You may be hitting those high notes but it's not gospel music if the lyrics aren't about God.
Making that distinction is important as the African American brand of music has long become a mainstay of popular culture, and has been the launch pad for countless US stars, such as the late Whitney Houston, Beyoncé and American Idol finalist Jennifer Hudson.
According to Reginald Golden, who will bring his troupe of gospel singers to Abu Dhabi’s Um Al Emarat Park on Saturday, it’s the spiritually driven message that defines gospel music. Without it, it’s just vocal fireworks.
“Which I am not saying is a bad thing,” he says from Washington DC, where he works as a teacher and vocal instructor at the prestigious Howard Gospel Choir.
"It's just that gospel music needs to be looked at through two lenses. There is that artistic lens of style and how it became part of mainstream music – for example, you have gospel now that sounds like jazz and even some of the vocal patterns today sound like country and western music. But there's that other important lens, and that's the spiritual standpoint, which are the lyrics. It's content that makes a song gospel."
Golden is well versed in the genre. Born and raised in Ohio, where he cut his vocal teeth at local churches, Golden joined a number of choirs and ensembles throughout the Cleveland area before going on to take up the prestigious position of musical director at the Howard Gospel Choir – a renowned act and institution in the field.
The Abu Dhabi show is a milestone for his own group, the Reginald Golden Singers, which made its debut in 2016 as part of the national televised Love and Happiness: An Obama Celebration concert, which was one of the last concerts held on the South Lawn of the White House.
While such a high-profile gig is enough to induce a cold sweat, Golden says the ease with which gospel singers deliver those big notes at all times is down to the hundreds of performances that they clock up, starting from childhood. “For many of us, our first stage is church every Sunday,” he says.
"From a practical point of view it is very helpful. Schools sometimes don't teach music, so you don't get that experience. But at the church you perform every week and then there is choir practice as well. So you will be singing at least twice a week."
As well as strengthening vocal muscles, it is only through the practical experience of church performance that gospel singers learn the genre’s signature vocal techniques such as “the hollers” and the vocal ad-libs. More importantly, however, the church choir is also the place where knowledge is passed down the generations.
“When you hear these signature sounds, you instantly know you are hearing black music,” he says.
“You also get that wisdom and maturity of hearing older people sing about what they are deeply passionate about. For example, Whitney Houston grew up hearing her mother Cissy Houston and her cousin [the multi-hit soul singer] Dionne Warwick singing in church. She grew accustomed to having excellent music in her ears. So it is easy for us to latch on to those skills when you have been heavily marinated in it.”
In addition to showcasing the crowd-pleasing aspects of gospel music, Golden says the Abu Dhabi show is increasingly important at a time when anti-Muslim sentiment is being felt in parts of North America and Europe. Organised by the UAE's Ministry of Tolerance and the US Embassy, he says such events are needed to tackle misconceptions on all sides.
“I was fortunate enough to be raised by parents who believed we are more alike than we are different. So I am looking forward to meeting all my brothers, sisters and cousins in the UAE,” he says.
“One thing about the African-American community is that oftentimes we refer to each other as blood relatives even though we are not. I believe that there are people in the UAE that are the same as here in America. I would be ignorant and would not learn about people if I didn’t get out of my own box, so I am excited to come over.” And as long as people’s hearts are open, then gospel music will outlive all trends in popular culture.
“It’s what I said in the beginning in that it is all about the content,” he says.
“That’s why the music will never be obsolete. Regardless of the changes in the world and the way we express ourselves, God will always be there. He is not going anywhere.”
The Reginald Golden Singers perform at the amphitheatre at Umm Al Emarat Park on Saturday at 6pm