British Black Gospel Part 5: British Gospel at the Grassroots
Steve Alexander Smith is the writer of British Black Gospel, a book which traces the roots of Gospel in Britain. Exclusively for MOBO.com, Smith will be provding an overview of the world leading US Gospel market, and how it compares historically and economically to its British counterpart - taking us from the origins of British black gospel up to the present day. You can find out more about the British Black Gospel book on Amazon.
At this year’s MOBO Awards in Liverpool, the nominee that raises the trophy for Best Gospel will be lifting the hopes, aspirations and dreams of many thousands of onlookers. Gospel music in Britain may be a small niche market in terms of its share of the music business pie, but historically and culturally it is of huge significance in the African and Caribbean community. British Black Gospel exists on three tiers, namely (1) the church circuit, (2) those that take their performance beyond its walls and (3) the professional level, i.e. a small select group of stars that make occasional appearance in the mainstream limelight. My book, British Black Gospel, describes a parallel universe consisting of a distorted mirror image of the secular music industry.
Artists that perform on the grassroots level often juggle jobs, family commitments and studies while pursuing their dream. In this economically challenged microcosm, there are no big budget albums, marketing departments, entourage, manager or record company contract. The driving motivation on this level is passion for their art and a strong faith in their God. Talent in this world however, is in abundance. Two groups that fit within this category are London-based Shiv&B and Pure Wisdom. They are a small sample of many thousands of such units spread across towns and cities in the UK who are part of a culturally and musically diverse vibrant underground music movement.
Shiv & B are a duo and the name is derived from a combination of the first names of the two sisters of Nigerian origin Barbara, 20, and 17-year-old Siobhan Omoruyi. Both were raised in Stratford, east London, and are students - one at college and the other at the University of Westminster. Their style can be best described as contemporary gospel bordering on inspirational. In fact one of their favourite songs is Yaweh by Mali music because of its simplicity, spiritual feel and the sheer beauty behind the lyrics. Their musical influences are diverse and include Mary Mary, Whitney Houston, Kim Burrell, Michael Jackson, Adele, Le’Andria and William McDowell among others.
When asked what drives them, Barbara says: “What motivates us is literally our love for God. Nothing is better than that unconditional love and we want to show that through our music. We want to be honest about what is most important to us”. The girls have a clear vision about where the group is going and why they feel what they do is important: “We definitely want to appeal to the mainstream. There’s no point in only preaching to people who are already in the church. We need to get God’s word out there for every person to hear. Music will help the youth of today because it’s like therapy, having the power to evoke emotion and change. If used positively it can give people the boost they need”. Shiv & B received a boost to their dream after reaching the finals of a high profile gospel talent contest in 2011. They have a brilliant demo ‘I Seek you’ currently going through the production stage.
Pure Wisdom is another duo, Sophie Harriot and Kathy Wilkinson both of Caribbean origin (Jamaica and Barbados). Sophie is a senior library assistant and Kathy is a human resource manager. No pun intended but with age comes experience and wisdom and Kathy has seen changes in the British Black Gospel industry over the years: “UK Gospel has huge talent that goes through phases. At one point choirs were big, and then it was groups and solo artists. Now it seems to be young male rappers and MCs”. Sophie describes the group's sound as “naturally earthy soul sounds with elements of jazz carrying a message of hope and healing”.
Both women play key roles in their local church as experienced worship leaders, but their blend of contemporary and traditional soulful harmonies found a wider audience by popular demand. The group are currently resident artists at the renowned 606 Jazz Club in Chelsea as part of the Gospel Brunch team. A blistering performance at Hammersmith Apollo in 2012 and guesting on the Edwin Fawcett album Stronghold are also major additions to their CV. At grassroots level, that this respected and loyal group is slowly climbing. If Pure Wisdom and Shiv&B get their long deserved break and release an album or single that captures the heart and minds of the marketplace, a new chapter could be written into their lives. Perhaps, in the future, one of these groups from Britain’s invisible grassroots gospel community may switch from spectator to proud recipients of a MOBO Award.