“God sets the lonely in families, he leads out the prisoners with singing….” — Psalm 68:6a (New International Version)
All music that tells the story of redemption through Jesus Christ is gospel music. Yet in some circles “gospel music” is confined to a niche — a certain style of music, generally music associated with African-Americans.
True, while there are variations of “gospel music” depending on region (usually a modifying region of the United States: Southern gospel, Appalachian gospel — is there such a thing as Asian gospel or Indian gospel?) , for the purposes of this conversation, track with the premise that in many views, the phrase “gospel music” is synonymous with “black gospel music.”
In that sense, components of “gospel music” are symbolized by two easily identifiable images: a choir, and robes. These symbols come from a powerful aesthetic in African-American heritage; yet there are dangers in defining gospel music and African-Americans by these two symbols alone.
One danger is that of co-opting the sound of gospel music for other messages. Think, for instance, how often you have heard “gospel music” in a film, television program or commercial, none of which is associated with the gospel of Christ? Enjoyable as the sound may be, the listener must discern the context.
The other danger is underestimating the impact of various styles of music upon liberating Africans in America. That liberation developed as the robed-choirs connected the music of the times and the regions where they lived with the lyrics from which they were rooted: the Hebrew and New Testament scriptures those that professed good news gospel music of Jesus Christ as He intended — to link man and God.
More than Black’s History
Exploring that link, and telling the story of how gospel music has developed in the United States is the purpose of “Freedom Song,” one of the ensemble plays from the Kingdom Impact Theater Ministries history cycle. The script was created in 2011 as reader’s theater presentation in response to a request for a church’s African-American History Month program. Since then, “Freedom Song” has been presented annually as part of church and corporate commemorations in February. Because of those performances, “Freedom Song” has received subsequent off-season productions – not just during African-American history month.
Its themes extend beyond February, beyond the topic of physical slavery in the U.S., beyond the confines of the American shores. The weaving of Scripture, song history and musical genres create a tale of liberation through Christ from an assortment of enslaving circumstances and behaviors.
Indeed, taking into account the headlines of any given day — perhaps, even, the last hour — it’s natural to conclude that if cries and flights to freedom are universal, then perhaps the key to liberation is beyond the state of any particular union. Or nation. This ageless human cry to escape through a designated liberator became more recognizable as the music listened to over time and in different places became more poignant when heard collectively, especially as the tales of how they were created or utilized were discovered.
Films & Noir
Over 30 songs from America’s colonial slavery to millennial technology bondage are sampled, dramatized and in the program that is staged as an abbreviated one-act or movie-length outreach complete with a post-performance talk-back. In the course of the evening, the audience receives new insight into traditional, beloved gospel music, and is introduced to newer selections that don’t have the gospel music sound, but deliver the gospel of Christ message. Researching the songs that inspired the script provided more insight than performance times allow. Nevertheless, the insights and sounds are too important to NOT share. And so, we compiled most of the songs that inspired the script’s creation into a playlist, assembled on our KIT Ministries YouTube Channel, and have written short essays about each song or song sequence. We will post those essays and the songs on these pages and our social media pages in coming days as our commemoration of how Scriptures have shaped African-America.
For starters, we present the entire playlist here along with a brief introduction to the show. By listening to the playlist, you’ll find unlikely musical connections between Czechoslovakian classical composer Anton Dvorak and American folk icon Paul Robeson; poet James Weldon Johnson and rappers Doughboy the Midwest Maestro and DJ Kool Rod; Peter, Paul & Mary, and Mavis Staples. You’ll also see rare performances by Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Mahalia Jackson and Richie Havens, and provocative movie clips the voice of African-Americans and gospel music in film.
Visit these Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest pages for daily posts on individual songs. Most of the songs will be posted during African-American History Month. However, don’t be surprised if posting continues into the days after Feb. 28. Just as African-American history occurs beyond the end of February, the gospel of Christ cannot be contained to just 28 days.
Please consider adding the entire “Freedom Song” playlist to your YouTube channel.
A History of Gospel Music
For those who wish to learn about the genre of “gospel music,” we recommend, “Make a Joyful Noise! A Brief History of Gospel Music Ministry in America,” available in print or audiobook. The book was written by Kathryn B. Kemp and is narrated by KIT Ministries Founding Director Michael Edgar Myers and award-winning audiobook actor Barbara Ann Martin.
Dr. Kemp gives great detail and colorful anecdotes about how many gospel songs in the U.S. developed through painstaking adaptation and recording from their roots among African Tribes and maintained throughout despite the efforts to disassociate the slaves from those roots on these shores.
Kemp also relates the development of those songs on record, mostly through the efforts of Rev. James Cleveland, founder of the Gospel Music Workshop of America.
MEMos and Musings
Because we were asked to create a new script based in faith and African-American history, we are not touring “Freedom Song” this February. It’s the first time in five years. “Freedom Song” is available after Easter, and our new show, “Strolling Down MLK Street,” has limited availability through the spring and thereafter.
Since both shows evoke questions and conversation, we want to make available not just the music and song stories that we’ve employed, but also other research and commentaries about faith and ethnicity in America. Not just because this is African-American History Month. Just because they’re fascinating and sometimes fun. Like, we hope, the three below: previous faith-race-and-history blogs from Worship Wonderings and a MEMoFromMichaelEdgarMyers that seem to still have relevance as well as an occasional off-kilter perspective about race. Feel free to read, ask questions, share a thought, and enjoy.
Related African-American History Stories