaw cites Chance the Rapper and Tori Kelly, two former tour mates, as inspirations to be bolder about his faith, but I can see how the idea of being a “Christian country” might stand up more in the US.

So when Stormzy released Gang Signs and Prayer and “Blinded By Your Grace” in 2017 it felt like a tipping point in various parts of black British music. You could say he gave everyone license to be as honest as they wanted, though of course artists like Guvna B had been open about their faith before. On that album campaign, Stormzy leaned into connecting with a mainstream audience, while unapologetically delivering that message about Christianity. He didn’t just talk about “blessings”, but asked God to “fix” and “save” him on national radio. And so other professions of faith have followed, in what’s developed into a micro-trend of sorts (and isn’t meant to signify that other artists are ‘copying’ or ‘emulating’ Stormzy btw). Ray BLK opens her “Mama” video, from last October with “Total Praise” – a sombre choral classic that ends with an ever-ascending round of ‘amens’ – and a prayer in a Peckham church. On a call, Lotto Boyzz’s Ash, who hails from Montserrat, gets into how the Birmingham duo’s “No Don” chord progression was “from a church background and [keyboard] fillers that we used to use in church”. Now Henshaw, the son of a Nigerian reverend, is staking his claim too.

These references’ seeming prevalence also reveals the significant influence of the UK’s west African diaspora. Consider afroswing. We take it for granted that a song like “Options” by NSG is number 11 in the official chart, but not too long ago being west African was, in the words of Skepta, a diss. Now we hear about it in the fullness of its idiosyncrasies. We live in a world where people have streamed J Hus asking his aunty to “put rice in a container” millions of times. For fans with roots in west Africa, these shared experiences are an ordinary part of ‘second culture’ life that make your favourite artists entertaining and relatable too. “It’s becoming a bit more like, ‘Let’s be more accepting, and embrace other people’s cultures and ways of life.’,” Henshaw tells me. Before, black artists might have hidden or played down elements of their identity to blend in. Now, as a new crop of musicians have come to embrace all parts of their black Britishness, that’s changing.

In the same way, a generation of artists taking advantage of that newfound sense of freedom draws on the cultural influence of the west African – but also the Caribbean – church. Lucas from Lotto Boyzz is all for it. “It’s something people who go to church and people who know about church can relate to,” he says. “It’s just a different market.” Church membership in the UK has fallen to 10.3 percent but it’s being maintained and even growing among black Londoners. Pastor Lade Ajumobi of Church of New Destiny in Welwyn, an independent multicultural church, refers to the idea of reverse missionaries. “The British went to Africa to convert people to Christianity, but now the Africans have come back and they have brought a multicultural perspective that has influenced Britain.”

According to the London Church census commissioned by London City Mission, a quarter of the capital’s churches have a black majority. The well-known Kingsway International Christian Centre (KICC) and Redeemed Christian Church of God (RCCG) which has over 850 church plants, tend to have a west African majority, and their music can be identified by ear: traditional songs sung fervently by choirs extend into medleys of praise songs that everyone knows though few can say where they originate. Even “western” songs can be adorned with extras in the form of dancing, call-and-response or my personal favourite: clapping your own drum fills. That is to say, musically it bangs.

Henshaw reveals that his experience was an amalgamation of cultures – “African,” “British” and “Caribbean” – which is why “Church” shares more with the high-energy hip-hop of Kirk Franklin and the hybrid gospel and contemporary sound of Israel Houghton than Uche Favour. While Henshaw emphasises his excitement that people are connecting to the lighthearted story behind the track, his main goal is that “it brings joy” and “some kind of hope to people”. It not just a cliché. Guvna B also insists that this factors in gospel’s current significance because hope is needed, but not just in black community.

“The world is a crap place at the moment and has been for a long time”. He’s right. Brexit isn’t going away anytime soon. Neither is violent crime or racism. If artists are using this moment to attract an audience who are familiar with faith, they may as well make something that feels good.

You can find Grace on Twitter.