God & Music
The Gospel Music Industry vs. The Gospel
Gospel music, quite frankly, is pretty lame.
It has a rich history as an art form, but in terms of the art
itself, it is largely toothless. It expends nearly all of its
energy in praise and worship, which is the highest-selling form
of Gospel music, while paying virtually no attention to the
world around us. And, when it does, it usually gets things
sadly, embarrassingly wrong, as Hezekiah Walker’s ill-informed
"We Made It" from his Family Affair 2: Live At Radio City
Music Hall aptly demonstrated. From my review:
"We Made It" opens the album with big band razzle-dazzle and a song so incredibly wrong-headed in both its purpose and execution that it undermined my confidence in Walker's credentials as pastor or spiritual leader, and made me suspicious of every song that followed it. "We Made It" clearly aims to take advantage of the 9|11 hysteria (take advantage of as opposed to minister to), as a kind of poorly-thought out nyah-nyah bird flip to Osama bin Laden. The very idea of singing a song to bin Laden offends me, and rejoicing because I'm a Survivor! is wholly inconsistent with Christian doctrine. On the former point (and, yes, I will get slammed for saying this, but it's true anyhow): bin Laden [and, by implication, the radical Muslim world] is not at war with the black church in America, or even black people in America. In only the broadest terms of bin Laden's hatred for American policy and intervention in the Middle East do we find ourselves engaged in any kind of struggle with bin Laden. Black America has, in large measure, been excluded from all of the rah-rah flag-waving jingoism elicited by 9|11, and while , I suppose, I could applaud Walker's intent, here, this is a blunder of epic proportions, revealing a Hezekiah Walker who, as a political analyst, is a great singer.
On the latter point, the bible teaches us we are not merely survivors, but we are more than conquerors (Romans 8:37) through our faith in Jesus Christ. To be demoted to merely a survivor, and to celebrate the fact that bin Laden apparently missed us and nyah-nyah about that, saddens me as it reveals a level of political and scriptural ignorance that encourages the kind of head-in-sand apolitical stance the black church perpetuates to this day. Hezekiah Walker has absolutely no idea what he's talking about here, in either political or scriptural terms, and, for me, this set the overall tone of this latest offering: I was listening to music created by a man who understands neither politics nor scripture.
But, to his credit, at least he tried. Almost no other currently charting Gospel artists talk about anything at all but God, praising God, lifting God higher, how great God is, wait on God, Jesus, Jesus, Jesus, Jesus, Jesus. The power, however, in the Gospel is not us celebrating it but our implementing it: putting it to work in our lives and making the world around us a better place. We like to call non-Christian art forms “secular,” when, in fact, it is we who are secluded and withdrawn and out of touch with the world around us.
Missing The Point: Hez gets it wrong, both the politics and the Gospel.
Wade In The Water
I am a CNN junkie. If I’m home, the news is on. I have a
voracious need to know, understand and process what is going on
in the world. Conversely, I have Christian friends who are glued
to The Word Network all day. And I can’t, for my life, imagine
how they do it. One screaming nutball after another, lathering
and sweating and trying to sell us stuff. Everybody’s got a
“ministry.” Everybody’s a “bishop.” But most of my friends who
ingest this stuff non-stop couldn’t begin to tell me who the
secretary of Housing and Urban Development is (Alphonso Jackson,
a Bush nominee), or what the budget deficit is ($352.6 billion
dollars for the first 11 months of the current fiscal year, but
that's bound to balloon exponentially in the wake of Katrina) or
the national unemployment rates among African Americans (10.6%,
during first quarter 2005, while the overall rate—5.3%—was half
that level). The average church folk couldn't answer any part of that, but we do know when
Kirk Franklin's CD is coming out.
Of course, music cannot and should not be the constant bellwether of social conscious. But it should, I don’t know, matter more. It shouldn’t, needn’t, be so disconnected from reality--a panacea. Accepting Christ shouldn;t make you ignorant. Jill Scott's music delves into who we are as people, as a society. By hanging a curtain between “Gospel” music and “secular” music, you create and enforce a division between man and God that should not exist in the first place. I wish there was a currently charting black Gospel artist brave enough to put a love song—an unadulterated song about human love won or lost—on the same album as praise and worship music. I wish we didn’t have to send our young people to Usher and Beyonce and 50 Cent in order for them to hear lyrics that have meaning and that speak to their lives.
Sadly, every time Gospel artists attempt to move toward the center, they end up watering the Gospel parts down. BeBe Winans has made a career out of writing songs that can be interpreted both as Christian and secular. I personally find it unnerving to not know if he’s professing love for a woman or for God, and I wish he’d find the courage to admit what every black Christian in America knows all along: black Christians do not listen exclusively to Gospel music. Since they’re listening to “secular” music anyway, why enforce the division? The recording industry, of course, loves divisions and frowns on artists who tend to defy easy classification. This is all about what rack to put the CD into in the store. But it is counterintuitive to art to say, “Only record THESE kinds of songs because you are THIS kind of artist.”
Art should be art. Nobody asked if Michelangelo was a Christian, and his testimony is not included in volumes written about the Sistine Chapel or the Mona Lisa. Those works are preserved and valued for their artistic merit and contribution to culture. We, as music lovers, as Christians, need to grow beyond these arbitrary classifications and stop demonizing Christian acts like Debby Boone or Taralyn Ramsey who made their major statement in Christian music but decided to release “secular” albums. It is childish to penalize such acts while applauding people like R. Kelly—who continues to release profanity-ridden sexist trash in spite of the fact God spared him from a much-deserved prison sentence—simply for his occasional dalliances with Gospel music.
There Is No Truth In This: Where is Jesus in this?
It's Just Bad
And that’s my basic issue with Gospel music: so much of it is
simply disingenuous. As art, as music, a good deal of it is just
bad. Bad composition, bad lyrics. Even for escapist fare it’s
pretty lame. I expect so much more from Gospel music. Of all
music, Gospel should, ideally, be the most visceral. The stuff
that catches you right in the heart, that seizes your attention
and emotion. But I want my intellect dealt with as well,
something most pop music—Gospel or otherwise—fails miserably to
Reverend Neil Brown/Associate Editor:
I’d say there’s a lack of innovation, Artists who were innovating at the beginning of their careers drop off as they find success. They’re probably not as hungry and have less to prove. Many are doing projects just to do projects—either because they need the money or they need the attention or the profile.
That’s possibly what makes Verity (Jive)’s WOW series such a great idea. I assume it’s a good deal for the company and for the artists as well. Even if their album tanked, many artists can find new life and new exposure on these annual collections, the only Gospel music I and many others reliably buy. The WOW collections come out, I think, a year or so after most of the material showcased on it. Some artists who bombed on release are discovered a year or more after the fact, the WOW collection being a kind of second-chance release for many artists.
And, then, a lot of church folk simply don’t listen to Gospel music, That’s why they sing the same old songs over and over at church, their church experience growing stale because they bring nothing new to it.
I think the record labels need to raise the standard for the acts they are signing. To much of what I am hearing these days treads over safe and familiar ground. We’ve passed this way before. There’s got to be risk. An artist really has to put him or herself out there, and risk bombing. Risk losing the record contract. Risk alienating the fans.
Anointing is not a guarantee. But anointing is definitely the difference between a superior Gospel album—Aretha Franklin’s Amazing Grace, for example—and an average one—Whitney Houston’s The Preacher’s Wife soundtrack. Having grown up the daughter of one of the most famous Gospel singers alive, Whitney no doubt grew up singing and knowing Gospel music. And many of us, myself included, bought that record. But there’s no anointing on it. It’s got all the right notes, it’s got all the right textures, the right lyrics, a great choir. But it falls flat. It’s Pretend Gospel. Fake Gospel. The kind of music you get when those crafting it have not fully submitted themselves to God.
This is a complex and challenging world. A world of questions without answers. We can certainly lock ourselves in a closet and stick iPods in our ears blasting mindless Ain’t God Great-style music. But that’s not our calling or our duty. When and if Gospel music becomes more than just a way to make a buck off of church folk, when it starts to deal with our social and economic welfare as much as it simply offers God pat praises, I’m sure I’ll get more excited about it and pay more attention to it. But, these days, even the very best—the Karen Clark-Sheards and the J Mosses—are certainly innovating musically (and thank God for that), but their work offers precious little to challenge our social , political or economic condition. Now if they can find a way to speak to my intellect and my social conscious while they’re making me dance and shout—that would really be something.