Friday, June 01, 2007

About Gospel Gal

A sneak peek at the "About Me" section on (Coming Soon!)--and just in time for Black Music Month . . .


I believe in gospel music.

As a little girl, I would slip one of my father’s James Cleveland albums from its paper sleeve and place it carefully on the turntable. I’d lift the arm, feeling a twinge of anticipation as the turntable spun to life.

I’d place the needle gently on the wax disc, and then, as soon as I heard the soft, electric crackle coming through the speakers, I’d scurry to the middle of the living room floor in my sock feet. Our performance was about to begin—James’ and mine, that is—and I didn’t want to miss my cue.

When the music started—a joyous, thunderous explosion of instruments and voices—I’d spin around with the record, arms outstretched. I’d sing and spin, spin and sing, until I collapsed in a sweaty, delighted heap, slain in equal measure by dizziness and the Spirit.

Church was a staple of our family life, and so, in a small yellow church building with polished wooden pews and cool concrete walls, I learned to join my high, clear soprano with other young voices. The choir was where we learned how to be good church members—how to stand together and sit at the same time, how to pay attention and give our best. Every fourth Sunday, the Angels Without Wings sang, all starched white tops and navy bottoms, itchy tights, tight ties and earnest faith.

I loved the way we all felt around the music—the way Dad and the deacons led the whole church in hymns and spirituals, trading the lead and adlibbing around each other with such ease and joy that I thought they were all brothers. I learned to accept the icy nervousness that chilled my hands whenever I was asked to sing a solo—Jesus, use my voice, help me do this right—as part of the process of sharing myself, my gift, with this church, with these people who loved me so.

During those years, it’s fair to say, the music saved me. Or pointed me to Jesus, who did. I kept hearing, in the music, that Jesus wanted my heart. He didn’t just want my voice, he wanted my life, all six years of it. And he was insistent: Not tomorrow, today. So the next time the invitation was given, Mom took my hand, and together we walked the very short distance from the deaconess’ pew to the altar.

Years after that trip to the altar, I interviewed a theologian who described music as “a conduit to altered realities.” Immediately, I wished that I’d thought of that phrase, because it encapsulates, with accuracy and elegance, how gospel music serves me—it conducts me. It moves me toward something—a place, a state of being—that is real, but is also beyond where I presently am. It goads me toward a deeper spirituality, a deeper Christian faith, and somehow fills the gap between the place where I am, and the place I aspire to be.

The music compels me to testify, by faith, of faith—to bear witness to the not yet, even in the here and now. The joining of my voice with others reminds me that I am meant to become a person of faith in community, and that resisting community is like trying to sing all of the vocal parts by myself. I learn, from the music, to rest, and to quiet my angst-ridden striving and steady my chilled fingers. I discover that if I can prepare my heart and voice, I can relax into the song, trusting that I will know what to sing when the moment comes. I am reminded, through the spirituals, what it means to keep my mind on heaven and my feet on the ground. I am joined, across generation, class, and denomination, to other singers, all of us on that same journey through the “not yet,” all of us on our way home. I’m given a language for trust, for hope, for repentance and joy.

And so, having been served, I am driven to serve the music. To immerse myself, like a good Baptist girl, in the stories of the people who, like me, believed and believe in gospel music. When I do, I discover and rediscover what it means to be human and complex, to be shaped by time and to transcend it. I am forced to resolve contradictions between sanctified sainthood and original sin—in others and myself. I am convinced that no issue, no matter how current it seems, is truly new. And I’m often saying, in conversation, “You know, I think there’s a song about that.”

Gospel is also a lens for viewing the world. In searching out stories, I become sociologist and historian. And I’m compelled to tease out the theology behind each song I hear. Theological concepts like redemption, sanctification and eschatology are enacted, like drama, often through a single repeated phrase.

The more I immerse myself in gospel music, the more deeply I understand the world outside of it. As I follow the music—gospel, as well as other forms—I’m given a path toward understanding people outside of my cultural context. My favorite questions to ask, whenever I’m learning about people of different time periods, cultures or faiths, are “What does their music sound like?” and “What do they sing?” And the best way to get to know someone—and to figure out what he or she believes—is to borrow his or her iPod.

As a writer, I find myself drawn not only to the usual stories—leads readily gleaned from press releases or reworkings of classic themes—but also to the quirky, unusual stories where gospel (and The Gospel) pop up in unexpected, occasionally uncomfortable places and forms. I find that those are the stories that challenge me most, the ones that make me most curious and bring me the most joy. And, like those songs I sang growing up, they are the stories I feel the most urgency to share. My hope is that my gift, and my curiosity, can serve others, the music, and my craft.

Jesus, use my voice.
Help me do this right.


I love the phrase "already but not yet." Although I refer to this idea in this essay, I can't take credit for it. Similarly, I am indebted to Dr. Barbara Holmes for her description of music as "a conduit to altered realities."


Holly said...

I read the WHOLE THING! Every word of it flowed into the next like a piece of great music. I wonder if you know how good you are as a writer. Maybe you don't need to know--maybe God makes us a little clueless about the greatness of his gifts to us. Because if I'd have written that, I would have been feeling a little proud right now.

I'm proud of you. :)

LaZeric Freeman said...

I've been reading your stuff for years in the Christianity Today publications. Keep writing. You are definitely an important voice for this generation and beyond.

P.S. Try not let your work in other genres take you so far that you forget about the seeds you've planted in Christian culture.

LaZeric Freeman aka TruSoulDJ