Grammy Goes Gospel

Mary J. Blige and Justin Timberlake may steal the spotlight during Sunday's Grammy Awards with their multiple nominations, but the big-name artists are actually up only for awards in a handful of categories at this annual event.

The Grammy's hand out awards in a whopping 23 fields and 108 categories ranging from the coveted album of the year award to lesser-known areas such as best Native American music album or best polka album.

What is more surprising is that gospel, a field that rarely registers on the Grammy broadcast, gets awards in seven categories, with its own best performance, song and album awards. There are also distinctions for rock, rap and bluegrass gospel performers as the range of music in this genre grows.

Even though the melodies, beats and rhythms in the eight gospel styles awarded may vary greatly from traditional gospel performances, they are all united in their lyrics.

"What makes gospel music gospel music is the message," said Israel Houghton, lead singer of the contemporary gospel group Israel & New Breed. "We can use some extra love, some extra hope."

He's nominated for the third year in a row, and his group leads the gospel field with four nominations, including three for the album "Alive in South Africa" recorded live in Cape Town in 2005.

He said gospel and its positive lyrics are perfect for this time, given what's happening in the world. "I've watched enough bad news; it's good to get some good news," Houghton said.

Such as on one of his personal favorites on his album, the song "Not Forgotten," which he describes as "interactive," as it "draws the listener into singing [along], saying over and over to themselves, 'I am not forgotten, God knows my name.'"

Unlike the music heard on most contemporary radio stations, Israel & New Breed's songs exude a certain hopefulness that resonates throughout their compositions.

"I think inherently there is a feel-good component to gospel music. Whether it be the beat or the way the chords are constructed, you can't help but move," Houghton said. "It's kind of like Lays potato chips. You can never eat just one. You're gonna eat the whole bag, and this music kind of has that quality to it.

"The message, as well as how the music is constructed around the message, is something that internally and inherently has that effect," he added.

Validation on the Red Carpet

Like most gospel artists, Houghton is thrilled that the Grammy's have recognized the many different sounds in their genre.

He said his own nominations are a "personal validation."

"The thing you set out to do, it has credibility now. It has validity now because a voting body of your peers and constituents said this was one of the best records we heard this year or this was one of the best songs we heard this year," said Houghton. "To the music industry as a whole, and to our genre as a whole, I think it is certainly a testament to the rising voice of the gospel music industry and being a credible voice in the entire industry as a whole."

And now that its message is rapped, screamed, harmonized and delivered in a twang, gospel music can spread the good word no matter your musical druthers.

"It's broadening," said Houghton, referring to the gospel field. "Some of the best production, some of the best songs in any category are coming out of our field. I'm not just saying that to be competitive, because we're not here to be the competition. We are here to be the contrast."