MELISSA BLOCK, host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.
MICHELE NORRIS, host:
And I'm Michele Norris.
BET, Black Entertainment Television, has had its share of bad publicity over shows that critics have found offensive. One was called "Hot Ghetto Mess." Well, now, there's another show with the opposite kind of appeal.
(Soundbite of show "Sunday Best")
Mr. KIRK FRANKLIN (Host, "Sunday Best"): Now, it's time to get this praise party started. You all ready?
NORRIS: "Sunday Best" is a gospel version of "American Idol." It's hosted by superstar Kirk Franklin and is one of BET's top-rated shows.
(Soundbite of song "Oh Happy Day")
Unidentified Group: (Singing) Oh, happy day.
NPR's Neda Ulaby wondered how can you judge a performance that's part of someone's spiritual journey?
NEDA ULABY: "Sunday Best" airs on Tuesdays and it's about halfway through its first season. The idea is melding a search for the best church singers in the African-American gospel tradition with one of the most successful reality shows ever. Just like "American Idol," "Sunday Best" held massive casting calls in major cities across the U.S.
Mr. FRANKLIN: We're choosing half a dozen contestants in each city. Later, we will choose one wildcard and one viewer's choice to make 20.
Unidentified Woman #1: I'm coming in first place with BET, but I'm doing it for the love of God.
ULABY: "Sunday Best" and "American Idol" share an executive producer and a format. Like "Idol," "Sunday Best's" winner gets a car and a recording contract.
(Soundbite of music)
ULABY: Of the finalists, Crystal Aikin is the contender to beat. She's an emergency-room nurse with bruising vocal abilities from Washington state.
Ms. CRYSTAL AIKIN (Contestant, "Sunday Best"): I don't sing just for Sunday. I'm a minister at heart. Singing the word of God, singing the gospel is music for me.
ULABY: Such spiritual testimony is not the biggest difference between "Sunday Best" and "American Idol," says Mellonee Burnim.
Dr. MELLONEE BURNIM (African-American Religious Music, Indiana University): There is no Simon Cowell.
ULABY: Burnim teaches African-American religious music at Indiana University. She says the judges are never sadistic or crazy. Instead, they reflect gospel values.
Dr. BURNIM: It's not about trying to bring the artists down, but rather to encourage them.
Unidentified Woman #2: (Singing) What about the children?
ULABY: "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, critiquing finalist Emily Gomez.
Mr. BEBE WINANS (Gospel and R&B Singer; Judge, "Sunday Best"): …because I wrote that song. And I'm happy the song and you met.
ULABY: But Winans told NPR that what he does is not so different from Cowell. He judges people's talent.
Mr. WINANS: It's easy - it really is - easy to say, ah, I love the spirit of this person, but the vocal ability is not there.
ULABY: Judging performances that express personal faith is really nothing new, says Professor Mellonee Burnim.
Dr. BURNIM: Congregations actually do it all the time.
ULABY: Burnim says the market's secular realities hardly exempt religious singers.
Dr. BURNIM: In order to be able to get recording contracts, they will be compared with other artists. So it's a matter of defining excellence within the domain of the aesthetic values that characterize gospel music.
ULABY: Those values are deeply enmeshed with faith. So when judge Tina Campbell praises contestants, she uses the gospel term, anointing.
Ms. TINA CAMPBELL (Member, Mary Mary Gospel Duo; Judge, "Sunday Best"): You know, it's something that radiates from you that says, God loves you.
(Soundbite of music)
ULABY: African-American gospel singers show off extraordinary technical mastery and, at the same time, have the ability to completely lose it, says Bebe Winans. He says that's because they draw from African-American experience, which has used faith and song to escape pressure and hardship. But Winans says any singer can summon the quality of anointing, as long as they use music to transform everyday life into something metaphysical and rare.
Mr. WINANS: Broken hearts and triumph and failures and belief and love, you know, Godly love, and also love between human beings.
ULABY: Winans says he hears that kind of belief and musicality in Crystal Aikin, the singer from Washington State. She's his pick for "Sunday Best."
Neda Ulaby, NPR News.
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