A Time To Dance
Kim Burrell & The Art of Praise
I'm sure the bishop cleared his throat.
Kim Burrell's 8-piece band was wailing through a
hyperkenetic rendering of Anything, a
dissertation on George Clintonian funk from her
2001 Kim Burrell Live, when, suddenly,
Burrell's musical director, seemingly possessed,
drooped his head into a zombified, stilted
convulsion evolving into a slow pivot and then
into a stylized rendition of the ubiquitous
dance club perennial Cabbage Patch (difficult to
describe if you don't know what this dance is,
but let's just say it's about the only dance
Eddie Murphy can do). This young man, adorned in
jeans, silk shirt open to reveal a platinum neck
chain, and matching satin wave cap (“durag”),
split his time between bashing out big band horn
samples, directing the two drummers,
percussionist, guitarist, bassist, organist and
another keys man, along with five vocalists,
and... dancing. Shaking his marginal rump in
full-tilt defiance of both decorum and accepted
COGIC norms as the band modulated through this
full-throttle kaleidoscopic assault of Prince
licks (all over the place) and hyper grooves
melding into clever reversals and triads and
thrilling-beyond-description breathless coaster
loops of thick, beefsteak funk sliced up with
Ella jazz improvisation and Mahalia country
preacher Hammond B3 pads. It was a mess.
It was an absolute train wreck of musical styles that only someone as twisted as George Clinton or The Purple Enigma himself could have/should have been capable of birthing. But there was Kim Burrell, a young thirtysomething church gal who probably should have been into the more ladylike Yolanda Adams or Cece Winans, stalking the stage in full command of the chaos. These were her songs. These were her arrangements. The Durag Guy shaking his moneymaker there in the pulpit of Temple of Deliverance— the seat of power of the 105 year-old arch conservative Church of God In Christ— was her music guy. Stanley Kirk Burrell, better known as MC Hammer, was her cousin. The surgical precision Burrell brought to bear as she effortlessly scatted through twisting minor chord slaloms at 90 -plus miles per hour left the listener with absolutely no doubt that nothing, not one single note, was played or sang on that stage without Burrell's explicit consent. That would include, I imagine, Durag Guy's improvisational boogie.
I scanned the video best I could, but did not see the church's pastor, COGIC's presiding Bishop Gilbert E. Patterson. But, I have to believe, wherever he was, he was clearing his throat. I'm not sure just what lie someone told Patterson, or whose cousin paved the way for this circus, but I can assure you this unbridled enthusiasm was wholly inconsistent with COGIC doctrine. But, I digress: back to the young man shaking his cakes: there was a lot of that going on, Burrell perhaps finally having had enough of the hypocrisy of the black church's traditional disdain for dancing.
Living The Now Life? Burrell, in obvious Dreamgirls satire, from her 2010 website, BackstageWithKimBurrell, now discontinued. The site promised acting roles, a reality series, an international tour, endorsement deals, and her first secular album.
Footloose: Thou Shalt Not Dance
The doctrine behind the ban on dancing was always questionable
to begin with. There were people dancing all through the bible,
the entire tome being a veritable Boogie Wonderland of folks
turning cartwheels from Genesis to Revelation. A doctrine that
characterizes dancing as somehow evil or of Satan is not only
preposterous, it's not biblically sound. It is, in fact, a lie,
one of a great many lies the black church in specific have
carried around like luggage since the plantation. Dancing was an
essential part of Jewish life in Bible times. According to
Ecclesiastes 3:4, there is “...a time to mourn, and a time to
dance.” Dances were performed on both sacred and secular
occasions. King David danced before the Ark of The Covenant as
it was brought into Jerusalem (2 Samuel 6:14, 16; I Chronicles
15:29). David exhorted others to praise God with music and
dancing in Psalms 149:3 and 150:4. Now, do we want a bump and
grind in Bishop Patterson's pulpit? I certainly hope not, so I
suppose I was of two minds about the whole deal: had this been a
commercial theater, I probably wouldn't have cared. But, this
being a sanctuary, sure, let's dance, but maybe something a
little less... butt involved.
But, yeah, by all means, lets dance. If we had any business sense or any courage, we'd open up Christian Dance Clubs. See, my best guess about The No Dance Thing is it was meant to keep good Christian girls out of dance clubs, where they'd be easy prey for sophisticated con artists looking to score. Moreover, salacious dancing, the simulated sex pelvic grinding and/or thrusting, likely does not edify God either, and certainly sets our thoughts towards them drawers (which were on prominent display in the jitterbug dance halls of the war years). Dance halls were full of booze and reefer and the music certainly didn't glorify God. Thus, for any or all of those reasons, absolutely, I can embrace the horror of the black church's traditional ban on dancing. Only, it wasn't dance in and of itself our great church mothers and fathers were concerned about; what they intended to ban was the atmosphere of sin in which dancing typically took place.
However, the notion of the church policing social behavior is a ridiculous and antiquated one. If a Christian does not truly know Christ, he or she has greater worries than Burrell's shakemeister. Keeping Christians in pens, in small cells of mind-controlled social stasis, is the laziest expression of ministry. Ministry is about meeting the physical, emotional and spiritual needs of people. Ministry is about connecting people to God— not policing behavior or art or thought. Of course, doing the mind control thing is perhaps easier than doing our real jobs. Helping someone get to know God in a real way is much harder than getting them a haircut and dictating patterns of behavior.
To that end, we've taken things to the extreme of demonizing dance itself. While a growing number of black churches are beginning (beginning! In 2002!!!) to allow liturgical dance in the sanctuary, there are typically ridiculous and arbitrary limits imposed on just how the human body may bend or sway during such recitals. Practitioners must be careful not to be too funky or too graceful, and more often than not what we end up with are wooden, clumsy attempts at ballet or bad mime.
Beyond that, the only widely acceptable form of dancing in the black church is the Chicken George “Shout,” a theoretically spontaneous dance form wherein the Holy Spirit allegedly takes control of the worshipper (usually, after the worshipper has conveniently secured her big hat and purse) and keeps said worshipper dancing in time with the music and in widely accepted patterns of acceptable movement, usually involving a flapping of the arms and a kind of Reverse Moonwalk toe-step-toe. Now, I doubt King David danced this way. I have no evidence from Jewish history of any Jew dancing this way, whether possessed of the Holy Spirit or not. The Old Testament employs eleven terms to describe the act of dance. The basic Hebrew term that translates “dance” means “to twist” or “to whirl about in circular motions.” Thus the widely-held belief, in our 2002-né-1965 black church experience, that the only acceptable dance is the “Holy Dance,” for which there are no classes and no recitals, is ludicrous and achingly stupid.
But, as I've said, for us in the black church, it is 1965. It has always been 1965, except when it actually was 1965. Then, it was 1945, and Aretha Franklin's too-hip-for-the-room Amazing Grace was almost a scandalous recording: a “worldly” artist (whose albums most if not all church women bought anyway) “returning to the church,” insinuating Franklin's secular career somehow barred heaven's gates to her. Today, our grand standard of musicality remains Clara Ward, Franklin, James Cleveland and Mahalia Jackson. In thousands of churches across America, organists and bassists are pumping out 1940's blues runs (think Mama's Little Baby Loves Shortnin'-Shortnin'), which, at this very hour, is the melodic bellwether for music within the black church. In fact, without the classic sound of the rotary speaker and antiquated drawbar registry of the genuine Hammond B3 organ, many black folk don't even think they're in church. It's very Pavlovian, the communal chattering of arriving parishioners ultimately dimmed by the encroaching strains of lofty funereal chords, calling the assembly to worship. This is where we are. This is Who We Are. This is where we want to be and where we want to stay.
So, imagine my shock at these kids swinging their way through an hour and a half of music so hard-driving, so, dare I say masculine, that it seemed beyond the powers of some nice church lady like Burrell. But Burrell is, of course, a woman of incredible power and incredible anointing and a vision too unique and too broad to be bottled up by the Deaconess Board, whose apparent function is to have meetings about, I dunno, having other meetings. Burrell speaks loudly and swings a big stick and shakes her, ah, womanly blessings, losing herself in the turmoil that somehow resolves itself into a coherent message of forgiveness and reconciliation. Burrell's defiant contralto barks, “I don't care 'bout no recording. I don't care 'bout no video. I just want God to have His way.” And she means it. From the first note of her first song on her first solo album, the dazzling masterpiece Everlasting Life, it is evident Burrell is the genuine article.
Her music is not the watered down appeasement of Bebe Winans. I mean, who is he singing to? Winans deliberately styles his music to be far too ambiguous for me to take any comfort in it: one minute I think he's singing this cool Luther riff to a girl, and then he snaps into something about God, and I'm jolted out of my nice, not knowing what mood I'm supposed to be in. I'm not sure about Winans' purpose, as his thinking may be to get non-believers across the threshold, but it smells like sell-out, when it probably isn't or shouldn't be. Still, I find scant worship value in Winans' wildly popular Kenny G Gospel Lite, with its vague and fuzzy references to love and peace and so forth. I'm a guy who needs to know where you stand, whether you're Shirley Caesar or Marilyn Manson.
Burrell has no such ambiguity. [Editor's Note: in 2011 Burrell released the uneven and fairly lifeless Love Album, which does precisely the same thing, confuses the listener as to who or Whom she is cooing to.] This woman is a vessel of God's peace. Paradoxically, she has this guy wiggling behind her, and at some point or another, the entire band is dancing. Not that half-hearted, stilted, crippled lurching us respectable Church Folk do, as if we held invisible sand bags and were shackled by invisible leg irons— but dancing. These people are giving it up. And, y'know what? It's glorious, and far less hypocritical than the half-lurch-step of Kirk “The Sneer” Franklin, or the sudsy ambiguity of Bebe. My first thought, of course, was that this woman would not be welcome in any black church here in town. This town, like so many other towns, is beset by a great paradox: huge, successful, progressive white churches; churches with orchestras, jazz bands, cappuccino machines in the lobby, 64-channel mixing consoles. One church has a kind of night club room, specifically designed for bands like Burrell's.
And then there's us: cramped into aging storefronts with leaking roofs and moldy basements because we simply refuse to work or worship together, refuse to sacrifice like white folks do to build anything, mainly out of legitimate concern the pastor or church elders will mismanage the funds. The problem has never been that white churches are somehow better than black churches. The problem is white churches average a higher per capita income because, in America, white people average a higher per capita income. White Christians are, more often than not, giving from their excess while black Christians are, more often than not, giving out of their need. We also prioritize the wrong things, insisting on expensive, antiquated wooden pews and blood-red carpet and paying our pastors way out of proportion to what the church takes in. It's not that white churches are better, it's that black churches take in less money and do stupid things with it.
Lord, You've Been Good To Me: Burrell's amazing 100-pound weight loss.
The Secret Super Bowl
As I write this, the St. Louis Rams are getting pasted by the
New England Patriots ten minutes into the third quarter of Super
Bowl XXXVI at the Superdome. The Patriots hold a 14-3 lead after
a first-half TD catch from David Patten and an interception
return for a TD from Ty Law. I just called one of the larger
white churches here in town to see if they were still having
their 6PM Praise & Worship Service, which I periodically attend.
A friendly voice on the other end said, “No, we're not having a
worship service tonight— we're having a Super Bowl party! C'mon
This modern, large church way up the hill, knowing better than to try and compete with the Super Bowl, wisely took advantage of this seasonal event— bigger and, sadly, more sacrosanct than even Christmas— to promote fellowship among the parishioners. This church has dual diamondtron-style monitors on either side of the sanctuary. Tonight those monitors are showing the game and the sanctuary is packed with believers and their families and pizza and soft drinks.
Our church is closed. Our church body splintered off to its respective cliques and cells, hushed invitations abound to secret parties and so forth.
So, why, you may ask, do I bother with black churches if all I ever do is post these repetitive, whiny complaints about them? It's because we, all of us, need some sense of community. Some common circle of acquaintance; a place where we belong. Can I find that at a Korean church? At a white church? Sure. But my hope and my prayer is to make enough noise about the stupid stuff that maybe, just maybe, we'll begin to inch our way toward, say, 1970. And then, who knows? Maybe we make it all the way to, say, 1984. Now that was a fun year. Michael Jackson's Thriller was topping the charts, the country was in post-Nixon rebound with the fabulous king of TelePrompters Ronald Reagan, and George W. Bush was not much more than a footnote.
My larger goal, however, is to help us all get rid of the god Religion and find the god God, something that can only happen when we awake from the brainwashing and start to think for ourselves. Am I John The Baptist or David Koresh? Neither. I'm just a guy who's had enough. A guy who wants to live in the present day, and desperately wants his Christian community to live there with him.
I've got Kim Burrell's video playing. Man, that guy can dance.