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  • Matthew Williams

Black Gospel and the Devil's Music

It is well-known that black gospel music shares historical roots with pop music such as R & B, Jazz, Blues, Rock n Roll, etc. Yet among the black Christian community (across the Diaspora or 'black Atlantic' to use Paul Gilroy’s term), the phenomenon of musicians and singers crossing over from playing in the church to playing outside the church has a long and controversial history. This week I watched a YouTube interview where the artist compelled the drummer for a Grammy award-winning American gospel singer to leave the band because he had done some work for an equally successful R & B singer.

Stylistically gospel has always been a mix of sacred and secular. Back in the 1930s, Thomas Dorsey, the founding father of gospel music, received heavy backlash for his new style of gospel music he said: "Gospel music was new, and most people didn't understand. Some of the preachers used to call gospel music 'sin' music. They related it to what they called worldly things—like jazz and blues and show business. Gospel music was different from approved hymns and spirituals. It had a beat."

Dorsey was open about his background in secular music:

“This rhythm I had, I brought with me to gospel songs. I was a blues singer…. I like the solid beat. I like the moaning, groaning tone. You know how they rock and shout in the church? I like it... Black music calls for movement! It calls for feeling.”

The same is true of, the mother of gospel singing Mahalia Jackson. She was well known for not singing secular music. Yet she, too, was deeply influenced by the Blues. She said of Bessie Smith:

"I remember when I used to listen to Bessie Smith sing 'I Hate to See That Evening Sun Go Down,' I'd fix my mouth and try to make tones come out just like hers."

So what is it that has caused such consternation among the religious community? Could it be the sharp, learned divide between sacred and secular? Even though black Gospel is a mix of sacred and secular styles, there have historically been issues with performing music that doesn't explicitly mention God.

But what is meant by the term secular?

More in the next post...

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