Gospel singer Trina Ferge at the 2023 Gospel on Independence showcase, part of the Wawa Welcome America festival. (Tom MacDonald/WHYY)

Philadelphia is steeped in music, and over the years, many gospel giants have called it home. 

When it comes to tracking the city’s gospel pedigree, Charles Albert Tindley is the ideal starting point. Born in antebellum Maryland, he moved to Philly after the Civil War’s end and went on to lead and become the namesake of South Philly’s Tindley Temple United Methodist Church

Beyond being a masterful preacher, Tindley wrote many influential hymns that would go on to be repurposed for secular and social justice purposes. 

Many see Chicago’s Thomas Dorsey as the father of gospel music, and Dorsey was directly inspired by Tindley’s hymns. He heard them at a National Baptist Conference meeting in Philadelphia and never denied the importance of Tindley’s work, so it’s fair to say that the “Grandfather of Gospel” was a Philly-based clergyman. 

Marian Anderson is another luminary that springs to mind, one of the great singers in American history who got her start in South Philly’s Union Baptist Church.

From Clara Ward and the famous Ward Singers to Sister Rosetta Tharpe — the rock pioneer who moved to Philly in the late 50s and died here in the 70s — to the way that figures like Patti LaBelle, Teddy Pendergrass, and Jazmine Sullivan got formative musical training in local churches, gospel by way of Philly has touched the world. 

That’s why WHYY Community Relations Specialist Yvettee Sizer sees the city as “ground zero for gospel singing talent and for other spiritual music.”

Sizer is project manager for a new contest from the public media station (Billy Penn’s parent company) called “Lifting Voices in Praise.” Loosely based on gospel competitions, it’s open to all forms of spiritual music — and submissions are due this Friday. Find more specifics below.

Following WHYY airings of PBS shows on the Black church and Black history, the program will “explore African American religion’s two gifts to national and world culture, which are gospel music and black preaching tradition,” Sizer told Billy Penn.

It airs later this year, to celebrate and coincide with the PBS screening of “A History of Gospel and Black Preaching, with Henry Louis Gates Jr.” 

‘Gospel is the root,’ but praise music is universal   

Dyana Williams, longtime award-winning broadcaster, celebrity coach, and co-creator of Black Music Month, sees gospel as the cornerstone — not just of the enduring, syncretizing spirit of enslaved Africans and their freed descendents, but of the better part of twentieth century music. 

First and foremost “tied into the establishment of our country,” Williams also sees gospel as “root music … for R&B, for rock, for everything else that has transpired,” she told Billy Penn. 

“It’s in the ground, it’s the foundation for everything.”

Williams is one of the judges who will be listening attentively at the contest’s finale, one of many known to have an ear for talent

Other judges include Gregory McPherson, Neicy Tribbett, Hazzan David Tilman, Marcus John Bryant, and Kenny Johnson, a group with collective experience in all corners of the music industry. 

“Our communities are vibrant with talent, and I’m excited to hear people who deserve to be heard by more, by many,” Williams said.  

Fellow judge Marcus “Rated Art” Bryant has plenty of experience with judging music, from the choir showcases he participated in as a pastor’s kid to the role he plays as vice president of the Recording Academy/GRAMMYs Philadelphia Chapter.

“What’s so funny about it is that I never really liked challenge shows, I didn’t like the competitive nature,” Bryant told Billy Penn. “And this feels different to me, because it feels like more of a celebration to me.”

‘Be fearless in your submission’: How to enter the competition

Indeed, despite Philly’s place in modern gospel’s history, the contest is meant to be a chance to display and cherish all forms of praise music as something different cultures and regions have in common.

Here’s how it works: 

  • Entrants (non-professional musicians only) can send a Youtube or Vimeo link to their youth choir, adult choir, ensemble, or solo performance to WHYYContests@whyy.org, along with their contact info.
  • Eighteen entrants will be selected to enter three regional competitions: the Philly, New Jersey, and Delaware regionals.
  • The top three performers from each region move on to a finale, where one youth choir, adult choir, ensemble, and soloist will be selected as winners. 

What’s the prize? A WHYY membership, a year of free access to WHYY events, and $500. 

Singers looking to get in on the opportunity have just a few days left — until June 30 — to submit their entry tape, and a panel of top notch judges eagerly await the chance to hear how you praise. 

Genre or form aside, what are a few of the judges looking for?

Bryant stressed the importance of tone, a key for those who “expect to have a true connection,” he said. Stage presence will be another crucial factor in his view, less so in audition tapes but certainly when it comes to the live finale.  

Williams is excited to hear courageous but controlled performances. “Be fearless in your submission, you feel you’re talented, your friends and family have always cited you as being so — so come forth,” she said.

“Let us decide.”

Jordan Levy is a general assignment reporter at Billy Penn, always aiming to help Philadelphians share their stories. Formerly, he has worked at Document Journal, n+1 Magazine, and The New Republic. He...