'Idol' Meets Gospel on BET's 'Sunday Best'

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Like American Idol, the public can vote for their favorite Sunday Best winners online, at the show's Web site.

Sunday Best Judges

Singer BeBe Winans and singer Erica Campbell of Mary Mary judge the second round of competition for the program Sunday Best. Maury Phillips/WireImage hide caption

itoggle caption Maury Phillips/WireImage

The Black Entertainment Television network has fielded its share of news coverage for shows like one originally titled Hot Ghetto Mess, as well as other programming that critics have found offensive. But a new show may help rehabilitate BET's reputation.

Sunday Best is a gospel version of American Idol, and it's one of BET's top-rated shows. Which raises the question: How is it possible to judge a performance that's part of someone's spiritual journey?

Sunday Best airs on Tuesdays, and it's about halfway through its first season. The idea is to meld a search for the best church singers in the African-American gospel tradition with one of the most successful reality shows ever.

Sunday Best and American Idol share an executive producer and a format. Just like American Idol, Sunday Best held massive casting calls in major cities across the U.S., and the winner gets a car and a recording contract.

Of the five finalists, Crystal Aikin may be the contender to beat. She's an emergency-room nurse with bruising vocal abilities, based in Washington state.

But spiritual testimony is not the biggest difference between Sunday Best and American Idol, according to Mellonee Burnim, who teaches African-American religious music at Indiana University. Rather, she says the judges are never sadistic. Or crazy. Instead, they reflect gospel values.

"There is no Simon Cowell," Burnim says. "It's not about trying to bring the artists down, but rather about trying to encourage them."

Sunday Best is judged by platinum-selling Grammy winners who have better things to do than make church singers feel lousy. Take judge Bebe Winans: certified gospel royalty.

"I wrote that song, and I'm happy the song and you met," Winans said, critiquing finalist Emily Gomez.

But Winans told NPR that what he does is not so different from Cowell: He judges people's talent.

"It's easy, it really is, to say, 'Ah, I love the spirit of this person, but the vocal ability is not there,'" Winans says.

Judging performances that express someone's personal faith is really nothing new, Burnim says. She points out that the record market's secular realities hardly exempt religious singers.

"In order to be able to get recording contracts, they will be compared to other artists," Burnim says. "So it's a matter of defining excellence within the domain of the aesthetic values that characterize gospel music."

Those aesthetic values are deeply enmeshed with faith. So when judge Tina Campbell praises contestants, she uses the gospel term "anointing."

Bebe Winans says that African-American gospel singers show off extraordinary technical mastery — and, at the same time, have the ability to completely lose it. He says that's because they draw from the epic resilience of African-American experience, which has used faith and song to escape pressure and hardship.

But Winans says that any singer can summon the quality of anointing, as long as they use music to transform everyday life into something metaphysical and rare: "Broken hearts and triumph and failures and belief and godly love and also love between human beings," he says.

Winans says he hears that kind of belief and musicality in Crystal Aikin. She's his pick for Sunday Best.

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