The performance aspect is what separates gospel from other genres of Christian music, in the same way that the performance aspect is what makes the delivery of a T.D. Jakes different from a Joel Osteen, to name a couple people. Ultimately the focus should be on the content, but in the same way that good preaching requires certain rhetorical flourishes and oratory techniques in a way that simply ministering the word does not (and this ain’t an endorsement of either one of the people whose names I mentioned. They’re just well known enough to illustrate the stylistic differences), really doing Gospel requires more than the ability to sing; you gotta be able to SANG. Therein lies a problem, however. At some point, the sangin simply becomes a performance, rather than a means of worshiping the Lord. Which is my line of demarcation between capital-G Gospel and lowercase. Capital G is music within the gospel genre with its focus on uplift, edification, praise, and/or worship. Lowercase is gospel genre that it primarily to be taken as a piece of performance art. The hard question is, how to tell the difference.
Really, I don’t think there’s a definite answer that a person outside the performer can give. There’s no hard-and-fast rule about when it’s capital and when it’s lowercase, although as it is with many things, you know it when you see it. For instance, I’ve been to a few concerts in my time. Having seen P-Funk, War, Mandrill, and some other funk groups (albeit not in their mid-70′s heyday), I can say without a doubt that the group that tore down their crowd the worst (best?) was the Mighty Clouds of Joy at Chicagofest one year, maybe 86 or 87. They killed it. Nah. They KILT it. To this day, that’s the standard by which I evaluate concerts. Nobody has ever matched that. But one of the things I noticed way back then when I was a young’n was that even among the fans, who were all obviously having a good time, there were two different types: there were the people who were there to “have church,” as the Clouds kept imploring, and there were the people who were there to watch the Clouds have church, just like they had been there to watch the other performers.
Now the Mighty Clouds of Joy present an interesting case. They were at Chicagofest, clearly not a worship-type venue. But I don’t think that necessarily limits their intent, even though they were obviously working to get paid. Not necessarily, but possibly. Their frequent refrain of, “Let’s/we gon’/ I came to/ have church” in some ways suggests that, but at the same time, it can also suggest doing the performance of “having church” without being in that spiritual environment. That, I would argue, kinda invalidates the “churchiness” of it. To their credit, I think the Clouds did an altar call at the end of their show. Difference with the Clouds, and why I tend to give them the benefit of the doubt, is that they’ve been doing it for a long, long time and they never went secular. Even at Chicagofest, the only place you were gonna see them was on Gospel Night, on the Gospel stage.
Even then, though, I don’t wanna act like the venue is the determining factor. The truth is that many, many Black performers got their start in the church, performing gospel music. At some point, they may have been doing capital G, but I don’t know if you can go secular without first going small-g even within the context of a church service. I think the difference is the artist using his/her talents to glorify God vs. the artist using a song about God to glorify him/herself. Again, the question is, how can you tell the difference? At what point is it about being the moon, reflecting the light of the Son, and at what point is it about trying to be a star? I guess for me, when I see/hear certain stylings that seem to be too common, it makes me wonder. Like, the OOOOhhhh-ooooooooooouuuuuuuuOOHHHHOUUUUUOUOUOUOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOooooooooOOOOO. I don’t know about that one. It’s enjoyable to hear, but somehow, I don’t be thinkin that’s all about the Lord.