This month is Black Music Month among other designations. As I write, today is World Refugee Day, named so by the United Nations. I am fortunate enough to have been raised in an environment where every day was a celebration of Black music and Black sacred music especially held a prominent place in community. Black sacred music is an art form and worship expression born as a prophetic critique of the oppressive Christianity of the North American slavocracy. It is the musical counter-hegemonic process by which Black people redefined biblical events and their present realities, envisioning and revising their existence in terms of radical freedom. Perhaps more than ever Black sacred music should be lifted in the mainstream of our theological conversations and liturgical experiences as The Church wrestles with ways to speak truth to power and be prophetic witness in the face of global Fascism. If the intention of the liturgy is to manifest the presence of God in an assembly, a merciful presence is not just meant for the particular assembly but for the world (Lathrup 1998).
Black sacred music exists because there is no strict line of demarcation between existential weariness of a disenfranchised people and the sacred disciplines of prayer, worship, and service to humanity (III 2015). The sensibilities of the Spirituals (the first form of Black sacred music) should be considered to constitute the normative elements of Black sacred music. These sensibilities include the prophetic functions of naming the oppressive reality and exhorting resistance to it, as well as an eschatological expectation of justice in this world (Hendricks 2011). Unfortunately, much of what is produced by Black people in our present market driven and consumer reality neglects as its focus on these basic foundations of Black sacred music. The present genre has been over taken by the evangelical narrative that sees the end goal of liturgical music as either retelling and glorifying the story of the cross, compelling listeners to affirm faith in Jesus and therefore be saved from hell, or singing about how splendid God is. The music of the Black church more than ever bears the influence of the theology of dominate culture. The prosperity gospel most identified with the Word of Faith movement and its leaders like Kenneth Hagin and Kenneth Copeland has taken over (Heilbut 2012). A real conversation must be convoked to reexamine the production and purpose of Black sacred music in our current sociopolitical climate.
At its worst this new breed of Black sacred music is all motivated by the ultimate goal of record sales and profit margins. The thin writing seems to have abandoned the normative elements of Black sacred music which posture the gospel of Jesus not as a rational concept to be explained in a theory of salvation, rather as a story about God’s presence in Jesus’ solidarity with the oppressed, which led to a government sanctioned execution on a cross (Cone 2011). Authentic Black sacred music expresses collective acknowledgement of oppression, prophetic critique of the race-based system and sensibilities that produce and perpetuate that oppression, exhortation to resist the political, social, and political importunities of that systematic oppression, while simultaneously offering comfort and empathy in its midst. The problem with the commodification of modern Black sacred music is not that it is profitable, rather that it is profit driven and this is most unprofitable to the Church because it lacks integrity and rich prophetic tradition (Hendricks 2011).
As the United States has a long history of tearing apart families of those on the underside of power and dismissing the humanity of both parent and child, perhaps we can return to making authentic Black sacred music? Perhaps churches of the dominate culture can look to the lyrics and musicality of said music to guide them toward dialogue of resistance and actions of repentance? Careful not to be guilty of cultural appropriation by short sighted performance of music not authentic to their own experience, these churches may find in the tradition of Black sacred music the courage to be honest about their role in oppression of all minoritized communities. As we wrestle through the realities of our present immigration conversations and the unethical treatment of humans based in xenophobia and unholy nationalism, authentic Black sacred music provides for us the narrative of a people who refused to allow religion to be hijacked by hate, and dared to find a path to forward toward full humanity in the face of the worse abandonment of humanity on the part of those with privilege and power.
Peace Is Possible,
Rt. Rev. Edward Donalson III, DMin | Director of Liturgy and Worship | Assistant Clinical Professor
SCHOOL OF THEOLOGY AND MINISTRY | SEATTLE UNIVERSITY
Cone, James H. 2011. The Cross and The Lynching Tree. MaryKnoll: Orbis.
Heilbut, Anthony. 2012. The Fan WHo Knew Too Much. New York: Alfred A Knopf.
Hendricks, Obery. 2011. The Universe Bends Toward Justice . Maryknoll: Orbis Books.
III, Otis Moss. 2015. Blue Note Preaching in a Post- Soul World. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press.
Lathrup, Gordon W. 1998. Holy Things: A Liturgical Theology. Minneapolis: Fortress Press.