Black British Gospel Music: Auto-ethnographic and Philosophical Reflections

This is a slightly amplified/modified version of the presentation that was given at the event Does Black Christian Music Matter? hosted on Zoom by the Centre for Black Theology at the Queens Ecumenical Foundation in Birmingham, UK on July 10th, 2020. There were one or two places where the speaker went ‘off-script’ in the live presentation. In addition, this version includes links, citations and additional textual clarifications and explanatory material that were omitted from the live version due to time constraints. Thank you for your time and interest!

~

I would like to begin with a short quotation from the American writer Don Marquis:

“If you make people think they’re thinking, they’ll love you; but if you really make them think, they’ll hate you.”[1]

Earlier this year the Dalit theologian Sunder John Boopalan wrote a short essay about the ongoing enormous problems regarding colonial logic in Christian thinking (as he put it). This essay achieved three things in my mind. First, it was a salutary reminder of the ongoing need for rethinking the imperialistic epistemic frameworks that [continue to] blight the practice of theology and several other disciplines. Second: it was a salutary reminder of the enormous problems of language that I believe music was created not in order to solve but to ameliorate. And third, it was a reminder of the dangers of auto-ethnography in theology. Notwithstanding, I will attempt a brief, informal, auto-ethnographic explication of my own and invite you to think as carefully about what you do not hear me say as that which you do.

One of the problems posed by our linguistic capacity to ask questions that begin with the words ‘What is […]’ takes the form of a multidimensional assumption that in the first instance presupposes that the existence of a given question automatically means the existence of a corresponding answer. In the second instance, there is an ontological presupposition that whatever follows the two words ‘What is…’ is a genuine referent for something that exists – tangible or otherwise – and that the corresponding answer will enable an understanding of that ‘something’. So if we are to ask, ‘What is Black Christian music?’ it will be presupposed that Black Christian music exists. So if a Black composer writes an outstanding pastiche based on the musical language we find in the Faure Requiem or Mozart’s C minor Mass, would that be Black Christian music?

An unwise person will invest emotive and cognitive effort into addressing that question. A somewhat wiser person will recognise that that kind of question creates more questions than can ever easily be answered. I am reminded of the single most lucid critique that I have so far encountered of Robin DiAngelo’s ‘white fragility’ thesis which characterises her argument as an example of a so-called ‘Kafka-trap’. Now, you don’t need to have read anything by Franz Kafka to understand that this sort of argument condemns you no matter what side you take. In the case of white fragility, if you confess to being so afflicted, that’s not good. If you insist that you are not so afflicted, that is proof that you are. And so David Burke argues that DiAngelo’s thesis seems to be more watertight than it really is because of the unfortunate effectiveness of the Kafka-trap argument that she uses.

With nowhere near enough time to explicate this properly, I will make two short points. First: Burke attacks DiAngelo’s argument as an argument, not her character. Have he done so, it would have been an example of what is called an ad hominem argument. This takes us to the second point, namely, that in his efforts to demonstrate the totalising nature of Western Christian missions to the non-Western world, Boopalan takes the later history of ethical failure imbricated within a process of so-called ‘civilisation’ that was in fact touted as ‘conversion’ and inscribed that into his reading of Paul’s motivations and use of language in Mars Hill. You may recall that in 1 Peter 3:15 the reader is told to ‘always be ready to give an apologia for the hope that is within them’. The English word ‘answer’ does not correspond to the Greek word apologia which is best translated as ‘defence’. At the time when becoming a Christian meant a very real threat to life and limb, it is spectacularly disingenuous for Boopalan to read later, more contemptible and imperialistic forms of Christian mission into Acts 17. We have much to learn from Dalit theologians, but this is a very significant hermeneutic failure that I have cited because it is emblematic of the kind of ‘category mistake’ that seems to govern so much of the conversations – both vernacular and academic – about Black Christian music, inside and outside the church.

I believe that Black Christian music (a) matters; (b) takes many forms and (c) that it has never been more important. The details will remain embargoed but let me tell you one story of a failed attempt to write a theological dissertation on gospel music.

Despite very real initial positivity, it eventually became clear that within that particular academic environment, gospel music was not really deemed to be an appropriate subject or object for a theological investigation of any description, much less one that involved the resources of European philosophical theology. I was asked to rewrite my entire proposal in the light of a number of critical questions, the most challenging of which required that I offer a much fuller justification of why gospel music should be studied within the discipline of theology. I can only confess to you that I actually tried to do that, but I do believe that it was the Holy Spirit that prompted me to go and research previous work that involved both music and theology that had been supervised by the people with whom I was hoping to work in much more detail than had previously been the case. What emerged was extremely instructive.

In the first instance, there was no assumption that music from the European art music tradition needed any [intrinsic] justification to be a theological research subject or object. Moreover, it was also assumed that insights gained from a theological investigation into European art music could be legitimately understood as being applicable to any other context of culture, language or theology. But what made this much worse [for me personally] was the use[2] of the complacent notion of transcendence – what I take to be an extremely volatile word-concept that loses all credibility when it is not situated in a very specific anthropological context.[3] A transcendent experience can be achieved in a variety of different ways, and the earlier draft of this presentation prior to lockdown engaged very seriously with the relationship between music and psychopathology, specifically with regard to the physical and analogical interrelationships between music and narcotic substance abuse.[4] Returning to my story: I had to make a choice between hurting myself in order to find the right academic language to be acceptable to an academic guild that clearly didn’t respect what this music was – and therefore the people who have made and continue to make this music – in order to give myself an opportunity to write something that purported to be on gospel music from a prestigious institution – OR to withdraw from that process and take another step closer to the reality that I might not ever get to write the dissertation I knew I had been called to write as a ‘black-and-proud-of-it’ scholar and practitioner.

For our American friends who live in a country with affirmative action, things are still extremely difficult at times for BIPOC scholars. Here in the UK, the hidden nature of many of the problems BAME scholars face is beyond insidious. For the first time I understood why Prof. Robert Beckford has taken certain positions that I had previously not endorsed.[5] If I simply withdrew, I would be effectively admitting that I was not intelligent enough to do what they asked. If I called them out on this calumny, the consequences could be really terrible for me as an unestablished scholar. In one of the most academically dangerous moments of my entire life, I not only made the decision to walk away but to write a comprehensive response to the task that had been set with several citations and a ferocious close reading of the aforementioned previous supervised work in order to make my points about the unfairness of what they had asked of me and what that meant for the place of gospel music – Black Christian music – in the theological guild. I was extremely scared after I hit ‘send’, but in my mind I had to stand up for Black Christian music – not just my own tiny sphere of existence.

In reflecting on why it has become so difficult to get a hearing for black Christian music here in the UK other than as an exotic specimen within the entertainment industry, I will make a number of observations (as quickly as I can). An example of the way in which the White choral directing establishment treats gospel music involves a true story about a famous conductor doing a workshop in a secondary school where it quickly became clear that use of the word ‘God’ in this multi-faith environment would not work. And so that individual took the lyrics of the chorus, ‘My God is a good God’ and turned it into ‘My dog is a good dog’.[6] I also recall being told by a BBC researcher that gospel music is characterised by three things: American pronunciation, ‘thick’ vocal tone and heartfelt delivery. As such what I was doing was not gospel music.[7] And whenever classical choral directors work with gospel music, in my experience the technical standard is never the same as for Bruckner, Handel and James MacMillan (things are very different in the USA!). Eventually it becomes clear that whatever we have decided Black Christian Music is, in many cases it is about us – and not necessarily about ‘music’.

Let me explain in this written version what I mean by my last sentence.

If we look at the technical standard of British gospel music that has been promulgated on British television media, there are some very serious questions to be asked. In 2013 and 2016 there were two BBC Gospel Proms which – wonderfully – featured UK Gospel talent. Unfortunately, if we were to play back the audio in high-fidelity and really listen to the musicking taking place, we would find that two of the published reviews of the second event (the 2016 Gospel Prom (Prom #6) were actually incredibly generous. I was right there in the Royal Albert Hall in the BBC World Service booth and we did not deliver something that could stand the test of time. Here is the opening of Clive Davis’ review for The Times:

Too much syrup, not enough soul. As a snapshot of the British gospel scene, this manically overloaded late-night gala covered an awful lot of ground, from the demure harmonies of the London Adventist Chorale to the joyous west African rhythms of the singer Muyiwa Olarewaju. As one choir followed another, the Albert Hall resembled a cavernous mega-church. I’m glad to report, though, that we were not asked to offer up our credit cards on the way out.

If the hardcore members of the congregation seemed content, a neutral could only conclude that the all-conquering crossover genre known as contemporary gospel — built around bombastic Whitney Houston-esque melismas and unashamedly saccharine sentiment — is the deadest of dead ends. A cynic once described contemporary gospel as a mixture of “the temporary and the con”. While there was sincerity a-plenty here, very little of the material bore comparison with the era of Thomas Dorsey. The patron saint of the modern scene, Andraé Crouch — honoured in a typically overblown medley at the close — produced sleek, anonymous anthems with lyrics that had all the intensity of a supermarket greetings card.

https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/prom-6-gospel-prom-at-the-albert-hall-d0sfpd8lp

Now, from a technically and musically-informed viewpoint, this review tells us more about the reviewer than it does about the event. The problem is this: an ad hominem argument can ensure that the actual verities – truths – espoused by this reviewer escape out the back door yet again due to an emphasis on the mean-spirited, culturally limited and limited knowledge of gospel music displayed by this reviewer – because of all the reviews I could find, this is the only one that bore any resemblance to what I personally witnessed that night. I appreciate the sterling efforts of the curator of the event and one or two performances did reach a level of musical doxology – but one can only work with what there is and what the Black Church musical community here in the UK does not appear willing to understand or accept is that every time British gospel music is performed in public with glaring musicianship failures or a complete disconnect to the unambiguously transformative nature and dimensions of the euangelion – the ‘good news’ – we are telling the UK and anyone else watching/listening who we are. So White choral directors cannot be expected to take this music seriously when we don’t. For my money, the best things that happened that night have not been celebrated, and what should not have been celebrated has been – and not for the first time.

What I hope Black readers from the USA will take from this is that there is a real identity crisis in Black British gospel music that they may never really understand because their history is more different to ours than many realise. What I hope Black readers from the UK will take from this is that it is not enough to be Black and Christian and even sincere – if we fail to execute musically to the highest standard people will know. There is a reason why the gospel audience here has not managed to move people away from their demand for covers – more on this below. And so I can only conclude that our musical decisions are about ‘us’ and what we want from music – which is NOT the same as what we give TO music. If Take 6 had thought the way we do over here, we would not have those iconic albums all the way back to 1990 which break every conventional rule of writing for vocal ensembles and proves that singers are technically /harmonically the equal of instrumentalists at their best.

One of the most interesting aspects of René Girard’s mimetic theory plays on the fact that one cannot become a person without imitating that which one perceives.[8] But the question of realised personhood becomes vexed when one considers that if one only ever lives in imitative thrall to others, one never actually realises oneself and perhaps the metaphor C.S. Lewis used – ghost – is apposite for many reasons, not least because Girard argued that desire itself is mimetic.[9] We learn to desire by observing the desire of others – and gospel music (and musicking) is intrinsically mimetic by virtue of the ways in which it creates and facilitates models (a specific word-concept in Girard) of desire for applause and approbation. Many performers will go a long way to get a response from an audience, rather than necessarily focus on who they really are within the music (thus resulting in musical decisions that truly reflect their own lived faith experience). Whereas jazz performers at the heavy level know that an authentic solo is not guaranteed to be understood and may not receive applause, many gospel performers struggle when there is no response. Here in the UK, it is becoming increasingly difficult for me to see my own Black identity in the musicking practices of the Black Church here in the UK. Are we fully realised persons who have been remade in the image and likeness of a God who created BLACKness – or are we making pragmatic decisions to sell our cultural birthright for the sake of financial survival? Can we disagree with the decisions of others without attacking their characters as people and as fellow Christians? The many ad hominem arguments I see in the musical communities of the Black Church here in the UK are deeply depressing.

Philosophical aesthetics is undergoing its own reflexive (as in Bourdieu) turn to Baumgarten and the Scottish Enlightenment in which the very concepts of ‘aesthetic value’ and ‘aesthetic judgment’ are becoming linked to questions of perception and knowledge in cognitively critical ways.[10] But Kierkegaard’s concept of the aesthetic only really makes sense in the context of a specifically theological anthropology.[11] And so in conclusion, when Kierkegaard’s tripartite schema of the aesthetic, ethical and religious is applied to Black Christian Music, we need all three of those elements.[12] It needs to be defensibly music and actually aesthetic.[13] It also needs to be ethical as music and beyond music. I wish had time to share some research on music therapy and substance abuse recovery.[14] But Black Christian Music only becomes Black Christian Music when it contextualises lived experience – which includes a critical place for the specific religious experience that enables a person to say why the Christian religion has offered them hope. But when this music is devoid of faith, hope and love, it has not only failed to be Black Sacred Music – it becomes positively destructive.[15]


[1] Quoted in Rawson, Hugh and Margaret Miner. The Oxford Dictionary of American Quotations (New York: OUP, 2006, p. 431). Originally from the 1927 publication archy and mehitabel [sic].

[2] The original  word used was ‘recurrence’.

[3] It was simply not possible to express the depth of my disenchantment with the concept of ‘transcendence’ in this presentation, and although this endnote makes the point with the simplicity of a ‘blunt force instrument’, the way in which this particular hegemonic and totalising concept has been accepted means that a substantive (in terms of depth and scope as opposed to mere length) piece of research writing will be needed to really explicate the problems of the unregulated use of this concept for both the Black Church and Christian theology more broadly – and the concomitant ramifications for academic music studies.

[4] I had hoped to still make more use of this plane of thought in this reduced ‘Zoom’ version of the paper, but other heuristic issues had to be prioritised and so this element was somewhat glossed over in the live version – both at the moment of this endnote citation and at the end. However, this is a matter which will be addressed with resolute force in Part 2..!

[5] I come from a very conservative church culture and an equally conservative Caribbean sub-culture that crosses both religion and ethnicity. Prior to my first engagement with academic theology I had only a limited knowledge of his work and of the criticisms that he received from many Black British Christians. Some of those seemed to be fair; others not so much. In my second decade of real engagement with theology, I have finally understood what he has been saying for many years about the absolutist and hierarchical processing in British academic theology and the ways in which the UK fails to support Black academics. See https://www.theguardian.com/education/2005/may/17/highereducationprofile.academicexperts

[6] Please note that this is a monumental ethical failure. In US choral directing circles there are many conversations that do not take place here in the UK. One such conversational trajectory involves the ethics of singing sacred music from any global tradition as a means of teaching ‘musicianship’ and/or ‘theory’ and/or ‘technique’. The conductor in question may not have meant to disrespect this tradition, but as the British response to Black Lives Matter has shown, sincerity of intention is not enough. A completely different chorus (etc) would have been better. That this has been celebrated by choral pedagogues as intelligent problem-solving here in the UK is a sign of just how far we have to go.

[7] This is a specific reference to written feedback received from the production team for the BBC Songs of Praise Gospel Choir of the Year 2015 competition. Unfortunately, the BBC have not given permission for that email and attachments to be shared publicly so a blog post citing their exact words cannot be written. But the questions remain: Who gets to say what gospel music is and is not? Who gets to say whether Black identity can be heard in a given piece of music or not? These are not easy questions, but they are the kinds of questions that have (finally and against my will for many years) drawn me into philosophical aesthetics and bona fide phenomenology whilst keeping a very close eye on musicology whilst putting my ethnomusicology hat firmly back on. However, the very ethnically-culturally non-diverse BBC decision-makers who were producing Songs of Praise at that time obviously felt that they knew more about this subject than an acknowledged expert practitioner – something that happens time and time again here in the UK.

[8] It is truly wonderful to be finally working on a substantive gospel music project using the thought of Girard as a hermeneutic lens. All of the Girardian interpreters are excellent explicators of Girard’s understanding of mimesis, so I will pick one book to share from the first Girardian who took me seriously: Michael Kirwan (see the bibliography). Primary texts are also important: Girard’s I See Satan Fall Like Lightning is widely acknowledged as an excellent introduction to this corpus, and the explication of the tenth commandment the constitutes the first chapter is what I was thinking of in not only this presentation but in the Q&A as well.

[9] See Lewis, CS. The Great Divorce (1946). Wikipedia entry: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Great_Divorce

[10] There is too much to say about this – not least in the context of an endnote – but for now, suffice it to say that in recent times aestheticians have realised that ‘aesthetic perception’ and ‘aesthetic judgment’ are exponentially more ‘cognitively’ epistemic than has often been supposed. As such, this plane of thought is contributing very significantly indeed to the ongoing slow-burn dissolution of the ‘subjective/objective’ binary formulation. For some reason, several Italian philosophers are all on this shared journey and one of the more accessible explications of the so-called ‘return to Baumgarten’ is Renato Barili’s A Course on Aesthetics (see page 15).

[11] Again, this cannot be reduced to an endnote, but suffice it to say that I am not the first person to suggest that Kierkegaard’s concept of the self should be understood as a contribution to theological anthropology (see Simon Podmore’s book in the bibliography).

[12] There will be a future piece of writing on the subject of how these three concepts make their way through the Kierkegaard corpus of pseudonymous writing and how contemporary gospel music praxis can be read through them. Suffice it to say that although the three of them make a nice soundbyte, there is no single work by Kierkegaard – nor one single piece of secondary literature – that actually helps one to fully get a grip on what Kierkegaard was achieving with this tripartite schema. There are one or two online articles that can be Googled, but none that this author likes enough to be cited herein.

[13] See endnote #10. It is this author’s contention that theological aesthetics has some significant imperialistic issues. But equally, many of the issues of (artistic) quality control in Black Churches are because there is no real concept of ‘art’ nor of the ‘aesthetic’ in our communities. We are governed by feelings and related subjectivities that we believe transcend the linguistic but which frequently deceive us – not least into mental distress that is often clinical.

[14] Alhough it is (still) unfortunately badly formatted, see https://www.musichealthandwellbeing.co.uk/publications/music-language-and-mental-health-music-as-epistemic-necessity

[15] For more detailed thinking on music and hope – not least given 1 Peter 3:15 – see https://rethinkingmentalhealth.com/2020/03/24/music-in-recovery-music-as-recovery-spirituality-agency-and-hope/

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Barilli, Renato. A Course on Aesthetics. University of Minnesota Press, 1993.

Boopalan, John. ‘Resisting Colonial Logic in Christian Thinking’. Political Theology Network, 11 May 2020, https://politicaltheology.com/resisting-colonial-logic-in-christian-thinking/.

Davis, Clive. Prom 6: Gospel Prom at the Albert Hall. http://www.thetimes.co.uk, https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/prom-6-gospel-prom-at-the-albert-hall-d0sfpd8lp. Accessed 12 July 2020.

Douglas, Alexander. ‘Music, Language and Mental Health: Music as Epistemic Necessity’. Journal for Music, Health and Wellbeing, vol. Music, Health and Wellbeing in Context, no. 6, Spring 2019, https://www.musichealthandwellbeing.co.uk/publications/music-language-and-mental-health-music-as-epistemic-necessity.

Ford, Liz. ‘Robert Beckford: A Voice in the Crowd’. The Guardian, 17 May 2005. http://www.theguardian.com, https://www.theguardian.com/education/2005/may/17/highereducationprofile.academicexperts.

Girard, René. I See Satan Fall like Lightning. Orbis Books ; Novalis ; Gracewing, 2001.

Gospel Rings out around the Royal Albert Hall. https://bachtrack.com/review-prom-6-gospel-prom-london-july-2016. Accessed 12 July 2020.

Kirwan, Michael. Discovering Girard. Darton Longman & Todd, 2011.

Lewis, C. S. The Great Divorce: A Dream. 1946. HarperCollins, 1994.

Marquis, Don. Archy and Mehitabel. 1927. Repr, Faber and Faber, 1982.

Podmore, Simon D. Kierkegaard and the Self before God: Anatomy of the Abyss. Indiana University Press, 2011.

Rawson, Hugh, and Margaret Miner, editors. The Oxford Dictionary of American Quotations. 2nd ed., Oxford University Press, 2006. DOI.org (Crossref), doi:10.1093/acref/9780195168235.001.0001.

‘The Intellectual Fraud of Robin DiAngelo’s “White Fragility”’. The Logical Liberal, 13 June 2020, https://thelogicalliberal.com/2020/06/13/white-fragility/.

theomusicologist [Alexander Douglas]. ‘Music in Recovery / Music as Recovery: Spirituality, Agency and Hope’. Rethinking Mental Health, 24 Mar. 2020, https://rethinkingmentalhealth.com/2020/03/24/music-in-recovery-music-as-recovery-spirituality-agency-and-hope/.

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