Crossing Over: Yolanda Adams

September 5, 2001 at 12:00 AM EDT


GWEN IFILL: It’s Saturday afternoon, and the stadium concert is rocking. The headliners are dancing up a storm… (Band playing)

GWEN IFILL: …And so is the audience.

SINGERS: Praise your praise your praise your…

GWEN IFILL: This is not your typical rock music or rhythm and blues extravaganza; this is a gospel concert.

SINGERS: Jesus, Jesus, Jesus, Jesus…

GWEN IFILL: The headliner, Yolanda Adams, a Grammy-winning, platinum-selling vocalist, many music lovers have probably never heard of. But they will. Adams is crossing over, selling an upbeat brand of Christianity to the secular masses.

SINGERS: Jesus, Jesus yes, he did Jesus, Jesus… Yes, he did

GWEN IFILL: In fact, Yolanda Adams is the queen of crossover.

SINGERS: Keep us praying keep on praying — no matter what you’re goin’ through…

GWEN IFILL: This is the new face of Christian gospel music: Young artists, young audiences, and a heavy dose of urban hip-hop– music that regularly breaks into the mainstream top 40. Yolanda Adams may be today’s big success, but gospel has crossed over before. Decades ago, California’s Edwin Hawkins grabbed the attention of music lovers Christian and non- Christian alike with his breakout hit “Oh, Happy Day.”

EDWIN HAWKINS: Oh happy day — oh happy day — oh happy day — oh happy day — oh happy day come on everybody sing that — oh happy day — oh happy day…

GWEN IFILL: Mahalia Jackson was gospel’s queen for years. Until her death in 1972, she sang a traditional form of church music, full of old standards.

MAHALIA JACKSON: It was good for my mother it was good for my mother — hallelujah good enough for me…

GWEN IFILL: Gospel music is not so recognizable now. Just take a look at Kirk Franklin, whose raucous, hip-hop gospel anthem, “stomp,” sounds almost nothing like church. Franklin, a 30-year-old Fort Worth, Texas, minister, combines rap and hip-hop with gospel messages. And he does it in a way that has brought him multi-platinum success, while rankling some traditionalists.

SINGERS: And when I think about your goodness it makes me wanna stomp!

KIRK FRANKLIN: ( Laughs ) you can’t take my joy, devil. Make me stomp.

SINGERS: Make me clap my hands…

GWEN IFILL: Steve Jones covers rhythm and blues, hip-hop and gospel music for “USA Today.”

STEVE JONES: You know, at the time when “Stomp” came out, there was huge debate: Is this really gospel music? And the traditionalists argued that it wasn’t, and other people said, “yes, it was.” Kirk Franklin said, “yes, it was.” Radio programmers said, “it’s good music. People are calling our radio stations.”"

GWEN IFILL: You talk about young people. Who is listening to this new brand of gospel music? Who is buying it?

STEVE JONES: Well, I think any time you see records being sold in large numbers, you’re talking about people between… Mainly between, say, 14, 15 years old and 25 to 30 at the highest. Those are the people that generally make any kind of a pop record big, because they buy music all the time.

YOLANDA ADAMS: (singing) Alone in a world it’s just me and you I feel so lost ’cause I don’t know what to do…

GWEN IFILL: 38-year-old Yolanda Adams’ big hit, “Open My Heart,” helped drive the Gospel Music Association to a double-digit increase in sales last year.

STEE JONES: A lot of times the first glimpse somebody has of an artist is of them on a video. And in the case of someone like Yolanda Adams, you start wanting to know, “who is that?” And you know, “Open Up My Heart” was one of those kinds of songs that it didn’t necessarily catch you as a gospel song at first. It just was this really powerful and beautiful ballad.

YOLANDA ADAMS: Oh, when I just stop…

GWEN IFILL: In her heavily played videos, Adams struts and sways. One on one, she is more reflective about her breakout success. We paid her a visit during a tour date in Washington.

GWEN IFILL: Were you surprised at all, not only at your success in the broader market, but the degree to which gospel has been embraced so much by people who never listened to it before?

YOLANDA ADAMS: It’s never a surprise, because, you know, God is just awesome. He’s awesome like that. And every path that you’re supposed to take, you will take because that’s how your life is ordered. And gospel music has always been popular, contrary to popular opinion. You know, now that we have more television and more exposure, people get a chance to see gospel artists more now, but gospel artists have been doing their gospel thing for a long time. Mahalia Jackson did everything from Carnegie Hall to… Ooh, what? She did everything. The Daughters of the American Revolution, she sang for them. And then, also, people… Groups like the Clara Ward Singers were on… They did stints in Vegas with their wonderful gowns and the flowing things. And I mean, so I’m just walking in the path of gospel music. It’s already set.

GWEN IFILL: Now, sometimes when I listen to hip hop music and I’ll be bopping my head along and all of a sudden it will occur to me that they are saying “Jesus” or they’re talking about God…

YOLANDA ADAMS: Mm-hmm, right.

GWEN IFILL: …And it takes a while before I realize I’m listening to a gospel song.


GWEN IFILL: Is that a good thing or a bad thing?

YOLANDA ADAMS: That’s a great thing, because remember, the first thing you said was, “I’m bopping my head up and down,” okay? So you’re already into the beat, and this is what we’re trying to do with young people. They hear the music and they’re like, “wow, that’s cool.” And then if a cool person is talking about Jesus or singing about Jesus, well, then it’s pretty cool to know Jesus.

GWEN IFILL: But are they hearing the message or are they just hearing the beat?

YOLANDA ADAMS: They’re doing exactly what you just told me that you did, after you bop and you say, wow. “That’s… They’re talking about Jesus.” The same thing, the same idea that you get or the same light bulb experience that you have, they have too.

GWEN IFILL: Now, you must be impatient with the criticism about being too secular.



YOLANDA ADAMS: Uh-uh. I’ve always been like this. If you look back over all my albums, we’ve always incorporated jazz, always incorporated whatever beats were current at that time and always… Oh, my goodness, you know that R&B kind of feel? Because the truth is, all music pretty much incorporates one… You know, each genre incorporates one another, except for in classic and orchestrational music.

GWEN IFILL: So what do you say to people who may not believe in Jesus, may not believe in Christianity, yet they hear your music now on Jay Leno or on Oprah Winfrey, and they’re feeling a little bit imposed upon by that?

YOLANDA ADAMS: Well, the thing about it is they can turn their televisions off. You know, I don’t have a problem with, you know, if Marilyn Manson can get on television and say, “I hate Jesus. I hate God. I hate the government,” I hate this, I hate that, I can get on television because of my First Amendment rights and say, “I love Jesus,” you know. So the problem is not with me, you know, because there are a lot of people– as a matter of fact, millions and millions of people– who believe what I believe. If they’re imposed, if they feel imposed upon, turn the television off and then watch Oprah the next day.

GWEN IFILL: Yolanda Adams is now on her eighth album. Her audience, she says, will always find her.

YOLANDA ADAMS: And if I keep writing songs and keep, you know, singing songs that have to do with that whole part of us, then people… You know, I don’t care who they are. I’ve had people walk up to me and say, you know, “I was an atheist, and I listed to ‘Open My Heart,’ and you got me thinking.” That’s all I want you to do.


YOLANDA ADAMS: I’m not trying to convert you and say, “in the name of Jesus, do this.” That’s not my job. That’s… All I have to do is talk to you through my music, make you think, and then Sunday you’ll go to church, you know, to someone’s church, and then they’ll speak the message that will speak to your heart again.

GWEN IFILL: And when Adams sings– without drums, costumes and flashing lights, just simply sings– the reason for her success become crystal clear.

YOLANDA ADAMS: (singing) A name so wonderful to me this name is worthy of all praises because of Him I am made free… And I love you I have a life eternally.

GWEN IFILL: Thank you.

YOLANDA ADAMS: Oh, thank you so much.