By Anndretta Lyle Wilson, University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA)
As Sterling Stuckey, Samuel Floyd and Guthrie Ramsey have argued about Black musical traditions going back to African ring shout, gospel music exemplifies signifying modes of oral performance in the way it changes, shifts, dances, shouts, boasts, moans, and double talks back, speaking in tongues with multiple meanings concealing its motive in plain sight. Not unlike the titular figure in Henry Louis Gates’ Signifyin’ Monkey, gospel music performance can appear indifferent to comprehension, it can defy judgment, and it answers to various names depending on who is calling. For example, funk and disco DJ’s have spun the music at clubs and on secular radio while internationally distributed films like Sister Act and The Color Purple rely heavily upon the form extending its long history of popular appeal. Gospel music remains unconfined by the manifest meanings it performs at any given instance and sings, “Yes” while it plays along. Inclusive of these aforementioned inter-related styles and mediums I use the term gospel music performance to encapsulate the gestures, movement, speaking and preaching that are in many cases inextricable from gospel music in addition to “gospel song plays” and theatrical productions reliant upon the form.
The frequently marked yet anonymous presence of the COGIC music tradition, and similar Black religious Pentecostal “Holiness” traditions, as they are unnamed and unmentioned correlates with larger issues surrounding Black identity politics. One issue is the American non-Black mainstream tendency to melt all Black identities into singular exoticized or hyper-distinctive images and sounds of African Americans to represent “The” Black identity, and the subsequent commoditization of that selected identity for mainstream consumption of Blackness. In other words, mainstream non-Black America enterprise and media is consistently interested in representing Black Otherness as a “type” in its most extreme form, to highlight its difference from the mainstream, in order to facilitate the consumption of sub-culture for commercial profit.
A second issue is the reactive tendency by some Black groups frustrated by the incomplete and inaccurate identification assigned to them, to employ Racial Uplift movements as a way to distance themselves from the exoticized representations and if possible, silence and render invisible the sub-culture communities responsible for hyper-distinctive sights and sounds. In other words, Black groups trying to emphasize sameness with the mainstream, often with the line of reasoning that sameness will justify political and social equality, are frustrated with the relegation of Black identity to a narrow hyper-distinctive Otherness, and sometimes try to stifle whatever sub/cultural or social differences might get in the way of their Sameness agenda.
The range in Black Christian music is marked by two poles of opposing musical sounds. One is the music that most resembles African folk culture and the other is the music that most resembles Western European classical forms. From the mid Eighteenth Century to the early Twentieth Century there is evidence revealing how Black vocal sound has been repeatedly restricted and controlled through a cyclical mixture of political, religious and social class institutions. The two opposing poles previously mentioned indicate respectively both a failed attempt at muting the “natural” folk sound of Africans in religious music, and a successful attempt at adapting the sound of the ruling class in its place. In 1794 Richard Allen formed the congregation that would become the African Methodist Episcopal (A.M.E.) Church. One hundred years later in 1895 Charles Mason co-founded the congregation that would become the Church of God In Christ. In both cases the identity of the groups were initially defined by embodied sound as much as their socio-political structures. The groups both manifested the same pattern: first separation from a larger main-stream organization, then celebrating a sonic identity, and finally establishing a permanent socio-political identity by the qualifying that sonic identity through the institutional exclusion of specific types of vocal performance.
According to Eileen Southern, the primary distinction of Black churches was the music and style of worship. Richard Allen, the AME founder, took it upon himself to not use the hymnals published by their white counterpart but selected songs that were more fitting to the congregation and in 1801 published the first hymnal compiled by a Negro. This Hymnbook included “wandering” verses that were improvisational in nature and could be added to any hymn. However, forty years later the same denomination would ban the use of Hymns in church services.
One of the early criticisms, and fascinations, of whites in regard to Black churches was the miasmic interpretation of song and prayer. One environment where this became especially evident was the interracial “Camp meeting” which was a larger version of something also called the “Bush Meeting.” In these rural settings where services were held under a tent, there were no hymnbooks; ministers, Baptists and otherwise would use a “lining out” method of congregational singing. This call and response style starts with a song leader and singing a line of the hymn essentially teaching it to the congregation and they repeat or respond. Southern gives several accounts of camp meetings that started with a formal, white service, but continued with a Negro extension.
I have elsewhere argued that certain gospel music performers, namely Pentecostal singers and musicians, are indifferent to the politics of representation as well as notions of modernism. I explore the history of one such group fitting this description, the Church of God In Christ (COGIC), and its somewhat hidden musical legacy, and specifically, COGIC performers who are second-generation California residents and continue the legacy of indifferent performance by incorporating the California experience into their music to create a new gospel form.
Marianne Hirsch acknowledges the acts of transfer that take place within a “familiar space” through the “language of family, the language of the body: nonverbal and noncognitive” communications, and those transfers also take place with Pentecostal expression performed in small churches and church communities. However, Hirsh insists that postmemory is not an “identity” position. Instead she asserts that postmemory is a “structure” that “strives to reactivate and re-embody more distant social/national and archival/cultural memorial structures by reinvesting them with resonant individual and familial forms of mediation and aesthetic expression.” Because postmemory according to Hirsch is a structure rather than an identity position, it is possible that the structure of postmemory can be employed to shift identity based on the roles prescribed in Hirsch’s theory. I would like to examine the second generation of COGIC Pentecostal musicians living in California and how postmemory as a structure was an opportunity to transform representation, and ultimately perceived identity, through the re-embodiment and reinvestment of COGIC music.
In some cases, trauma is not connected to a single catastrophic event bracketed in history by normalcy with date stamps in order to qualify its description as a “traumatic interruption.” With the historical violence against Blacks beginning with the Atlantic slave trade during American colonization when Black slave labor helped to jumpstart a new economy, the continued violence through the institutional dehumanization of African Americans guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution, the trickery of emancipation with unfulfilled promises for reparations, the marginalizing Jim Crow representations of Blacks in performance that co-opted impressions of Black identity along with the subsequent Jim Crow laws and lynch mobs that ensured the mistreatment of African Americans, the government endorsed torture of Blacks both undocumented and well documented in the case of the Tuskegee experiment, and the patriotic genocide of African American soldiers in racist military drafts with “front line every time” deployment practices throughout multiple wars, it would be hard to describe any particular trauma for African Americans as an Interruption. A series of consecutive violent events and overlapping individual and collective traumas to one group of people in one geographic location yielding centuries without a period of collective safety and peace would ironically help to define ‘safety and peace’ as the Interruption, should it ever arrive. For COGIC sons and daughters raised in utopic California and coming of age in the 60’s and 70’s, that Interruption arrived.
Second generation COGIC musicians lived neither the Jim Crow experience of the Southern counterparts, nor the tumultuous and violent conditions of Northern COGIC congregants. California environments, namely Los Angeles and San Francisco, yielded conditions that were out of sync with the harsh realities experienced by the First COGIC Generation in other cities. The rupture for Californian musicians was the inability to relate to religious expression so embedded with the need to perform sanctification as a method of survival and acceptance among whites and educated blacks, as well as the lack of nostalgia for southern religious practices. The sanctified version of the blues was music learned and passed on through embodied acts every Sunday in California churches, but the original urgency birthed in the environment of Jim Crow was not as relevant for the California singers and musicians once the Civil Rights era arrived. The embodied memory of COGIC music threaded with a history of castigation and violence was re-embodied with the addition of new forms and styles. Similar to the way Hirsch describes photos as a medium that was re-invested and layered with a new aesthetic by Second Generation artists, COGIC music was layered with a new aesthetic to reflect the rupture between Second Generation California musicians and their parents’ experiences. The most noted departure was the replacement of bluesy folk-like lyrics with lyrics that presented images of beauty, happiness and heaven (on earth). The new themes were more accessible by non-Pentecostals and even non-Christians, so that COGIC music based on a very particular history and tradition could cross identities to be claimed by “affiliates” without direct connections to the original culture. These artists include Walter and Edwin Hawkins, who as teenagers wrote and recorded the highest selling gospel song in history “Oh Happy Day” in Berkeley, CA, and Andraé Crouch who is the son of Bishop Samuel Crouch.
Andraé Crouch began playing for his father’s church at a young age and his first group was called the COGICS, or the “Church of God In Christ Singers.” That group included legendary organist Billy Preston who was only a teenager at the time, but would go on to write music with the Beatles. Elvis Presley covered Andraé Crouch’s music in 1972, and Crouch produced music for films The Color Purple, and The Lion King, and was highly influential in the Jesus music of 70’s and has seven Grammy’s to his credit.
Gospel song performance often reverses the performer-to-audience power dynamic that positions the performer in the ‘servant’ position. Gospel music puts forth the possibility that even with a sold-out ticketed ‘audience’ of witnesses seeking sonic paid-for pleasure from the gospel song performance, the form is oriented first toward pleasuring an invisible audience and secondly consuming its own sound to re/generate belief. Toward this composition and hierarchy, gospel song performers simultaneously sing and play sonic pleasure with priority toward the invisible, and toward themselves, while ‘facing away’ from audience witnesses with a level of indifference. This indifference is reiterated on a live choir recording CD released in 2000 as a popular song writer/composer explains the arrangement of relations in self-referential song lyrics: “My brothers and my sisters / We’re not standing here tonight to entertain you / But we’ve come to remind you / When praises go up / Blessings come down.” (Kurt Carr) Reading the verb “entertain” as to please, I understand the reiteration to mean that audiences should not expect performers to be primarily concerned with audience pleasure or enjoyment, and also that the function of the performance is to do faith through a song act directed “up” to the higher ranking invisible audience while the visible audience gets to witness.
Over time, as choirs directly address audiences to “remind them” that they are not, in fact, the primary addressees after-all but are witnesses to the vertical exchange taking place between the performers and God signified in the lyrics by “up” and “down,” the performance stages a certain indifference to spectatorship. Kurt Carr’s lyrics and recordings, for example, are now an archived version of the double-voiced address, which has been a recurring performance trope in certain styles of gospel music re-performed for many decades before and during concerts and in churches by soloists, emcees, and preachers. Carr’s lyrics, along with his choir’s (recorded) live performance comment on the historically recurring trope usually performed by an individual by voicing staged indifference in a multi-vocal form. By directing the choir to sing these particular phrases in unison (rather than one of his famous harmony arrangements), Carr shifts the trope from a singular declaration of indifference by a soloist, emcee, or preacher, to an indifference that collective and unified voices can perform. The “we” sings indifference to the congregation or audience and its gaze, its approval, its pleasure; while directing its address “up” in fashion reminiscent of Gates’ signifyin(g) because the choir addresses or references an invisible third party when only two parties are physically present.
Through the staging of indifference and pleasure, gospel music performance fosters self-reflexive understandings of sacredness in a sonic sphere. This project is oriented toward the ephemeral quality of sound and how productive musical forms that might, if discovered, be perceived as having “nonvalue” in a material commodity context (Moten), do indeed have a self-reflexive value and are indifferent to systems of exchange involving “outsiders, those who do not speak the language” (Gates) of certain gospel music traditions.
With double-voice of gospel song performance – and tricksters, it is the tendency of the aural performance mode to be simultaneously both excessive and underheard that allows for certain layers to slip “outside the economy of reproduction” (Moten, Phelan) while other layers become “objects of consumption” or “exchange value for the seller” (Attali). Black music, namely gospel performance for my purposes, is located in a space Moten describes as “the conjunction of reproduction and disappearance” (Moten) where excessive soundings meet indecipherable utterances and the address, like the voice, is split in two. While these layers of meaning have been thoroughly explored critically in earlier versions of the form including the function of the music for the Underground Railroad for example, there is much potential for critical work surrounding more contemporary expressions. My attention to African American sacred song performance and gospel music specifically is toward an analysis of sounds and sonic signs that disrupt and resist “formations of identity and interpretation by challenging the reducibility of phonic matter to verbal meaning or conventional musical form” (Moten) while acknowledging the potential for unannounced “autonomy” (Attali) within sacred song performances having trickster-like characteristics. In other words, the meanings of gospel song performances extend beyond both faith-filled lyrics and stereotypical Negro spiritual tropes of sorrow and suffering determined by slavery, lynching, and memories of violence.
I contend that even contemporary celebratory scenes absent of sorrow, violence and its memory are worthy of critical analysis toward conclusions that involve black bodies beyond terror. With indebtedness to the work of Saidiya Hartman who denies the more spectacular visualizations of Black bodies being mutilated in favor of “mundane” scenes of subjection, (Hartman) I too resist the urge to draw attention to sounds that correspond to violent and spectacular scenes of oppression or their memory: cries, shrieks, moans, and wailings that identify bodies being tortured and in pain. This project turns more toward sacred song performances that demonstrate jubilee in order to critically engage with performances concerned with subjectivity beyond the memory of lynching and other bodily and psychic subjection. This project seeks to reveal meanings that elude pervasive understandings of Blackness, particularly double consciousness, by resisting visuality as the preeminent “lens” for interpreting and understanding meaning and cultural production. In a space of indifference, which the form’s theological design enables, self consciousness can occur in a way that seems hardly possible with secular musics and other Black performance styles that prioritize pleasing a physical audience or conveying comprehensible meaning. As a condition of Blackness according to W.E.B. Du Bois who laments, “[T]he Negro is a sort of seventh son, born with a veil, and gifted with second-sight in this American world, – a world which yields him no true self-consciousness, but only lets him see himself through the revelation of the other world” (Du Bois and Gates), it seems that “true” self-consciousness and Blackness in America cannot occupy the same space. Employing theology to defy the limitations of the “world” that is a seeing America, gospel song performance historically locates itself in the elusive sound spaces where one can hear self in a world where meaning is transmitted through sound rather than vision. In agreement with Alex Weheliye who suggests “hearing and sound, references to which serve as recto and verso of Du Bois’s Souls of Black Folk, however, contribute differently to the fractured subjectivity of double consciousness, prompting us to ask about the status of black subjectivity as it passes through the aural” (Weheliye), I maintain that certain gospel music expressions allow subjects to access other worlds and other systems so that self consciousness can indeed be attained despite the determinism of Du Bois’ double consciousness. Gospel music performance allows for possibilities beyond the material distinctions that shape binary and physical performer-to-audience relations and performance spaces.
 The song Yes Lord is a Pentecostal hymn with a one-word chorus and that word – “Yes” – is heard as the choir in the church scene of The Color Purple sings.
 Hirsch p. 112
 3/5 Compromise