Kierkegaard and gospel music: why the walls between Europe and the African diaspora need to come down

This summer, the game changed forever. I was finally able to realise a dream that up until this opportunity (below) would be nothing more than talk. I am writing from both a practical-musical and theological-church perspective when I now say that musical audiences are still more divided and stratified across genre/context than ever before – and the same principle/parameter applies to the church at large.

Of course, the differences are vast. Audience constituencies have every right to live by whatever aesthetic values they choose and no insuperable dictat obtains for them to seek validation for those choices from anywhere/anyone else – whereas members of Christian churches tend to make claims about the Church that go right back to when the word ekklesia was first used to denote the ‘called-out ones’ who were followers of ‘The Way’. Whereas the law dictates that no-one be disbarred from entry to a Justin Bieber concert by virtue of discrimination legislation, that is absolutely not the same thing as the Church saying that absolutely everyone – even self-proclaimed enemies of God – are actively welcomed in a church (exceptions would of course include those who come to kill – to offer what is no longer an extreme example).

Here at the Theomusicology Blog there have been many posts about gospel music and worship theology. On and off for eight years, there has been an effort to make a tiny but genuine contribution to publicly available thought on these issues and also to write genuinely and reflexively about the heartbreak that our collective Christian failures have induced. The previous post here was an epic that referenced the fact that gospel music in the UK is in a very serious state – both musically and theologically. I find myself to have effectively become the ‘Adorno’ of British gospel music – easily caricatured as a grumpy, jealous malcontent who didn’t get what he wanted career-wise and now is forced to criticise from afar. Marginalised and disenfranchised, at times my protests sound hollow even to my own ears and in my own church, almost no-one listens or cares.

It is certainly true that professional unfulfilment has a terrible effect on those of us who are driven by fierce ideals to make a difference in this world. But at some point, as one of my wise older friends once counselled me, one must accept that a commitment to certain values of thought, belief and praxis will result in increased isolation, not decreased isolation. This is terrible news for extravert (the Myers-Briggs appellation, not the vernacular English word) types like me who actively draw power and energy from being in company with others. But having stood up so far for values that I will continue to defend to the death, I now see that in some ways my work in ‘theomusicology’ is in fact just beginning, and it will involve increased commitment to theomusicology-as-music as well as theomusicology-as-theology.

And so to this project…

…in which I finally had a chance to road-test my interpretations of African-American spirituals in the context of Bach chorales and a hybrid improvised language between gospel music and jazz with more counterpoint than one might normally expect to a discriminating audience. The Three Choirs Festival is the oldest classical music festival in Europe and not renowned for its diversity – but this summer, they made a home for me and to my surprise and delight, the audience got hold of all the elements of the music – which included a pairing of the Herzliebster Jesu chorale from the St Matthew Passion with the Bb minor blues (albeit transposed to B minor so that the musical line of thought remained unbroken from the Bach) from John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme that was itself linked to Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child as well as an interpretation of Deep River that was paired with the first (long-form) chorale Zwingt die Saiten in Cythara from the JS Bach cantata BWV 36 (Schwingt freudig euch empor). Again, this chorale is in D major and that is the ‘traditional’ key of Deep River. There is nothing in the whole of the European classical sacred music canon that has quite the effect on me as the chorale settings of the German Reformation and while those by JS Bach are of a different order (e.g. the harmonic innovation deployed in the closing chorale of BWV 197 is a new level of extraordinary whichever way you look at it), composers such as Telemann, Homilius and Graupner were also pretty good at writing that same sort of musical sacred!

With the exception of so-called ‘blended worship services’, one will not hear African-American praise and worship music and really well-rendered Bach chorales in the same liturgical space. Not that long ago, sociologist Michael Emerson (a Rice University faculty member at the time) led a Multiracial Congregations Project in which a multiracial congregation was defined as one in which no single ethnic group constituted more than 80% of the congregation. Guess how many churches fitted that criteria?

A whopping 8% across the entire USA – representing 2-3% of mainline Protestant congregations, 8% of other Protestant congregations, and 20% of Catholic parishes. So on the face of it, Rome is continuing to lead the way in addressing social issues on a variety of levels and that is extremely bad news for sectarian Protestants and for more liberal and libertarian ecclesiology (but that’s for another time). There is no way that this is not represented in music….!

But here’s the thing. This blog post is also now declaring war on the concept that research by Black scholars is intrinsically necessary to any research enterprise involving any mode of cultural production specific to African-Americans. In the early days of the East Coast jazz revival of the 1980’s led by the Marsalis brothers, there was a huge amount of pontificating taking place about what jazz was and what it was not. At the heart of those early debates was the question of ‘swing’ and its ‘necessity’ for ‘jazz.’ Jazz history has loosely-unanimously taken it that Keith Jarrett’s ‘European quartet’ of the 1970’s was better than his ‘US quartet’ of the same period, and Jarrett himself has become a vociferous opponent of all things Marsalis (this is also another conversation…!). However, improvising musicians around the world worked out that jazz offered a framework that transcended the specificities of content – which meant that musicians from Latin America, Northern India, South Africa and Europe could legitimately appropriate the concept of jazz without being hidebound by the language of jazz. And in the 21st centuries it seems that even the Marsalises accept that while it really helps to know something of the blues and how to ‘swing’ prototypically, one can write and play jazz in ways that are far removed from what you hear in New Orleans and New York. If these musicians from outside the USA had only listened to the Marsalis-type doctrine, global jazz traditions would not exist.

Gospel music had the same potential – but it is a moot point whether this potential will ever be realised given the commercial and capitalist realities that have arrived into the 21st-century church. As a Black-and-proud-of-it scholar and church musician, I am a steward and theomusicology is (following the Aristotelian framework that I am increasing attracted to) theoria, poiesis and praxis – by which I mean that my personal responsibility to the Christian musical sacred – given my identity as both Christian and musician – is to the best level of musical thought and musical practice of which I am capable. This is not prioritising my cultural and racial identity, but because something is not ‘prioritised’ does not mean that it is denied. The African-American (and other) scholars who insist that racial identity plays the type of role that I have identified are now effectively saying that if someone wishes to critique my interpretations of Bach (I studied classical conducting with one of the world’s foremost chorusmasters, a 3-time Grammy Award winner) as a black and therefore non-proto-Anglo-European conductor, they have to start with someone white rather than with me because I’m obviously not proto-Anglo-European…

It is one of the worst examples of academic calumny I have encountered, and as part of my counter, I wish to point towards my next theomusicological research project that will involve a Kierkegaardian analysis of gospel music as both ‘direct’ and ‘indirect’ Christian communication. The late Julia Watkin (an outstanding Kierkegaard interpreter) once observed that those who promote (and have promoted) the ‘demythologising’ of Scripture “often fail to see that they are merely importing a part or parts of a secular belief system into the context of their religious assumptions, and not, as they suppose, making the religious message relevant to ‘facts’ known for certain by the modern world” (Kierkegaard – 1997: 108). Watkin goes on to assert that at that time of writing, Kierkegaard was known to be studied and discussed by people from over 60 nations. Now, if Marian Anderson and Jessye Norman are not in any way renowned for their interpretations of culturally-specific African-American music forms but are not denied the right to be seen as African-American cultural icons, then when a Black scholar looks back in time and discovers that Kierkegaard upheld certain critical values that correspond overwhelmingly with their own, why would that scholar not invest into a thinker who points to the Christ who alone can save us from ourselves?

As has been detailed elsewhere on this blog, I grew up in a mostly-black, entirely conservative Christian environment which took jazz to be the devil’s music, and as a 19-year-old I rejected this as biblically bankrupt. So I am no pansy, Oreo-cookie musician/scholar who has forgotten his roots. But when I hear those Reformation-era chorales, you know what I hear?


I hear the sound of faith that chimes with my deepest beliefs, and it is part of how I know that despite the ongoing segregation of the global church, God is not limited to the constructions of culture or aesthetics. I can say ‘Amen’ even before I have found a translation of the chorale – but when I play a chorale, I play as part of the African Diaspora first and part of the Western church second. But both elements are present. And when one slows down the pace of the chorales so that the harmonic rhythm facilitates improvisation more easily, one is then drawn to the awareness of suffering that Bach and others knew in different ways to the slaves – but this was not a world where peace would be easily known and that is the pilgrim journey across the story of mankind. And so the spirituals then assume a different rhythm, something that the late Sir Michael Tippett understood when he used five spirituals as ‘chorales’ in the 1939 oratorio A Child Of Our Time.

Kierkegaard is my brother in faith no less than the late Dr. Martin Luther King (who first drew attention to ’11 o’clock on a Sunday morning being the most segregated hour in America’) because he realised that faith is a duty to stewardship (which of course corresponds to Paul’s clarion call to the church in Ephesus to be ‘stewards of the grace of God’ that they had received (Ephesians 4:10-12 etc). This duty transcends every other calling; as Ben Patterson has argued, one’s profession is whatever is it, but one’s vocation is to be a child of God. What I have read in Kierkegaard has galvanised me to take my vocation more seriously than many other thinkers of my race and denomination. And he was a big part of how I found myself in a truly gorgeous restored 12th-century church at a prestigious classical musical festival playing a programme that enabled me to pay homage to Bach, to be a Black-and-proud-of-it improvising musician playing some fierce jazz as well as unambiguous gospel, doing theology in music and sharing this to a privileged white audience who honoured me by listening with superlative concentration for 75 minutes, just as they did for the international prize-winning classical concert pianist (Luke Jones) whose recital preceded mine.

And some more walls fell down.

And for as long as I live, I am going to continue to push these walls. As ever, thanks for taking the time to read and engage.

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