Why Black Gospel Music Still Matters in the Age of Contemporary Christian Music

Mahalia Jackson, from left, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., the Rev. Jesse Jackson and Albert Raby sing “We Shall Overcome” on Aug. 4, 1966, at the New Friendship Missionary Baptist Church in Chicago. (Ray Foster / Chicago Tribune)

This article is by Melvin L. Butler, Ph.D., who is an associate professor of musicology at the University of Miami and a Public Voices Fellow of The OpEd Project. The views expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author(s) and do not necessarily represent those of BCNN1.

White evangelical churches have a music problem, and I fear it’s getting worse.

This year, the National Museum of Gospel Music is slated to open in Chicago. It will rise from the site of the historic Pilgrim Baptist Church, where the “father of gospel music,” Thomas Andrew Dorsey, laid the foundation for a robust tradition of black sacred singing. This is a tradition informed stylistically by the blues and theologically by the promise and peril of black creativity in the hostile sociopolitical environment of the 1930s. The museum’s construction is thus a source of tremendous pride for the Bronzeville neighborhood of Chicago’s South Side and for African American communities throughout the country.

But I have mixed feelings.

The museum strikes me as an unwitting concession that black gospel music is more yesterday’s news than today’s inspiration. It is as though this music is a relic to be preserved, a curated vestige of a frozen past. It is cast as a sentimental object of nostalgia to be displayed under proverbial glass and heard from a sanitized temporal distance rather than experienced in the messy here-and-now. As much as I cherish black history, I am still nourished by a black present in which gospel music gives me hope.

Long before I became a musicology professor, I saw how black gospel music can provide spiritual and communal uplift. But as a child growing up in Kansas in the 1970s, I felt a disconnect between church music and my cultural identity. As the only African American kids in a 200-member congregation, my four siblings and I sang hymns in a style that registered to us as “white.” Occasional visits to churches on the other side of town opened my ears to music that reflected a rich African American cultural and religious heritage. In subsequent decades, I would attend Protestant and Pentecostal churches whose members comprised a range of ethnic and racial identities. I eventually learned about the history of black gospel music and came to treasure it as both a vibrant art form and an expressive tool for marginalized peoples around the world.

During the 1960s, black churches served as meeting grounds where gospel singing became the soundtrack of the struggle for civil rights. Congregants were emboldened by the words of freedom fighters, such as Fannie Lou Hamer, Fred Shuttlesworth, Ella Baker, T. J. Jemison, Ralph Abernathy, Dorothy Height and Martin Luther King Jr., whose speeches and sermons would morph into song. Gospel artists such as The Freedom Singers, Dorothy Love Coates and the Salem Travelers, gave performances that were as political as they were spiritual.

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Source: Chicago Tribune