It’s not every day that an ordained minister debuts in the top five on the Billboard 200, but that’s what happens this week. Marvin Sapp, the founder and senior pastor of Lighthouse Full Life Center Church in Grand Rapids, Mich., enters the chart at #2 with Here I Am. This is the highest-charting album ever by a gospel artist, topping an eponymous album by God’s Property, a group organized by Kirk Franklin, which hit #3 in 1997, and Franklin’s own The Rebirth Of Kirk Franklin, which reached #4 in 2002.
Sapp, who was born in Grand Rapids in 1968, has been singing since he was four years old. His focus, however, is on his pastoral work. His website (www.marvinsapp.com) characterizes him as “not a singer that happens to preach but a preacher called by God who is gifted to sing.”
Gospel star Fred Hammond gave Sapp his big break in 1991, when he invited Sapp to join the gospel group Commissioned. Sapp went solo in 1995. Here I Am is his eighth solo album. With this week’s debut, Sapp has surpassed his mentor: Hammond’s highest-charting album, Love Unstoppable, reached #26 on The Billboard 200 in October.
Sapp first reached The Billboard 200 on his own in 2005 with Be Exalted. His album before this one, 2007’s sleeper hit Thirsty, has sold an impressive 712,000 copies. (This includes 72,000 copies that were sold in churches and in Christian retail outlets and online sites.) It was the #1 gospel album of 2008, boosted by the top 20 R&B hit “Never Would Have Made It.” Sapp recorded both Thirsty and Here I Am live at his church.
Four other gospel albums have reached the top 10 over the years. Aretha Franklin’s Amazing Grace hit #7 in 1972. Kirk Franklin’s The Nu Nation Project hit #7 in 1998. The duo Mary Mary has reached the top 10 twice. Mary Mary hit #8 in 2005. The Sound hit #7 in 2008.
Gospel music has edged closer to the pop mainstream in recent years. CeCe Winans teamed with Whitney Houston for “Count On Me,” a top 10 hit from Houston’s movie Waiting To Exhale. Kirk Franklin enlisted superstars Mary J. Blige, Bono and R. Kelly to appear on “Lean On Me,” the Hot 100 single from his The Nu Nation Project.
Pop and R&B artists have also moved toward gospel. Pop releases that have had strong gospel elements include Houston’s The Preacher’s Wife soundtrack, Ruben Studdard’s I Need An Angel and The Fighting Temptations soundtrack (which featured Beyonce and Angie Stone, among others).
Several Contemporary Christian artists have reached #1 or #2 on The Billboard 200, but that’s considered a different genre than gospel. Contemporary Christian music is mostly pop or rock. Gospel draws on the soul tradition.
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