By Justin Gray
Repetitive refrains, complicated musical arrangements, and exuberant rhythmic displays of praise are probably a few of the general comments made about music of the African American church experience. Growing up in the “black church” tradition myself, I know these expressions to be commonplace. Actually, you were a bit weird if this wasn’t your musical preference.
Now as part of a multi-ethnic, multi-generational church movement, I’ve often wrestled with reconciling my cultural church upbringing with a more diverse worship experience. In this blog, I hope to shed some light on a few key ingredients found in the music of the “black church” tradition—a tradition rich with musical and cultural significance.
Call and Response.
Traditionally, singing has been a community activity and typically not for spectacle. For generations, music has served as a sort of oral tradition of God’s works among his people. Therefore, these songs have become staples in the Christian liturgy in order to remember and celebrate God’s divine intervention in the personal and collective narrative of the community. This is especially true in the African American experience as many slaves were English illiterate and generally denied a formal education.
Adapted and Adopted.
In The Heritage of African American Songs: An Interview with James Abbington, Dr. Abbington comments:
"It’s important to note that many hymns that found their way into African American churches were not written by African Americans. Try to convince an African American that Fanny Crosby, who wrote ‘Pass Me Not, O Gentle Savior’ or ‘Blessed Assurance’ or ‘Jesus, Keep Me Near the Cross,’ is not Black. Those hymns were adopted because they related to the experience of African Americans.”
Black congregational music embodies the struggle of living in a fallen world with a sense of hope, diligent perseverance, and eager expectation. These types of songs give assent to the African American experience even if the composers are not African American themselves.
Liberation theology encompasses the biblical emphasis of God’s people being freed from demeaning and oppressive political, social, and economic systems. This theological perspective was central to shaping spirituals and hymns in the African American community. During the Civil Rights movement, these songs catalyzed people to hold to faith while resisting unbiblical ideologies and intense persecution. The messages of these songs harken to ancient Israel’s struggle to escape the tyranny of opposing nations while holding to God’s promise to give them rest from their nomadic sojourning and the reward of covenant faithfulness.
Disclaimer: Though liberation theology has had some positive influences on the relationship between church and culture, it is not without it’s weaknesses. When socio-political activism takes equal footing with the gospel message, the results are counterproductive and even doctrinally disastrous. God’s redemption is for everyone—the poor and the rich, the oppressed and the oppressor, the loathsome and the self-righteous. Man’s primary issue is sin, not social status.
Minor Chords, Extended Chords, and Chromaticism.
Classical pianist and theologian Jeremy Begbie comments regarding minor chords and tension in the use of musical storytelling:
“The ‘waiting’ [unresolved melody] need not be empty or void . . . you are enriched in the ‘waiting’ . . . hope lives in the midst of delay. There is a kind of ‘waiting’ in the midst of delay where we learn something new of incalculable value that can be learned in no other way.”
Music in the African American church tradition has been largely shaped by this idea of delayed gratification. The deep longing for spiritual and social resolution can be felt in the musical motifs of jazz, blues, and black gospel music. These emotions are often expressed in chord progressions which draw in the listener and create deep tension that begs to be resolved.
For more, check out this video from pianist Damien Sneed: https://youtu.be/YHItWFbU7-A
All of the human experience is deeply infused with this idea of rhythm. Whether listening to the human heartbeat, the pattering of rain against the forest leaves, or the melodic cadence of birds chirping—all of creation is filled with rhythmic expression.
African culture, like many others, has tried to capture this rhythmic expression with gestures (vocalizing, clapping, stomping) and crafting of percussive instruments (drums, shakers, plucked sounds). Long before drummers were prevalent in churches, people moved their bodies in dance and made percussive sounds to convey the message and emotion of songs they sang.
The African American story is one rich with both tragedy and triumph—a common plot throughout all human history. Music provides a means for us all to creatively channel our histories in ways that resonate across a broad spectrum of life experience. My life has been forever impacted by the musical influence of the black church tradition. But I’m also reminded that the rhapsody of heaven is a complicated piece only God himself can orchestrate—a chorus of heavenly hosts and the culture-shaped sounds of every nation.
About the Author
Justin is the director of Every Nation Music and has a wealth of experience in the music industry as well as in the local church. His experience includes writing and producing with artists such as Citipointe Live, 3WB (The Winans), Out of Eden, and Mary Mary.