Since Tulsa is in the buckle of the Bible belt, it's not hard to fathom that it has been estimated that our city has anywhere between 200 and 400 churches of various denominations. It's also no surprise that Tulsa is a major market for Christian artists. What is surprising, however, is that fact Tulsa does not have a more vibrant Christian music scene. Sure, there are Christian artists here, but considering the depth of our talent pool, it seems like there would be more ground-breaking artists coming out of a community that includes a major Christian university (ORU) and prominent Bible training college (Rhema).
Just this summer, however, a pair of artists released new material, showing that Tulsa's Christian music movement isn't dead, but merely simmering in the background. Instead of falling into standard, formulaic Christian pop or praise and worship, these guys are stepping out in different directions, giving the Christian market something different to prove there is something more out there while continuing to develop their talent to prepare to potentially move to the next level.
Light In Me
Although the moniker may be new, chances are, if you've paid any attention to local Christian music in the past five years, you'll recognize KSon ("King's Son" -- taken from three scriptures: 1 Thessalonians 2:12, Psalm 47:7, and 2 Corinthians 6:18). Back in 2010, AJ Sellers emerged as part of Apagee with former wife Sarah Sellers. That project put his rapping in the background and was built more around the soulful vocals of Sarah while mixing R&B, pop and soul.
With the release of debut album Light In Me, which came out in early August, Sellers separates himself from that project, opening a new chapter with his rapping taking center stage.
Although I'm admittedly not a huge rap fan, this is an impressive outing for a couple of reasons. First, this album is pointedly message-driven. Instead of following the path that much of Christian music has followed, being intentionally vague, KSon not only delivers concise themes with each song, but backs them up with scripture references for each track.
Perhaps more impressive is the fact that Sellers has not just created a strong debut, but he has established his sound and direction without sounding like a watered-down, Christian version of someone else. That has been the major downfall of Christian music for the past three decades, with management and labels more intent of creating Christian sound-alikes than creating original artists. Had Word Records not sterilized Jackson Waters and turned the group into the "Christian Maroon 5," I still believe the band would have become a major force in both Christian and mainstream markets.
Granted, not everything works perfectly. When KSon moves in an anthemic direction with tracks like "As Is" and "Become Less," the balance between clean rapping, simple backing tracks and a big chorus, it all comes together well. Dance club beats ("K' Kid" and the dubstep remix of "Light In Me") don't work as well, even if the message stays succinct and direct, but it does offer a diversity in sound and gives Christian teens something that makes them feel connected to the current trends.
The surprise track of the album may very well be "New Day," which launches with a tight beat and then balances Sellers' smooth flow off of a soaring chorus (provided by female vocalist Melo Vi).
Although the openly faith-based messages behind these songs all but ensure that this album won't find a crossover audience, that's of no concern to Sellers. In fact, that's almost the point.
When discussing the album and his direction with KSon, Sellers shared that he's aiming squarely at the kids within the church. The messages are structured not only to build their faith, but also reassure them of God's presence.
More than just an album, however, Sellers' real focus is the live performance, developing his live show with a multi-media element with video segues and audio and visual cues to make the concert experience more interactive and draw kids into actively participating in the show.
Even his marketing strategy turns from the crossover mentality that most artists focus on. Instead of trying to book shows in all-ages mainstream venues, however, Sellers is focusing directly at churches and playing for youth groups. Referencing back to those early estimates, Sellers shared with me earlier in the summer that his initial goal was to play to a different church or youth group in Tulsa and across Oklahoma every weekend of the year.
Since the album released digitally on August 8, word has started to spread and that vision for playing weekly has slowly started to come to fruition. The initial model has begun to grow as well, with Sellers offering to perform a single song at Sunday services as a preview of what's to come with youth concerts on Wednesday evening and weekends in order to get the parents and church to buy into the vision as well as build anticipation for the youth that might otherwise cut out for the evening.
Granted, not everything here is a home run. Although "Not Self Made" delivers on a huge scale, there's also a degree of over-dramaticism that inevitably draws comparisons to Carman, and although "Victory" breaks up the pace, it also feels a bit like later DC Talk. On a grand scale, though, those just might prove to be the tracks that win the parents over and open the doors to youth.
Although there's plenty of room for growth, there's also a ton of potential here. The jump in vision and execution from Apagee to Sellers' debut as KSon, however, proves that that he's able to make huge strides forward, which make him an artist to keep an eye on. What will be most interesting is seeing how much more this has grown in scope and reach a year from now.
Into the Light
Looking in a different direction, Darryn Zewalk released a new single in August titled "Forevermore" that proves you shouldn't try to corner Christian music into any one particular style. In this case, Zewalk draws heavily from classic R&B and smooth jazz to deliver a blend that has sent him to the top of the Reverbnation.com chart in the Christian/Gospel category.
When scrolling through his Reverbnation tracks, listeners find that Zewalk moves smoothly between styles but shows that his comfort zone falls between smooth jazz and classic R&B. "Situation" lands firmly in the light jazz corner, but Zewalk's velvet-smooth voice provides the most impact when he jumps into R&B territory. "I Praise" finds a great balance between church gospel and the R&B/funk snap of Gap Band, Commodores, and Earth Wind and Fire.
But it's "Forevermore" that impresses most as he finds a balance between the two. As the music minister at Mount Olive Baptist Church in Sapulpa for the past 14 years, his heart is obviously planted in praise and worship and feeding the church, but if he continues to produce tracks like this, I would think he'll start ministering outside of those doors and performing regionally in the near future.
Sure, both of these artists step a bit outside the norm, but they also show that Tulsa's talent pool is almost as wide as it is deep. They also prove that our Christian music community reaches beyond praise and worship and bland Christian rock, which is a good thing because diversity is what feeds creativity.
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It's hard to believe, but October is finally here. As the evenings cool off, it's a great time to get out and enjoy the weather with some great music and you've got plenty to choose from this week, so check out these highlights before heading out the door.
Thursday, October 3
Gooding returns to The Shrine and stacks the bill with locals as All About A Bubble, FM Pilots, Carnegie and Young Lyons all team up to make this a great night of rock. Just across the street, Mercury Lounge will be hopping with Deadman Flats, James Maple, and Elli Perry. And if you're looking for a great lineup of intelligent indie-rock, you need to check out Quiet Company and The Reynolds Number (both from Austin and both returning from Center of the Universe appearances) at The Vanguard.
Friday, October 4
The Yeti steals the night with an intimate show with Norma Jean, but you'd better get your tickets in advance or arrive early because it's only $12 at the door and will sell out. Over at The Colony, Kristin Hemphill sets up shop to share a night of songs and storytelling. If you're in a country mood, you can check out Rich O'Toole at Vanguard, but you're better to go in a rowdy Americana direction with Horse Opera, Hog Branch, and Kayla Ray at Mercury Lounge.
Saturday, October 5
The corner of 18th and Boston is busy again with Wood & Wire with The Bellfuries at Mercury Lounge and Mountain Sprout at The Shrine. Looking downtown, The Yeti delivers another cool show with New Imperialism and The Dirty Mugs, but the big show is Vampire Weekend at Brady Theater. If you're looking for something a little different, don't miss Twin Forks (with Chris Carrabba of Dashboard Confessional) with Matrimony at Vanguard. If you want a high-class night of visiting the past, however, you'll try to find a ticket to catch Lionel Richie playing all his hits at The Joint.
Sunday, October 6
The Tulsa Roots Music series continues at Guthrie Green with Taj Weekes & Adowa bringing reggae at 2:30pm, followed by Augustines at 4pm, and Scottish indie rockers Frightened Rabbit at 5:30pm. Afterwards, you can stay in the Brady Arts district to catch what should be another sold out show by Local Natives at Cain's Ballroom then roll over to The Yeti for a late gig by Foreign Home or dance the evening away with AM & Shawn Lee's "Soul Soiree" at Vanguard.
Tuesday, October 8
Toro Y Moi plays Cain's Ballroom in a show that has had a buzz since it was announced at the beginning of the summer.
Wednesday, October 9
The week wraps up with the reggae infused pop of Cas Haley at The Vanguard.
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