Black choirs abound at the Grammy Awards, but not every choir appearance carries the same meaning. Is your choir appearance takin’ it to church, or is it fakin’ the funk?
Signifying… it’s one of the many terms that people have used for the historically black pastime of tossing playful insults back and forth, also known across generations as “cap pin’,” “playin’ the dozens,” “stinging’,” et cetera. And testifying…well, if you’ve been to a black church, you know what testifying is. And chances are, that testifyin’ happened while a black church choir was present, swaying, clapping, and generally responding to the call flowing forth from the preacher or soloist.
This is probably how Beyoncé, John Legend, Katy Perry, Sam Smith, Madonna, Mary J. Blige, and Pharrell first learned it. Because if you were a musician blessed with enough good fortune to perform at the 2015 GRAMMY Awards, chances are, you probably had a black choir or vocal ensemble back you up. (Notice I didn’t say gospel choir…it may be semantics but I reserve the word gospel for actual gospel music.)
Not that this is a recent phenomenon. Pop artists have adorned their live sets with choirs for years. It can amp up the dramatic element, and makes for a great visual. However, anytime entertainment reaches this level of influence and scale, the politics of identity are unavoidable. In particular, artists – especially white artists – tend to open themselves up to the charge of cultural appropriation when using black choirs as backup singers. More often than not, the appearance of a choir endows the music with a sense of spirituality, even when the lyrics are less-than-spiritual in nature.
And yet, cultural appropriation is never just a black-and-white matter. Plenty of white, popular artists have no problem takin’ it to church, and some black artists do it and end up looking less-than-stellar. For a variety of reasons, some choir appearances work better than others. And in this GRAMMY celebration, it seemed like there was an undercurrent of spirituality, even stronger than in recent years. Even songs like “By the Grace of God” and “Take Me to Church,” while not having choirs per se, still carried an air of churchiness not usually seen on this stage.
So in order to make some sense of things, I took all the Grammy musical performances that involved choirs or had significant Christian imagery, and rated them for the following characteristics:
-Artistic style points: How does the choir enhance or detract from the overall experience?
-Social buzz: Did it look like a stunt to get attention, or was it a naturally buzzworthy performance?
-The faith factor: Does the song sound like an authentic expression of faith?
-Special circumstances: Is there anything else that elevates or detracts? Is there a certain je ne sais quoi about the musical performance?*
From this thoroughly biased, quasi-scientific process,** each song was given an appropriation index, and a final verdict. Is the choir appearance in this song one that testifies to the goodness of God, or is it signifyin’ – playfully insulting the faithful with irreligious or profane imagery?
Let’s go to the tape!
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