Gospel Music: Its Roots and Relevance

William N. HeardFear Not

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Opera tenor Luciano Pavarotti, Rocker Eric Clapton, and jazz keyboardist Greg Phillinganes collaborate on a world stage, raising funds for an international community cause. The song “Holy Mother Hear My Cry” is backed up by a choir of singers draped in shiny black robes accentuated with gold stoles. The singers are continental Africans; the conductor, European. Clapton executes a B.B. King–esque rift as Pavarotti prepares for the final artistic thematic rise of the song to its melodic and musical climax.

The power, energy, and message of the gospel music piece create a “whole human” experience, touching mind, body, soul, social cause. The players are multifaceted–as is the influence of the performance and its players. Though gospel music was birthed in the African American Mainline Church, it has reached beyond the walls of the sacred sanctuary into the many artistic musical venues of the world.

Roots
We cannot approach a conversation about gospel music without talking about its roots. As we look intergenerationally, socioculturally, and theologically through almost a century of this historic genre, we see the impetus and journey of the so-called “sacred” music of Africans in America and its sojourn from the shores of Africa through American history. (I use the term “so-called”  because the expression “sacred” in many instances is a Western or American demarcation.  In Africa all of life was considered sacred; there was no dichotomy between sacred and secular.) If we observe metaphorically the lineage and legacy of Black sacred and secular music in terms of a familial relationship, the music of Africa would be the grandmother, the spirituals her daughter, and gospel music and its siblings the grandchildren.

On the American continent an enslaved people separated from tribe, language, and native religion still cried out with moans, groans, vocal slurs, and eventually words which gave way to the harmony of the spirituals. The spirit of the grandmother’s songs from the shores of Africa resurged in the Americas in spontaneous song in work fields and forbidden worship in the forests. The soul and spirit of the slave songs, the spirituals, traveled in the great migration to the North–and with them the cultural foundations and theological underpinnings of gospel music’s birth.

Before long, hymns were influenced by this new gospel music, which brought along its siblings: the blues, jazz, rock, rock & roll, pop, rhythm and blues, bebop, even reggae, calypso, and other Latin forms of music with roots in Africa.

Relevance
One of the tragedies of our times is the abandonment of Africa’s musical offspring and America’s creative musical genius. Even African American churches, on any given Sunday, may not include a spiritual or good gospel music in their liturgy.  The culprits are sociocultural and worship culture shifts, an emphasis on what’s  “current” and relevant, coupled with the ever-changing influences of the lucrative music industry–sacred and secular.

God, however, has a way of redirecting journeys and opening avenues of exposure, acceptance, creativity, influence, inclusion, and collaboration. New doors are opening for the witness of the “good news” of gospel music to be heard in venues such as conferences (like APCE), other historic denominational bodies,  academic and performance settings, as well as through the worship of Christians in India, Asia, Europe, Africa, South America, Canada, and beyond.

Gospel music has a global influence—not only as a standalone genre but also through its impact on many other styles and types of music. It moves to the global stage among musical forms admired by the world and mimicked artistically in the motion picture and music industries and commercially.  Gospel choirs advertise everything from detergent, automobiles, and food products, to morning news and entertainment shows and the Super Bowl. Choirs of different artistic persuasions have also recently been a mainstay in sociopolitical and civic settings like presidential inaugurations, campaigns, ceremonies, and national celebrations. Thank you President Obama!

A Word about the “Fear Not” Conference
At the APCE conference we will spend time experiencing gospel music together. We will observe and demonstrate, through communal singing and listening, the influences of gospel music on various other forms of music

While some of the songs we sing together will correlate with the topic “Fear Not,”  others will be included simply because they  bespeak and sustain the survival and resilience of a people in the very face of fear. Through the songs of their faith, an enslaved people raised their voices to a God who was on the side of the oppressed, the disenfranchised, the downhearted, the fearful. This is the crux, credo, and creative catalyst of the “good news” of the gospel in song–gospel music!

William N. Heard is a singer, songwriter, worship consultant, worship clinician, ordained minister, and progressive Baptist. He is the Minister of Liturgy, Worship, and Family Life at Kaighn Avenue Baptist Church in Camden New Jersey and a graduate of Princeton Theological Seminary. His albums include Songs from the Sanctuary, Hymns, Spirituals & Classic Gospels, Volumes I, II, III (Amazon, I-Tunes, CDBaby, Google Music). Heardsong Productions LLC, P.O. Box 3018, Princeton, N.J. 08618 heardsongprod@aol.com.