Gospel music dates back to the 1800s and has deeply religious influences. Black gospel music is a popular genre that emerged with ragtime, blues, and jazz during the same period. Black gospel singers use this music to proclaim their relationship with God and worship Him with their faith.
This article will dive into popular and well-known African American gospel singers. If you like this genre of music and want to learn more about the artists, come along for the ride!
1. Donnie McClurkin
Donnie McClurkin grew up in a home filled with domestic and drug abuse. McClurkin began to play the piano and sing in the church youth choir after his aunt adopted him. He worked as an associate minister in 1989, the same year he battled leukemia.
McClurkin is a recognized gospel singer, continuing to tour and sing at various churches. He debuted his first album at 36, acting as the lead pastor at Perfecting Faith Church. He won Grammy awards for his songs and has a deep tie to his religion, using music to express his faith.
2. Fred Hammond
Fred Hammond addresses God and His power in his music. Hammond believes that in moments of sadness, we can find solace in praising the Lord. The lyrics in his songs are powerful and show that if you have faith in a higher power, they can help guide the way during difficult times.
Hammond tours worldwide, reaching thousands of followers and fans. He is the CEO of his established record label, F. Hammond Music. Hammond and his crew drive motorcycles to meet new people and bless them with music while having a good time.
3. Smokie Norful
Smokie Norful won a Grammy for the Best Contemporary Soul Gospel Album in 2005. He grew up as the son of an African Methodist Episcopal Church minister. He already showed interest in music as a young boy and attended lessons to deepen his knowledge. Smokie Norful has a history degree from the University of Arkansas and taught high school for multiple years.
He then got a Master’s degree at Garett-Evangelical Theological Seminary. Norful worked as an assistant pastor and created his solo album, reaching top gospel charts for two years. His style mixes gospel, 70s soul, and contemporary R&B.
4. Hezekiah Walker
Another Grammy award-winning gospel artist, Hezekiah Walker was born in Brooklyn, New York. He leads and acts as pastor for the Love Fellowship Choir.
Walker created the Covenant Keepers Fellowship, which visits various churches throughout the United States. The members include people of all ages, races, and cultures. He released multiple albums over the years and frequently performs to promote God’s love.
5. Bebe & Cece Winans
Bebe (Benjamin) and Cece (Priscilla) Winans are from Detroit. Their music hits gospel notes with religious messages, but includes contemporary R&B. They debuted their first album in the early 1980s and scored averagely on music charts. They released their second album in 1988, which resulted in three R&B hits and reached top rankings for this genre of music.
6. Kirk Franklin
Kirk Franklin is originally from Texas and is considered a platinum-selling black artist, blending various genres such as gospel, hip-hop, and R&B. He launched his first gospel album in 1993 while leading a few gospel choirs, including Kirk Franklin & The Family.
He started playing the piano before he was five years old. Franklin struggled with various hardships, like being expelled from his high school and having a friend killed. Despite those tragic challenges, he has a strong music career, achieving high ranks on the gospel charts.
7. Mary Mary
Mary Mary consists of sisters Erica Monique Campbell and Trecina Evette Campbell. They implement soul and hip-hop music, popular in the 2000s. The sisters entered their church choirs while growing up, then attended El Camino College to study voice.
Their first single, “Shackles (Praise You),” reached top 10 R&B and top 40 hits, succeeding as a more modernized take on the gospel genre. Mary Mary released their first album in 2000 and won the Best Contemporary Soul Gospel Album Grammy Award. Their influence has reached other countries as well, and the sisters continued to find success with their songs.
8. Yolanda Adams
Yolanda Adams is a Grammy and Dove-Award-winning Gospel singer. She graduated from the University of California Berkeley and started working as a schoolteacher and model before pursuing music full-time.
She signed a label with Sound of Gospel, releasing her first album in 1987. Several songs afterward allowed her to obtain more popularity and become more mainstream. Her album Believe was certified gold in 2002.
9. Israel Houghton, A Black Male Gospel Singer
Israel Houghton is a well-known worship leader, African American gospel singer, and producer. He has worked as a minister since 1989 and is the National Director of Music and Worship for Champions for Christ. Houghton leads worship at Lakewood Church in Houston, Texas.
Houghton and his wife founded New Breed Ministries in 1995, a group of musicians and singers who are also ministers in their churches. They travel everywhere, trying to bring people together to celebrate God and banish prejudices.
10. William McDowell
William McDowell started playing piano at five and drums at thirteen. By the time he was eighteen, McDowell led worship at his Ohio church and interacted with some of the most respected black pastors worldwide. McDowell traveled to several countries to see the religious cultures and understand how people worship God differently.
He has a Bachelor’s degree in the entertainment business and recorded the solo “The Reason I Live” in 2003. Since then, he accepted a worship leader position at The Gathering Place and collaborated with other artists and producers. McDowell’s goal is to establish an organization focusing on some of the world’s biggest problems, like hunger.
11. J Moss
James Moss is the son of Bill Moss, Sr., another notable Gospel singer. His childhood involved touring with the group and learning about music. J Moss worked on playing the keyboard and writing music at a young age.
He signed with Christian Label Aviday Records and released two albums but didn’t receive much acknowledgement. However, he spent several more years touring with the Clark Sisters. In 2007, he released his second album, the J. Moss Project, which combines gospel and hip-hop.
12. Donald Lawrence
Donald Lawerence studied at Cincinnati Conservatory, earning a degree of Fine Arts in music. He used his talents in many avenues, including vocal coaching, musical directing, songwriting, and producing.
Lawrence led the group the Tri-City Singers, debuting in 1993 and reaching number two on the Billboard Top Gospel Charts. He released a solo album in 2004 with various guest appearances.
13. James Fortune
James Fortune is a Grammy award-nominee, named number one on Billboard’s Magazine Best Gospel Songs in 2012. His release Identity reached number five on the Best Gospel Albums and the single “Still Able” ranked number eight on the Best Gospel Songs.
He released a Christmas album the same year, supporting St. Jude Children’s Hospital, and touring in 2013 with other gospel artists to promote entertainment and celebrate God.
14. Earnest Pugh
After the release of the project, “Rain on Us,” Pugh reached success on Gospel radio stations. The song hit number one on Billboard’s Top Gospel Singles and was the sixth most popular song in 2010. Pugh served in the military but after departing, pursued music and graduated from Howard University School of Divinity.
He earned the En Sound Male Vocalist of the Year award and Independent Music Award Winner for Gospel Album of the Year. Pugh’s voice is distinctive, with a lot of range and touching listeners’ hearts. He combines worship and praise in traditional and modern music.
15. Aretha Franklin
Aretha Franklin is known as The Queen of Soul. Despite passing away in 2018, Franklin left a noticeable mark on gospel music that fans will forever remember. She is well-known for her soul and R&B songs, accompanied by keyboards and piano that she learned to play on her own. Franklin is generally acknowledged as one of the best black gospel singers of all time.
She signed a deal with Battle Records at the age of fourteen and won eight competitive Grammys. Her pop music hit the top charts and her well-known single Respect remains popular nowadays. She received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 1979 and entered the UK Music Hall of Fame and Rock and Roll Legends in 2005.
16. Sam Cooke
Sam Cooke was born in Mississippi and influenced the African American gospel, R&B, soul, and pop genres. He’s often hailed as one of the true founders of soul music or the King of Soul. He had 29 Top 40 hits in the United States, establishing a record label and publishing company.
Cooke released his first single in 1956, then released multiple more hits that reached high success on the Billboard charts. After his passing, Cooke was nominated for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and honored with the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award.
17. Dionne Warwick
Dionne Warwick was born in New Jersey in 1940. She is a five-time Grammy award winner, known for her singing and acting. She ranks amongst the 40 biggest hit makers from 1955 to 2012. She had 56 singles making the Billboard 100 charts.
She combined pop, gospel, and R&B influences to revolutionize race, culture, and music. Warwick earned the best female pop vocal performance for three of her songs; she’s also the cousin of Whitney Houston.
18. Cynthia Erivo
British actress, singer, and songwriter Cynthia Erivo was born in 1987. She won the 2016 Tony Award for Best Actress in a musical, known for her performances in the 2013 Chocolate Factory and Sister Act. She attended La Retraite R.C. Girls School, training at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art.
19. Mahalia Jackson, A Black Female Gospel Singer
Mahalia Jackson was an American gospel singer who passed away in 1972. She was referred to as The Queen of Gospel, recognized for her civil rights work and influence. She recorded thirty albums in her lifetime, selling millions of singles. Jackson began singing in her Baptist church as a youngster.
She began her solo career in the 1930s and signed with Apollo Records in 1946. The single “I Can Put My Trust in Jesus” won a prize from the French Academy. She ended her career in 1971. After her death, she earned a spot in the Gospel Music Hall of Fame.
20. Sister Rosetta Tharpe
Rosetta Tharpe was a Gospel music pioneer, popular in the 1930s and 40s. Her music involved spiritual notes and early rock. She was born in Arkansas and began performing at four years of age. Tharpe enjoyed listening to and performing blues, jazz, and gospel.
She recorded for Decca Records, dividing listeners who couldn’t fathom the religious and non-religious combination. Yet, the songs became hits for people without a heavy gospel background.
She was an excellent guitarist and her lyrics were witty, continuing to contribute to top ten hits and touring success. Her popularity declined in the 1950s, and she passed away from a stroke in 1973.
21. Lou Rawls
Lou Rawls was born in Chicago. He was a singer with a smooth and classy vocal style who pursued soul music, jazz, and blues. He released more than 70 albums and sold over 40 million records. Fans adoringly refer to him as the Funkiest Man Alive.
Rawls graduated from the Dunbar Vocational High School and enlisted in the United States Army. He won a Grammy for the single “Natural Man,” and his most successful song was “You’ll Never Find Another Love Like Mine,” topping charts and selling millions. Rawls received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 1982.
22. Dee Dee Warwick
The sister of the aforementioned Dionne Warwick, Dee Dee carved her own gospel career path. They formed a trio with their aunt Cissy Houston, known as the Gospelaires, then a record producer recruited the group.
She started her solo career in 1963, then signed with Mercury Records, reaching the R&B top 30 with the single “We’re Doing Fine.” Dee Dee Warwick received a Pioneer Award in 1999 and unfortunately passed away in 2018 from her declining health.
23. Kelly Price
Kelly Price was born in New York and raised in a very spiritual family, taught the importance of God from a young age. Price uses music to convey her feelings and deep connection to her religion. She started writing music at seven and singing when she was ten.
At age eighteen, Price was recording and touring alongside Mariah Carey. She learned about the music industry and began her career as opposed to college, collaborating with multiple artists. She introduced her solo career in 1998 with the song “Friend of Mine.” In 2005, Price released her first gospel project, wanting to help empower women regardless of age or race.
24. Merry Clayton
Merry Clayton recorded with well-known artists like Elvis Presley and The Rolling Stones. She made her solo debut in 1963 and recorded other singles to begin her career. Clayton worked with Sisters Love, but ultimately stayed with A&M Records.
Her well-regarded release was the song “Emotion,” which achieved relative success throughout her life. In addition to singing, Clayton acted on some television shows.
25. The Staple Singers
The Staples Singers were a gospel, soul, and R&B group, composed of the founder, Roebuck Staples, and his children Cleotha, Pervis, Yvonne, and Mavis. They had many hits in the 1970s, including “Respect Yourself” and “I’ll Take You There.”
They were included in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1999 and earned the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 2005.
26. Percy Sledge
Percy Sledge sang R&B and soul music, most recognized for his hit single “When A Man Loves a Woman.” In 1966, that song reached the international top hits chart, certifying the song as a gold standard.
Percy Sledge received the Rhythm and Blues Foundations’ Career Achievement Award and enlisted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame after multiple successes in the 1960s and 70s.
27. Ruth Brown
Ruth Brown was a black rhythm and blues singer, working with Atlantic Records in the 50s. Some of her hit songs include “So Long,” “Teardrops from My Eyes,” and “He Treats Your Daughter Mean.” She attended I.C. Norcom High School and ran away from her family in 1945 to pursue music.
“Teardrops from My Eyes” reached number one on Billboard’s List and stayed there for eleven weeks. Brown focused on her responsibilities as a mother in the 1960s, then returned in the 70s and worked in comedic acting. She received a Pioneer Award in 1989 and is known as The Mother of the Blues.
28. James Cleveland
James Cleveland originally hated the church and found it boring as a child. However, his grandmother insisted on taking him, so he decided to try to sing along, which perked the choir’s attention. He spent time with Thomas A. Dorsey, the director, and notable gospel composers.
Slowly but surely, Cleveland grew to appreciate the music. He sang for Pilgrim Baptist Church. Unfortunately, Cleveland strained his vocal cords, but would leave that recognizable voice as he became more popular in later years. He joined the Gospelaires in 1950 and worked as the composer for the group after they disbanded.
29. Marvin Sapp
Marvin Sapp received countless awards over his life filled with gospel music and work as a philanthropist. Marvin acts as the founder and senior pastor of Lighthouse Full Life Center Church, connecting with the community and addressing the importance of spirituality and your relationship with God.
He began his solo career in 1996 with World Records, releasing countless albums since then.
30. Albertina Walker
Albertina Walker worked as a gospel singer for over forty years, working with Mahalia Jackson, another recognized figure of this genre. She released over 60 albums in her career and received Grammy, Stellar, and GMWA awards.
Walker held countless sold-out concerts, and her career as a notable gospel singer ended after 55 years in the business.
31. Marion Williams
Marion Williams was one of the most powerful gospel singers with a natural and voluminous range. Religion and music influenced her childhood. She never completed school due to poverty but began singing, inspired by singers like Sister Rosetta Tharpe.
Her breakthrough single “Surely God Is Able” became popular and filled concert halls. She formed the Stars of Faith but then launched her solo career in 1965.
Black Gospel Singers, Final Thoughts
Each of these black gospel singers have unique styles and voices, contributing endless value to the religious community through their tireless efforts to convey the beauty of God, strength, and friendship. Check out their songs and listen to the powerful spirituality these artists portray.