The Washington Post

The future of the Black church will include its soulful, rich musical heritage

The rallying cries of the Black experience are woven into gospel sound

- BY JUDITH CHRISTIE MCALLISTER This is part of a series from The Washington Post exploring “The Future of the Black Church.” Judith Christie Mcallister, who lives in Los Angeles, serves as the executive director of music, worship and liturgy at West Angele

From spirituals to hymnody and traditiona­l Black gospel to the contempora­ry, the music of the Black church has always heralded the messages of its people, and its seasons of struggles and triumphs.

It would be unwise and unfair to lump all Black church music together. The styles, idioms and approaches to the music within the Black church reflect the diverse hues of those who worship there.

However, we all hold at least one thing in common: We do it from our souls.

As our society has shifted, many outside the Black church no longer consider music the primary point for interactio­n and discussion of important issues.

But it can still serve as an important rallying cry for many in the Black community, especially for those who look at our roots.

The recent release of “Respect,” a film chroniclin­g the life of the late, famed musician Aretha Franklin, gave us a brief view into the impact that gospel music had on the Black church, especially during the days of the civil rights movement. Franklin’s songs pointed to the hope of a better day. (This, especially as she assisted the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in lending her voice to set the stage for the words that would emanate from his lips.)

Although Franklin previously donned the title of the undisputed “Queen of Soul,” it was not until her return to the church (to record her first gospel album — “Amazing Grace”) that her career was catapulted into another stratosphe­re. “Amazing Grace” was the best-selling record of her career, as well as the highest-selling live gospel music album of all time. It is no wonder that this was her crowning achievemen­t; the environmen­t of gospel music was the bedrock of her foundation.

Growing up in Harlem as preachers’ kids in the early 1960s, my siblings and I gained a natural affinity toward gospel music. The music of the church was literally all around us. We lived in the parsonage directly above the church — where there was some sort of gathering each night — and as very young children my siblings and I would often play “church,” imagining what it would be like to be downstairs in the sanctuary among those who were making the “joyful noise.”

My father, who was of Jamaican descent, had a special love for classical music and wanted to be the next Luciano Pavarotti, the Italian operatic tenor. During his vocal lessons, we enjoyed play time in a separate room of the teacher’s house, where we would make the same gestures and movements my father would make.

My father would sing classical music, such as Handel’s “Every Valley Shall be Exalted,” and I knew, even as a child, that although the music he was singing was not traditiona­l gospel music, he still sang from his soul.

For the past 12 years, I have served as president of the Internatio­nal Music Department of the Church of God in Christ Inc., one of the largest Pentecosta­l denominati­ons in the world. with 6 million members worldwide. I have had the opportunit­y to observe firsthand the importance of teaching and training the integrity of the message of gospel music.

Since its inception, the articulati­on and delivery of gospel music has allowed for varied expression­s of the Black experience. Because the church was the rallying point for many of the historic social justice groups, many were also tethered to the movement’s message through song. We see examples of this in mainstream

Black music, which addresses social issues such as police brutality, homelessne­ss and drug addiction.

We’re also now seeing some churches experiment­ing with new trends, including dark rooms, smoke machines and theatrical flashing lights during the congregati­onal singing and praise and worship segments of service. This became very popular in early 2020, when in-person services were canceled because of the initial outbreak of the coronaviru­s.

Now that there has been a gradual return to in-person services, what was once used to bring “flair” to the worship online has now become the norm in brick-and-mortar places of worship.

Some — particular­ly those of the baby-boomer generation — shun and tend to withdraw from the thought of being in the dark to sing to a God who is “light.” For them, it resembles a club atmosphere, more conducive to partying than worship. Others embrace the changing of the guard and the new shiny vehicle being utilized to carry the message.

Although this new approach has been introduced in many instances as a means to attract a more youthful constituen­cy to the church — or to keep up with what churches of other cultures have set in place — for the most part the message in the music has remained the same.

Music is a very powerful tool. It has the ability to incite, disarm, comfort and encourage. It can cause one to be lifted from their present state to a new dispositio­n, to go from despair to euphoria. The infusion of that thing called “soul” and the freedom of the “Spirit” give the Black church the power needed to transform lives and point people toward heaven.

Trends will come and go, but one thing must remain: the message in the music of the Black church. We must insist on the fundamenta­ls that have been carried from generation to generation: giving glory to God, being proud of our heritage, offering strength and hope, heralding the message of the gospel of Jesus Christ and singing from our souls.

Music is a very powerful tool. It has the ability to incite, disarm, comfort and encourage. It can cause one to be lifted from their present state to a new dispositio­n, to go from despair to euphoria.

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