Reflections on the recent Christian Congregational Music: Local and Global Perspectives conference (30.07.19 – 02.08.19, Ripon College Cuddesdon) – and on British Gospel Music (more generally)

The previous post on this blog is a reflection of a music and worship conference – an event that was more than a shot in the arm in terms of my reconnecting to my vocation of sacred ‘musicking’. However, there was no doubt in my mind that I would be exploring ways of Christian congregational musicking that had absolutely nothing to do with gospel music – because as far as I was concerned that was the past and I was fully embarked on the post-requiem adjustment and acceptance, having experienced both denial and rage (not a pretty sight) about the ways in which factors and values beyond my control have ended my ability to work professionally at the sharp end of contemporary gospel music practice in the UK (which I call ‘home’). Until this conference, the sacrifices I had made to remain in gospel and grow in gospel – on paper – looked like a complete and utter waste of time (as you will see if you make it to the end, that’s now somewhat modified…). All of that had a massive influence on the abstract proposal I submitted to this year’s CCM conference. [If you want to understand more about how and why I have come to be so relentlessly negative about contemporary gospel music in Britain, there are a number of other posts here at the Theomusicology Blog on this subject; please do not make the mistake of thinking that it cannot be as bad as I am saying if you are not personally conversant with how things work here in the UK culturally/musically/historically.]

It may not be ‘academically respectable’ to talk about God at work in a person’s life within academia and the looseness of much ‘God-talk’ espoused by too many Christians from too many traditions will have contributed much to this social-linguistic ethic. [Side: it’s now increasingly difficult to offer a grace under one’s breath at meals even in a fully-confessional Christian setting and not feel self-conscious…]. But I don’t need a panoply of scholars who argue for the crucial importance of ‘experience’ as part of ‘epistemology’ (e.g. Fred Inglis, the author of a deeply impressive text on Cultural Studies and Langdon Gilkey, whose Reaping the Whirlwind offers some structured argumentation about God as being ‘transtemporal’ and the ways in which ‘passage’ is more helpful to thinking theologically about history than ‘history’ because of the ways God maintains the past as part of what constitutes the possibility/ies of both present and future) to justify my prerogative to talk about the role played by Divinity in my life. That is a choice I am making as a confessional Christian who a) not-infrequently wishes that God would do what he wants when he wants but then b) also realises/accepts that such a deity would be utterly unworthy of worship.

Prior to this year’s conference, I was aware that our (until very recently) CCM Conference Programme Chair, Monique Ingalls, was working on a new book project on European gospel music and I was delighted that someone was going to ask certain questions about contemporary gospel music praxis in the UK and that this person was not going to be me. I knew that Robert Beckford had already forged some new paths in this area (but we still do not take the opportunity to develop the conversation he started!). I knew that Pauline Muir had been working in a very similar area. I had heard on the grapevine that Dulcie Dixon McKenzie (whom I only met at the conference for the first time) had become a doctor of theology through exploring related issues and that she was working at the Queens Foundation. But it was a real shock (of the best kind) to discover that Matthew Williams and Tosin (aka Samson) Onafuye existed and were also working on questions in British gospel music – and that all but one of these people were booked in to present at this year’s conference. And despite not presenting, Robert Beckford found time to make a flying visit and the result is that all six Black scholars of British gospel music were present on site simultaneously – a very historic moment.

Also of personal interest to me in the conference programme was the joint workshop session with Sahil Warsi and Abigail Wood (whom I had met many years ago when she was interviewing for the Joe Loss Lectureship in Jewish Music at SOAS, a post she successfully obtained), and I also had my eye on the presentation on choral evensong in the Netherlands and the UK (given my interest in how sacred European classical music can be presented as more than music, but not necessarily as ‘liturgy’) as well as the ‘Interrogating Whiteness and Cultural Borrowing in North American Musical Worship’ panel (which by the lights of the ‘final draft’ was at the same time as my own panel, but somehow got switched before the conference started which meant I got to listen to that conversation – at the cost of some other very important papers!). But the fact is that this was a conference where the attendees were ridiculously spoilt for choice and that says everything about the health of this burgeoning discipline. I had had the privilege and pleasure of meeting James Abbington in January in what I am sure will be a legendary ‘COGIC came to Calvin’ moment in the history of Music and Worship conferences at Calvin College (I now hear soon to be ‘University’) and Theological Seminary, and also John Witvliet, a most remarkable man whose ministry as a scholar has had a deep impact on me and would again at this conference on my side of the pond (on which, more later). I was excited to reconnect with them both. So the 2019 CCM had all the makings of a classic before we even set foot on the site.

Given the foregoing, I was excited to be part of the story this year and excited to see where I could find a place in sacred and congregational music that did not involve gospel music (yes, you read that correctly). And so, despite my real respect for Birgitta Johnson and my desire to be in the panel discussion that she led the first morning, I was happily in Abigail and Sahil’s workshop which gave me so much – especially in the smaller asides and impromptu explications – that I can take to (for example) my work as a solo improvising pianist whose focus is playing sacred music from many Christian traditions. However, I was aways planning to add some Jewish music to my repertoire, and now I would actually consider certain aspects of Muslim ‘musicking’ as well, but there is a huge amount of theological thinking to do here as well as musical. I wish I had more time to talk about that session but my thanks to them both. However, I realised that I might as well take the opportunity to see what the ladies were talking about (because it is all too rare to see a panel of all black and all female PhDs) and so I scuttled across to the Graham Room, meeting Monique Ingalls going in the opposite direction (so I wasn’t alone!) as I went. And that also needs more time than this blog post will allow – but it was a marvellous discussion.

So by the end of Day One I had realised that I was really in multiple conversations given my formal and informal research (and interdisciplinary) interests and so I’d just have to jump around as best I could and stop worrying about it, and that was how I rolled. And so to Day Two – Wednesday 31st July, a red-letter day in the history of British gospel music because five of us Black Britons stood up and told our own story (and Monique’s role in getting this together shouldn’t be overlooked; she was also the sixth presenter) and pushed back against what seems to have become a pathological dependence on others to tell our story…

…except that I didn’t see myself as part of this story anymore. What now follows will not make easy reading for some, but these are the hazards of life.

In February 2019 the esteemed scholar Mellonee V. Burnim was the (single) keynote speaker at the British Forum for Ethnomusicology Conference in Aberdeen and delivered a really interesting paper on the inter-relationship between the #Charleston funeral (at which Barack Obama sang ‘Amazing Grace’) and the 2018 Royal Wedding at which the Kingdom Choir sang ‘Stand by Me’. Professor Burnim had the good and worthy intention of explicating these two musical moments as part of drawing back the curtain and exploring the hidden depths of history, context, culture and even ‘performance practice’ in gospel music on two sides of the pond, and her presentation was very warmly received – even to the extent of being a ‘spiritual moment’ in the conference. And it should have been a wonderfully affirmative moment for me as a BAME scholar to watch a POC scholar bring this music into the conversation of this type with such skill and panache.

Unfortunately, almost everything Professor Burnim said about the Kingdom Choir gave me a serious headache. I have much love for Sister Karen Gibson (a fellow Guyanese) and respect for the work she has done (more on this later) but with a painful heart I hereby state categorically my contention (knowing the potential consequences) that the Kingdom Choir’s rendition of Stand By Me at the Royal Wedding 2018 has done more than anything else to set the cause of gospel music back in the UK – and I mean specifically in terms of the music being a force for ‘good’ in any genuine ‘Christian’ sense of the word. This is a very strong assertion and I am truly sorry for all those who may be negatively affected by it, but I have no choice in this matter and the beginning of a defence will follow below. Why do I say the ‘beginning’ of a defence? Because there is no way even a staggeringly unconventional blog post like this can begin to outline all of the thinking I have been doing on this subject and a proper defence of a claim like this will require a case to be made for a positive view of gospel music – which will require the very minimum of another substantive blog post. Although Black scholars on both sides of the Atlantic have not always been able to understand my reasoning, if we assume all the problems involved in talking about ‘truth’ from Tarski’s 1944 paper (for example) and respondents to that essay to be on a plane of discourse that we cannot touch in this particular post (although I seriously believe that all the people who think that music is a language really should learn more about linguistics and philosophy and psychology of language, but that’s another story), then I would now simply say that my priority is a different truth to that of being Black or being a music-maker in any given tradition – it is that thing Christian theology refers to as the euangelion and that is what makes it possible for me to conduct Bach cantatas, direct big bands and write complex arrangements of African-American spirituals and Christmas carols in a contemporary gospel style – because the work of God in my personal life means that doxology comes first, no matter what the genre. Early in John Packer’s Concise Theology we read that ‘the goal of theology is doxology’; I think it not a step too far to suggest that our sacred music would also need to be in some way doxological, and that MUST transcend genre. And that’s why dead white European males like Adorno and Kierkegaard matter to me – because if I can be a good Protestant and take the good bits of Luther and not dismiss him out of hand because of the major problems of his thought, and if I can appreciate Roman Catholic scholars as diverse as Jean-Luc Marion and Richard Rohr and Gregory Baum without following Cardinal Newman, then I can take thinkers such as Kierkegaard and Adorno and mine them for some very serious gold without forgetting my ethnicity, and in future writing projects I look forward to talking through the ways in which (for example) Mark Tetjen’s characterisation of Kierkegaard as a ‘Christian missionary to Christians’ and the mode of ‘indirect communication’ Kierkegaard employed as a means to endeavouring to ‘show’ more than ‘tell’ makes more sense to me as a Black-and-proud-of-it scholar and artist than much of what is written about (for example) ‘being a Levite’ by many people who both look like me and claim to believe the same things that I do. Additionally, mimetic theory (as espoused by René Girard) offers some idea-concepts which point very specifically to the aesthetic AND theological issues that emerge from every part of what took place in the aforementioned Kingdom Choir rendition, and thus contributed to my sanity. [I was delighted to meet two Asian scholars here in the UK at a recent BAME research event who are respectively working on decolonising classics and Shakespeare scholarship and being intentionally reflexive in this regard – and they’re conversation partners for the future as I wield my own critical lens across my own disciplines.] All the dead white male European/North American thinkers I have cited are frequently used for other cultural-academic agendas and part of my hijack of those notional constructions is entirely to do with widening access to European thought for non-proto-Anglo-Europeans and non-Euro-Anglo-Americans. But more on this another time.

Meanwhile, there is now a developing cultural-theological-musical (not the same as theological-musicological) pluralism in US scholarship regarding what the folks at Baylor University (I have the Pruit Symposium in mind here) refer to as ‘Black Sacred Music’. Widening the continuum of ideas and epistemic frameworks is very important; but part of the problem that I am observing means that if – as a BAME/POC scholar – one wishes to offer an uncompromisingly negative critique of (for example) an instantiation of Black Sacred Music, the academic-political climate makes that remarkably difficult. And the inconsistency of methodological rigour offered by certain Black British scholars working across the humanities does not help matters (feel free to ask me to be specific privately, but in light of what I am being specific about herein I have no interest in being any more specifically negative than I need to be in ‘public’). Karen Gibson (the MD of the Kingdom Choir) is a lovely lady and she has worked really hard to bring so much joy to so many people. For me, her most important contributions to the quality of people’s lives are not the ones that the world sees. But those big media contributions are the ones the world will remember, and from a missiological point of view that is entirely complicated. Discerning observers (white, black, etc, Christian and otherwise) have noted that Bishop Michael Curry was given more or less free rein to be a ‘black preacher’ (but how many Americans realise that for many Brits ‘black preaching’ is amusing entertainment?!), so the preaching was not sanitised – but the music certainly was sanitised in many senses of that pejorative and the very lovely Dr Burnim did know this (of course), but she did not draw any attention to that fact in her Aberdeen paper. Does anyone now talk about the preaching? Hardly. But the music has made new celebrities out of the choir, soloist arranger and choir director and exported a concept of gospel music (here in the UK) that is antithetical to everything that I stand for as an exponent of gospel music AND as a theological thinker. And all of the references to the fact that the decision-makers kept sending back version after version of the arrangement do not ever acknowledge the fact that the arranger commissioned by Karen Gibson knew less functional harmony than the composer commissioned by the last Royal Wedding in 2011 – so there may have been a way to facilitate the desired aesthetic without collapsing the harmony to the extent that happened therein. In principle, if Meghan and Harry (or whoever) did not want gospel music, that was just fine – but the ethics of booking a gospel choir and then saying (in effect), “We do not care about what you do or your musical identity or heritage. Fit this aesthetic at any cost or you’re off the gig” has now set a very disturbing precedent that corresponds also to the range of adjudications made by the judging panels at the 2014, 2015, 2016 and 2017 BBC Songs of Praise Gospel Choir of the Year (I’ve now stopped watching) and the way that gospel is generally presented on British TV (stereotypes abound). As both gospel choral director and arranger in my own right who has fought for a certain standard of musical values in this music, I cannot express the real depth of my disappointment with these developments in words.

Notwithstanding, I will turn to Professor Robert Beckford (with whom I had reconnected at a conference in Canterbury the week before this conference), who has come up with a word-concept to describe the representation of Black British gospel choirs on British TV: ‘minstrelsy’. [This is a serious thing: I use the exact same word in the context of British gospel music and came to that conclusion independently, but it has been good to know that I am not alone in this.]

There was a time when the outstandingly gifted Ken Burton could write an SATB arrangement (with divisi if he felt like it) of something serious like Were You There? and it would be what was expected of him and the London Adventist Chorale (for those who don’t know, this was the first ‘gospel choir’ to win the most prestigious choir competition in the UK, although their repertoire was primarily ‘spirituals’ as opposed to ‘gospel’ but that’s a side issue). Their work inspired a certain choral director named Jason Max Ferdinand, who went on to graduate from both Morgan State University (where he was mentored by the legendary Dr. Nathan Carter) and the University of Maryland (the same university who graduated the legendary and phenomenal Cedric Dent) with a DMA in Choral Conducting. Under Jason’s direction, the Aeolians (from Oakwood University, a Seventh-Day Adventist HBCU) sing in up to eight parts and enjoy increasing international respect (winning most of the competitions they enter) – but not one of Ken Burton’s choirs sing to anything close to the technical standard of the Aeolians at this time of writing. Part of the reason appears to be that the white British establishment seems to have decided that gospel music needs to be ‘accessible’ – a word that kills homiletic praxis in many church settings but none more than the Black Church (in my experience). [This is no joke – in my own family and the church communities of which I am part, I am constantly told to make things ‘more accessible’ to the point where if I had to depend on ‘popular’ sermon content to keep me in this faith, I would have defected to something else a LONG time ago.] Now, my personal viewpoint is that gospel need not be merely a music genre of SAT harmony, simple forms and non-complicated lyrical content. But many African-Americans disagree, and the African-Caribbean Brits have followed, so while I see nothing resembling an actual argument for the other side, in social terms I have well and truly lost that one. If it is more than SAT and more complex musically in other ways, it is no longer ‘gospel ’but ‘choral’ leaving me to ponder the raging issues of functionally-irrational language use (my own term); how is the adjective ‘choral’ the name of any musical genre?!

So now, the sort of gospel that is expected on British TV is safe, sanitised, and redolent with cultural stereotypes that have taken us back to what Robert Beckford has called ‘minstrelsy’ but what I am calling ‘glorified minstrelsy’ – and here’s why: it now seems that what determines ‘good’ in UK gospel is dictated by the media establishment (versions of this point came up in two forms in the Black Atlantic panel discussion on Day One) which flies in the face of my preferred value system which argues that something is good because it is good, not because external parties say that it is good. [Side: It is true that Adorno had things to say about jazz and also about popular music/s that many people have rejected. It is not always acknowledged that Adorno effectively conflated jazz with popular music; an important distinction because nearly everything he says about the concept/practice of popular music I can and do agree with, but a) in the first instance, he fails completely to make a successful case for jazz as popular music; b) in the second instance, his anti-jazz polemic is more compelling in words than some will be comfortable with and so in order to know that he’s wrong, you have to make a case on the ‘music’ of jazz as opposed to the ‘explanation’ about jazz. So a musical layperson would have to be very well-informed indeed to argue against Adorno’s aesthetic concept of jazz – but earlier this year I argued in a conference paper that language alone is insufficient to prove Adorno right and so he is in fact hoist by his own petard on the subject of jazz. And so the mistake that is usually made takes the form of assuming that Adorno’s musical aesthetics regarding ‘jazz’ is emblematic of his entire corpus of musical thought. In fact, Adorno is not only one of the very few thinkers to bang his gavel down on the side of the fence arguing that music is not a language, but with that given, his explication of the capacity of music to bear ‘truth-content’ is arguably exponentially more relevant for the claims made by practitioners and consumers of sacred music than anything in secular music (yes, I am also aware of the constructed arguments about false bifurcations re: ‘sacred/secular’and intend to write about that elsewhere) and the more my Adorno shelf grows, the less interested I become in being affected by secondary literature and under-powered populist notions. But all this is also another story.]

So I hereby reject the relativistic hermeneutic spiral downwards that is so easily invoked. If ‘good’ in gospel music praxis is ‘what the media likes’ and/or ‘what the church members like’ – then how does the technical standard of the music, the playing, the songwriting, the production – how does any of that actually get ‘better’? Or is that not important? With a handful of exceptions, the Gospel Prom in 2013 did not offer a world-class standard and the Gospel Prom in 2016 also failed to showcase the very best of British Gospel Music as a musically and spiritually enervating force. One of the groups showcased that night are now being heard on US Radio, but as I sat in a BBC booth making a programme for the BBC World Service, I had to acknowledge to my colleagues (off-air) that their dancing was more impressive than their singing. Hence ‘glorified minstrelsy’ – because while cultural expropriation is bad enough, these gospel music performances are purporting to tell the story of the euangelion while nourishing rather more ‘secular’ values – and secular observers are not fooled by this one little tiny bit. I ask, publicly: is this sort of ‘musicking’ to which Jesus Christ has called us?!

The success of the Kingdom Choir is no longer based on outstanding renditions of gospel music which bears the message of the ‘foolishness’ and ‘offence’ of the cross and of the utterly mind-bending love of God. Instead, it is more based on the numbers of views and likes the choir’s social media output garners and more of the same sort of thing. I wonder: is this sustainable? Will the music produced still be regarded as ‘good’ a century from now? A consequence for my career has been that the music I want to write as doxology and direct as (musical) Levite cannot fit into this UK gospel ‘aesthetic’ and what hurts is that this is not an organic choice made by the community based on cardinal, holistic values – but something rather less positive that I plan to explicate in the future with the help of Girard and several others. What I also wish to point out is that Bach got to think theologically in musical-compositional praxis. Messiaen got to think theologically in musical-compositional praxis and was quite explicit about the fact that what he was doing was a form of theology (mediated through creative praxis). Brahms got to travel from atheism to agnosticism through mysticism but one lone composer-arranger called Alexander Douglas does not get to think theologically in gospel music because the canon of musical possibilities in that genre is closed forever?! Seriously?!

And so back to the conference: I had intended to deliver a fierce critique of what is happening in contemporary gospel music praxis using Kierkegaard’s dimensions of ‘aesthetic, ethical and religious’ that featured rather more of what I have now committed to writing in this post. But at 11:30pm the night before my paper, I found myself actually beginning a complete and literal re-write of said paper – and it would in fact be John Witvliet’s keynote the morning after my paper that helped me understand what the Holy Spirit was – and is – doing in my life.

Wednesday arrived, and the two British gospel music panels went live. Sadly I missed Jean Ngoya Kidula’s keynote because I was still re-writing. But I was determined not to miss Bennett Zon’s paper for many reasons that I won’t cite here. I made it to Matthew Williams’ paper and that was wonderful, as was that of our big sister Pauline Muir (I’ll be talking about the ‘hierarchy of blackness’ concept for a while yet!). And that’s when I realised that in being the last of these six presenters, it mattered that I offer ‘hope’ rather than ‘condemnation’ and I began to praise God.

Lunch was complicated, but that’s another story.

I was really sorry to miss the first afternoon session and Adan Fernandez’ paper was something I’d been looking forward to (bless him, we’re now Facebook friends so I hope to quietly extract it from him, steal his ideas and develop the conversation we started later in the conference); so I was delighted to see him come to hear mine (not taken for granted). But I’d somehow managed to write in excess of 6000 words so right up unto 3:45pm I was editing down furiously and trying to make a little powerpoint. My brother Tosin/Samson could see that I was feeling the heat and was a wonderful source of encouragement to me in those final moments of getting this thing together. And together with Monique we landed the eagle in the form of the second panel on British gospel music. My new paper drew upon a 1932 paper by the British philosopher Gilbert Ryle and ended with a positive vision for gospel music encapsulating Aristotle’s concepts of theoria, poesis and praxis – vastly more positive than the fierce takedown using mimesis that I had planned. [I would have argued that – after Kierkegaard – much of contemporary gospel music praxis is a failure as both aesthetics AND ethics and therefore incapable of being religious – but as I say, I’m so glad I didn’t read that paper in that context in the end.]

The next morning, John Witvliet’s keynote was somehow both wonderfully pastoral and academic (clearly part of this man’s anointing). However, excited as I was by his content qua content, I was ultimately more absorbed by the implications of what he was saying (i.e. what he didn’t say). Having already encountered the analogy of ‘symphonic’ scholarship in another context (a really fun story but not for now), I found huge mileage in his invoking of Elliot Eisner’s ‘third-way scholarship’ and in many ways that was my charge and my call to action. When he talked about (amongst other things) the importance of not traumatising others through our trauma, I realised that he was talking to me personally. Part of what I experienced at Calvin College in January was part of the healing that I need as I recover from what has been a brutal decade in church (music) ministry in which the more faithful I became in my own walk – the more self-sacrificing, the less self-absorbed, the more compassionate, the more patient, the more empathic – the more I got shot at, misunderstood, misrepresented and ultimately rejected for not being more like everyone else around me. I have not enjoyed the fourth decade of my life in many ways, but as I get into the fifth, it is becoming clear that (to quote John Eldredge) God has used this time to dismantle all sorts of unholy things in me (and that journey continues). But this conference has been the final staging post on the journey of leaving the past behind (after Isaiah 43, a chapter I have wrestled with for years) in THIS context and so despite the uncompromisingly trenchant views herein, I am keeping Bonhoeffer’s dictum in mind: if one loves one’s view of community more than the community itself, one will eventually become a destroyer of that community, no matter how truly sincere and noble one’s intentions might have been.

Two more days followed and I was able to relax and enjoy the rest of the conference. To my delight I found a seat in Christchurch Cathedral which enabled me to get a perfect view of the conductor at just the sort of angle I wanted and so I kept a beady eye on what he was doing while taking in the evensong service. Friday’s keynotes offered much for thought – Helen Phelan reminded me that singing really does facilitate the ability to negotiate and overcome difference and so I had to admit how much I miss being a choral director, but others get to do more of that work now and that’s only good. And Jonathan Arnold raised a hugely important issue in suggesting that if ‘to faith’ could be a verb, then it might be more contiguous with ‘to musick’ and that is certainly something I intend to re-visit with him at some point in the future. Huge idea on more levels than will be obvious to some…

Huge congratulations to Monique Ingalls for chairing the programme committee through five conferences and to Martyn Percy and everyone else involved. Mark Porter is the new programme chair for 2021 and I know I am not alone in wishing him all the best. Meanwhile, we Black British Gospel Music Scholars need to follow on from this wonderful opportunity to find our collective voice and take the story to the next level – and the evidence suggests that we know that this is our time and we’re not going to drop the ball.

August 3-6, 2021 will be the tenth anniversary celebration of the CCM. See you there!

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