Tuesday, April 24, 2007

A Good Musician Is Hard to Find?

Recently, The New York Times and PBS' Religion & Ethics Newsweekly each reported on the difficulty many African-American churches face in finding and retaining musicians who are familiar with traditional gospel music.

Samuel Freedman's NYT piece identifies several reasons for this trend: The growing influence of hip-hop among younger musicians, a decline in the types of school music programs that employed church musicans, and a commercial marketplace more friendly to gospel musicians, giving them more options for their gifts. There's even some discussion of the ways the popularity of "name it and claim it" theology has affected this issue (Though I think it overestimates this factor--prosperity theology isn't considered mainstream evangelicalism. Still, it is interesting--and, I think, fairly rare, though not inaccurate--to hear African-American churches described as evangelical.)

Although I appreciated this piece, I didn't appreciate the faintly disapproving tone the people interviewed seem to have toward younger musicians (though I respect their scholarship). I left with the sense that they view younger musicians as shallow, mercenary hip-hoppers who aren't really interested in serving God with their music ("just another gig.")

I wonder if there's a more significant generational angle that's not being explored here. After all, there's a great deal of great gospel that's been produced since the 1960s and 1970s, which Freedman calls "contemporary." I guess that designation is historically accurate, in the same sense in which the 1950s are seen as the Golden Age of gospel. Still, for someone who grew up in the hip-hop era, Edwin Hawkin's "Oh Happy Day" is "classic" gospel. And Cleveland's music, though groundbreaking, relevant and interesting, is not seen as contemporary. For people in their 20s and 30s, contemporary gospel is early BeBe and CeCe Winans, The Winans, Commissioned, Vanessa Bell Armstrong, The Clark Sisters, etc.--largely music produced in the 1980s. I'm wondering if part of the issue is that these pastors and potential music ministers have conflicting, generationally-driven ideas of what constitutes an appropriate repertoire. There's a bigger shift going on here, I think.

Bob Abernethy's Religion and Ethics Newsweekly piece deals more with the question of preservation, which I find compelling. How can churches make sure that traditional gospel music and the spirituals tradition thrive? Again, I don't think it's necessary to set hip-hop and hymns in opposition--I disagree with Dr. McMillan's statement that people are more likely to remember hymns than hip-hop--but I do think Dr. Simpson makes an important point: younger people do need to receive exposure to and training in traditional music, if it is to survive.

For me, the questions that need to be explored are:

  • How can churches make sure they expose young people to traditional music and the spirituals, with the goal of encouraging and cultivating musicians for the future? What might that look like? Could it involve providing music lessons at the church, or sponsoring music lessons for young people who seem to have musical gifts?
  • Given the generational issue I described above, do you think churches should be more open to a broader group of gospel sounds? For example, might worship services include spirituals, traditional gospel, praise and worship, and maybe even holy hip-hop?
  • Can church musicians have artistic freedom, or are they expected to stick to a specific type of songs? If so, why? In my opinion, part of trusting a musician and respecting his or her skills and calling should involve working together to make sure the music ministry not only serves current ministry needs and goals, but also gives the music minister the freedom to grow, stretch, and take the congregation new places, musically and spiritually. (For one example of this, read my interview with Byron Cage.)
  • Should churches try to offer more competitive salaries in hopes of recruiting and retaining skilled music ministers? In my opinion, this wasn't addressed well--or fairly--in these two pieces. Do churches offer reasonable salaries for the kind of commitment they require?
  • What other issues do you see here?

Finally, this week's poll question: Does your church employ a salaried music minister?

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