Friday, January 28, 2005

Heeeeeeeeeeeeeere's Gospel! has an interesting article about the late Johnny Carson and his role in introducing gospel music to a mainstream audience.

Wednesday, January 26, 2005

Somebody Say Amen! Great Women of Gospel readers who live in or near Chicago will want to check out the play Somebody Say Amen: Great Women of Gospel, currently playing at the Black Ensemble Theater. (I’m not sure how it may or may not be connected to/inspired by the 1982 documentary Say Amen, Somebody, which covers the history of gospel music.)The Jeff-recommended play runs through February 20.

I went to the Sunday afternoon performance, and really enjoyed it. The play, written, directed and produced by Jackie Taylor (no relation to Gospel Gal), includes several of Taylor’s original songs. It centers around several weeks in the life of Mammatu Lewis, the 79-year-old matriarch of a loving family. Yahdina U’Deen plays Lewis with a snap-cracklin’ wit and wisdom that allows her to transcend the limitations of the archetypical gutsy-cranky elderly black matriarch (One of my favorite Mammatu lines: Daughter: “I love you, Mama.” Mammatu: “I love you, too, Baby. Now get out.”) As Mammatu’s health suffers and other family crises arise, she and her daughters and granddaughters turn to their love of gospel music to unify them and see them through.

Other cast members include Tina Brown, Melanie McCullough, Ardria Pittman, Rhonda Preston, Cherisse Scott and Jacqui Thomas as the very talented Lewis Sisters and Mammatu’s granddaughters. Jimmy Tillman leads a top-notch band as musical director and drummer. Band members include James Wheeler, Rollo Radford, Dedrick Blanchard, Paul Howard, Ernest Dawkins and Christopher Morris, and the songs from the play are available on a CD you can purchase at the Theater. They include classics like Harlan Howard’s “Jesus [I Love Calling Your Name],” and Harold G. Troy’s “No Charge,” (both popularized by Pastor Shirley Caesar), Thomas A. Dorsey’s “Walk Over God’s Heaven” and James Cleveland’s “Peace Be Still.”

It’s a pleasant and interesting musical, and I enjoyed it (and bought the CD. These ladies can saaaaang, y’all). As I viewed the play, I made observations along the following lines:

First, I observed a glaring absence of positive male characters—or any male characters, for that matter. Stay with me here—this is relevant, I promise. There aren’t any male characters, which isn’t a problem on its face. But when male characters are mentioned, they are ex-husbands (one character has four) or no-good boyfriends who become absentee fathers and cannot be trusted.

Even without the portrayal of a strong marriage, it would have been good to see or hear a reference to a civil relationship with an ex-husband who maintains contact with his daughter, or something like that. A could-be positive mention is Mammatu’s new love interest, who she meets at the hospital. As she prepares for a date, she says, “Contrary to popular belief, there are some good men out there. As long as I’m alive, I’m going to keep looking for mine . . .the next one could be the one.”

OK. Although Mammatu’s comment felt like an afterthought, a “no, really, this isn’t like Waiting to Exhale” kind of thing, it was clearly written to remind the viewer to seize the day, and to live in a hopeful way. Why not believe one might find love at 80? Why not put on one’s sparkly best and a little more lipstick and believe in the possibility of finding a good man? How very charming and you-go-granny!

So what’s the problem? Hang on. I’m getting there.

Earlier in the play, we learn that Mammatu was never married to the father of her four daughters, but because she was needy and looking for love, she would take him back into her life whenever he reappeared. At least three times after the birth of the first daughter. This is during the same time she was deeply involved in the church, “loving the Lord my whole life,” and during the same years her daughters sang as The Lewis Sisters, a gospel group making enough money to support the family. The same years during which Mammatu gathered her extensive vinyl collection of classic gospel, and the same years during which she drilled her girls on the history of each song they sang.

Her daughters have varying levels of involvement with the church. One daughter doesn’t attend at all, and another is the minister of music at her church (where she met all four of her husbands). No one has a healthy relationship. When Mammatu decides she feels the freedom to swear, she explains to her 25-year-old granddaughter that she’s been dominated by men her entire life—first, by her father, then by her, children’s father, and also by the pastor, with his ideas of how “good Christian women” should act. So her decision to say what she wants and live how she wants is framed as a feminist act.

My quibble isn’t necessarily with the swearing, per se. I’ve met plenty a salty-tongued saint (True Confession: on Bad Days, I’ve been a salty-tongued saint), and I know folks I’d describe as reverent though not pious. But here’s where I’m going: The play demonstrates a very weak connection between a love for gospel music and matters of personal holiness. There’s little/no connection between some good ol’ sangin’ and righteous living. So here’s the perhaps-unintended message of the play:

Life is so very difficult for African-American women, isn’t it? We are the victims of our bad men and hard luck, rather than accountable for our own choices. It sure is a good thing we have this good ol’ gospel music, soul-stirring if ultimately empty religion, homespun wisdom and sisterhood to see us through, because we are the mules of the world.


Some of my newer lurkers might feel like I’m being snarky and nit-picky. (Why is she so upset about a fictional play?) But scroll down a bit, and read some of my earlier entries. When I write about gospel music, I’m writing as one who loves it. I rejoice in its success at the same time I worry about its soul. Like any writer, I approach with my questions. I like to turn it around and examine its facets, to poke and prod.

All that to say, I’m not taking an adversarial approach toward Somebody Say Amen. One of the recurring themes of this blog is my exploration of the public perception of gospel music—what it means in the public imagination, how those of us in the gospel-loving community contribute to that public meaning, and how close that public perception is to the reality of the gospel message. Heady stuff, to be sure. But approached with humility and passion.

I’m passionate about what I’ve seen for a few other reasons, most of which fall into the “Something to Think About” mission of this blog.

I’m afraid that in this case, the characters’ approach to their faith reinforces some unfortunate stereotypes about Christianity as practiced by African-Americans. Basically, that it’s merely emotional and primarily for cathartic show and emotional comfort, rather than a life-changing relationship with Christ that compels us to live in ways that reflect his redemptive claim on our lives. That’s painful to point out, but it’s important. Is Christianity as currently practiced by Af-Ams more about culture, and less about Christ? Then (let’s) quit playing church. (By the way, I’ve observed similar portrayals in other pop-culture offerings.)

Speaking of stereotypes, the play is heavily dependent on the idea of broken relationships between black men and women. This is seen as the norm. I recognize that it’s not uncommon, but this family situation is definitely not the whole truth. And how about the repeated out-of-wedlock births? Owwwww! Why wouldn’t the characters’ faith make a difference in terms of helping them build healthy relationships and a God-honoring sexuality?

For those of us who believe in the healthier forms of feminism, don’t we owe the Ancestors a better use of our freedom than getting ourselves stuck in bad situations? In using the reference to the “mules of the world,” I don’t mean to imply that black women don’t face unique challenges in American (OK, global) society. That would contradict my own experiences. Racism and sexism are real.

But . . .I’m uncomfortable with the idea that merely pressin’ on through tough times brought on by our own poor choices—or swearing as a form of linguistic liberation—is really what folks like Ida B. Wells-Barnett or Anna Julia Cooper had in mind. And where’s the accountability in sisterhood?

Despite these fairly major issues I have with Somebody Say Amen (I also found the plot to be fairly predictable), I still think y’all should go see it. The Black Ensemble Theater is a nationally respected cultural organization. They’ll be doing shows on the lives of Etta James, Nina Simone, Dionne Warwick and Billie Holiday this season—many of which are sure to be haunted by gospel ghosts. I believe in supporting cultural institutions. And I believe that interacting with artistic and entertainment offerings forces them to really serve an artistic purpose. Dialoguing with them engages our minds with different ways of viewing the world.

Tuesday, January 25, 2005

Gospel Gal goes to the Stellars

Yup, I was there, and it was great. I've always, always wanted to go to the Stellars, and I'm hooked. I'm not done with Stellar coverage, but did need to do a quick write-up. It's kind of People magazine-ish--and there will be more, exclusive stuff, but here you have it:

Last weekend's taping of the 20th Annual Stellar Gospel Music Awards was a gospel music lover's dream. Like any awards show, the Stellars featured tearful acceptance speeches, amazing performances (Kirk Franklin + Texas Southern University's "Ocean of Soul" Marching Band = Whoooooa!), and haute couture juxtaposed with fashion choices that were, shall we say, of dubious taste.

The gospel glitterati mingled with some of mainstream entertainment's best known, sometimes with humorous results—for example, presenter Evander Holyfield's unfortunate reading of nominee Natalie Wilson and S.O.P. as "Sop" during the pre-show. Sop? 'Sup with that, man? Later, songstress Roberta Flack was on hand to present her former eighth-grade music student Richard Smallwood with the James Cleveland Award. Safe to say, she probably thinks he turned out pretty well.

A hint of friendly drama was in the air as mentors and their protégés were up for the same awards and longtime favorites met youngbloods in the same award categories. Newer artists shook hands and mingled, promoting their upcoming projects. For the press, the Stellars were also an opportunity to get red-carpet-style soundbytes from some famous faces and to wait hours to get thisclose to interviewing others.

In my case, thisclose was Yolanda Adams. After the awards, I ventured into the television media room to get a quick quote from Adams, who hosted the ceremony with Donnie McClurkin and Tonéx. As I waited my turn, I discussed high-fashion Mary Janes with Adams' preschool-aged daughter, Taylor, who already has quite an eye for formal fashion. Just as Adams finished taping a TV spot, she was whisked away by her equally elegant manager, faster than you could say, "Just one question, Ms. Adams." Oh, well. There are more difficult assignments for a religion-reporter-turned-infotainment-journalist, and there's always next time.

Other fun moments included Mary Mary's Tina and Erica Campbell stopping by the media room, toddler and four-month old daughters in tow (if their showcase performance was any indication, their next album is going to be craaazy good), and the sparkling-warm, elegant Vickie Winans, whose black slippers peeked out from under her floor-length, sea-green dress in a sweetly humanizing touch.

Because this was the 20th year of the event, there was also a sense of history in the atmosphere. The Stellar Awards (originally called the First Annual Gospel Music Awards) have come a long way from their humble beginnings at Chicago's Arie Crown Theater. With them, the level of professionalism and mainstream interest in the gospel music industry has grown, shifted and changed. At one time, performances that reflected a more mainstream sensibility were earthshaking news. (Does anyone else remember when having rap duo Preachers In Disguise on the show was a Big Deal?) Now, the musical progeny of early winners simultaneously push the genre in new directions while making solid references to the old landmark. At first, the show had to be "branded" as a tribute to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. to generate advertiser interest. Now, the task is easier, partly because the idea of gospel music as entertainment has gained an uneasy acceptance, and also because of the significant successes many gospel artists have in the choir loft and at the cash register.

The awards hold a special place in many hearts, largely because they honored black music before it was widely recognized or honored in the mainstream. "I thank God for the Stellar Awards, because they're honoring Afro-American music," Pastor Shirley Caesar said. "I love the Doves, but this is us. This is what we know."

The Stellars will air in national syndication between January 22 and February 20, so check your local listings (or look here or here) and set your VCR. If you can't wait to find out who won what, the results are posted here.

Monday, January 10, 2005

Best Music Scribing Awards

Check out the Best Music Scribing Awards, a compilation of links to rock critic Jason Gross' picks for last year's best music writing.

Saturday, January 08, 2005

Mind Candy for the Gospel Lover

Happy New Year, Gospel-lovin' Lurkers!

Boy, do we have a lot to talk about. In fact, I'd planned a big ol' Christmas (and, well, Chrismahanukwanzakah) post full of gospelicious goodness. Really, I had. And maybe I still shall. In the meantime, it's good to be back.

I've just made it through the preface and introduction of Dr. Barbara A. Holmes' book, Joy Unspeakable: Contemplative Practices of the Black Church (Fortress Press, Minneapolis). Holmes is Associate Professor of Ethics and African American Religious Studies at Memphis Theological Seminary.

I'm not in too far, but the pages I've read so far are already marked up in the margins, full of underlining and highlighting. Go, get your own copy, and you can follow along. I'll be here when you get back.

There's a lot of food for thought here, so I'm going to do a quick, from-the-hip engagement with a few choice tidbits.

So far, Holmes has identified several very intriguing reasons for studying the history of contemplative practices in the "historical black church" (a problematic term, she admits). I'm going to talk here about two:

". . .Those who study contemplation as a practice or religious experience soon find that they are engaging geospiritual spaces that have the potential to ease postmodernity's striving and disassociation. Perhaps through this retrieval of the contemplative practices of the black church, the trans-racial and diversity-based community-called-beloved will come into view."

Stretch out these four syllables aloud: Shiv-er-lic-ious. Y'all, this is Big, Fabulous News, at least to a gospel-grounded, multicultural-minded part-time amateur intellectual like myself.

Here's why: This promises to be meaningful scholarship--it has potential in the academy and on the street. First, Holmes hopes that her exploration of contemplative practices, though grounded within a specific cultural context, will have larger implications--larger, potenially unifying, sense-making implications--on our understanding of postmodernity, which is the Metanarrative of many in my generation. (There are a lot of sly little contradictions in that sentence, and anyone who'd like to count them is welcome to. A "postmodern metanarrative," hee, hee.) That's a big idea, and I'd like to see how well her attempt to do this turns out.

Second, Holmes expects her scholarship to serve the attempt to move toward the community called beloved. I've hyperlinked to a definition of the term "beloved community" that I'm familiar with, and the one I'm using for the purposes of this discussion. Holmes' hope is that her work--again, centered within a specific, limited cultural framework--will have applications that transcend the boundaries of Af-Am religious culture.

I'm excited by this idea, because I find that my study and observation of cultures--most often the set of subcultures of which I'm a member--(American, African-American, female, Christian, evangelical, et cetera (and nooo, I haven't ordered those by importance)) is meaningful as it provides larger insights through which I can understand my fellows in humanity. There's a unifying thread in my engagement with the world that gives it meaning. I believe, for example, that studying/affirming/increasing/ diversity merely for diversity's sake can be interesting and enjoyable. But for me, at least, I want to do so in a way that helps me to better understand the world and its relationship to its Creator. I want to better relate to all of God's people.

More good stuff:

Holmes makes a connection between her experience with a Sunday morning service at Mississippi Boulevard Christian Church and the distant past:

"Although it appears to be the usual charismatic congregational fare, in fact we are riding the stanzas through time to the hush arbors and swamp meetings, over the dangerous waters to safety. In this ordinary Sunday service, something has happened and we are changed. The worldly resistance to transcendence that we wore into the sanctuary has cracked open, and the contemplative moment carries us toward the very source of our being. . ." beautiful.

She points out that the popular conception of black church worship as "heartfelt, rhythmic and charismatic" keeps us from examing the contemplative, worship-deepening contemplative moments that are also present. Our services may fail to nurture these contemplative moments and value them the way the elders embraced tarrying, prayer and rest. This may be a reason many congregants have a "restless longing," a sense of emptiness and need not met by "unrelenting praise teams modeled after cheerleading squads." Yowwwwwch.

This point is particularly interesting to me, because I truly believe that we (OK, I'm a little hard-pressed to define the we, but roll with me anyway) must value the old and the new. I think the idea of a Praise Team is a good thing (I've even been on some . . .), for a couple of reasons. For some background, check out this interview with praise and worship artist Byron Cage.

First, I believe it is a way of unifying the whole church--I often hear songs written by artists from different cultures being "localized" and sung by churches that are, for better or worse or whatever, largely monocultural. Specifically, I hear "black" songs at "white" churches, and vice versa (I don't mean to neglect my other brethren; just speaking from the cultural perspectives with which I'm most familiar). And I'm almost always moved to tears.

I quote: "Some of my most meaningful moments of personal worship have occurred as I've noticed Christians crossing cultural lines through music. Seeing people who might not visit each other's churches—without hearing catchphrases like "racial reconciliation"—ministering to one another in song fills me with hope. It's progress toward serving our great God together in multiracial churches." Beloved community, y'all.

OK, that's one reason I believe the PW "movement" is a good thing. A second: While I wouldn't automatically and unequivocally equate the PW movement with progress and wouldn't even say it's necessarily better than old ways of encouraging worship (do we have to replace the deacon lineup?), I do believe it's done something important for Af-Am Christians. It's moved/is moving us from a need-based approach to God ("He's a doctor to the doctorless, a lawyer to the lawyerless . . .") to one that appreciates our God simply for who he is. I'm excited, because as the black middle class grows (and is increasingly made up of people who are (their own) doctors and lawyers), I think we need to grow in our understanding of God so that it develops beyond that of God, our Provider. Yes, he is that, but as we are less survival-oriented, we need to relate to God in a growing way. After all, if you can provide for yourself (sort of), you have less need for God, right? How relevant is he? And how relevant is his body, the church? And is religion just for the down and out, and those afraid of hell? As you can see, this is a discussion that deserves waaaay more than this little graf. I'm sure it's prone to misunderstanding, as well. But that's what the comments section is for.

Still, in defense of this statement, I have also been in settings where the "Get Up and Praise Him" cheerleading bordered on abusive--and really discounted those of us who are more inclined toward a silent or meditative posture in worship.

Last year, I attended a lecture by a respected music scholar who, in response to a question I asked about all this business, referred to praise teams as "The Praise-ettes." Not only was that hilarious, but I knew exactly what he was talking about--the tendency of praise teams to single out the really good choir members for the All-Star Worshippers Team. As he continued, he explained that part of the problem he sees with praise teams is that they create one less occasion for congregational singing, which is becoming a lost art. In my mind, this can also contribute to the perception of Worship Service As Entertainment rather than Worship Service As Engagement With Other Worshippers in God-Focused Community.

And Now, Our Featured Presentation:

The reason I'm blogging about this (other than that this is my blog, na-na-na-na-na-na), is that Holmes argues that this neglect of contemplative practices and resulting/concurrent perception of Af-Am spirituality as only (not simply) "heartfelt, rhythmic and charismatic" has far-reaching effects on how we and our practices (for example, gospel music) are perceived in the larger culture. . .and thusly, how our concerns are treated.

Holmes' observation:

"Exuberance and social consciousness are only the most obvious contributions that the black church has to offer a history of human spiritual engagement. Moreover, when these charismatic practices [By the way, Holmes self-identifies as a Pentecostal, making me believe she means generally charismatic as well as specifically Pentecostal] are deemed to be the quintessential expression of black worship, our view of the black church is reduced to caricature.

"The myth of unreflective joy is reinforced by the use of black worship to sell commerical products. One sees black church choirs and hears gospel music at political conventions and public gatherings and in advertisements for cars and fast food. Even as I write this chapter, a television commercial is presenting the "Sears Gospel Choir" joyfully extolling holiday cheer. One has to wonder what model of Christianity would allow this incongruous juxtaposition of images, practices, and ultimate goals.

My discomfort with commercialized uses of Africana worship traditions is exacerbated by the implicit respect given to other ethnic traditions. Although I am aware that advertisers have free reign in a consumer-driven culture and that very little is sacrosanct, I also note that I have never seen a Muslim cleric touting the detergent that keeps his robes fresh, orthodox cantors singing antacid ads, or an American Indian emerging from a sweat lodge with a name-brand deodorant in his hand.

Elders in the Africana community understood the value of communal worship traditions. Moses Berry shares his grandmother Dorothy's caution about carelessly offering precious communal wisdom to the wider world:

'If you share something sacred with people who won't respect it, they will try to reduce it to something that they can understand, and miss the sacredness. Therefore . . .don't let them know about your church music because they'll turn it into dance music or look at it like "folk music,"
and miss the point that it's the music of suffering people that lifted them from earth to heaven. It's not merely an art form.'

Grandmother Dorothy may be right. Reductionsim seems to be the preferred hermeneutical lens of dominant cultures when they interrogate ethnic cultural practices. In many ways, Africana worship practices have been "understood" in the simplest of terms.

Holmes gets even deeper, but you just have to go get your own copy. In the meantime, here are a few questions/thinking points:

  • Is reductionism just the way people understand things? For example, I've eaten plenty of "Mexican food" and "Italian food" that natives of Mexico or Italy probably wouldn't recognize. It seems like "reductionism as a hermenutical lens" isn't limited only to the understanding of black worship practices. I wonder: is it a sign of a sort of backhanded acceptance that could be seen as a positive (as could the ads featuring gospel music?)?
  • What are the pros and cons of ads featuring gospel music? How would these arguments apply or not apply to other musical forms, like jazz? (In Jazz 101, John F. Szwed talks about "Jazz" as an idea/cultural influence that one can take part in without necessarily listening to jazz. Whoo. Here's an opportunity for a Do-It-Yourself Extrapolation.)
  • Can something spiritual have a commercial element? (For example, have you ever bought a gospel CD? Ever watched the Dove or Stellar Awards?) Right? Wrong? Good? Bad?
  • From Holmes: What model of Christianity allows sometimes-incongruous juxtapositions of images, practices, and ultimate goals? Is it all-or-nothing?
  • Was Grandmother Dorothy right? Should you never share sacred things with people who won't respect them? What's the role of gospel music as outreach, or as the door (even lure)for people to eventually grow into a deeper understanding of Christ?
  • Is church music as we know it merely an art form? More? Less? Is it OK to assess music made for ministry based on its artistic merits--say, to review gospel music albums? To decide what is "good" music and "bad"? And what are the criteria?

OK, that's all for now. Ready, Set, Think (And Comment)!