The Legacy of Church Of God In Christ (COGIC) Singers and Musicians and a Post Memory Shift

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.[1] 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.[2] 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,[3] 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[4] 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.

[1] 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.

[2] Hirsch p. 112
[3] 3/5 Compromise
[4] Blacks and the Draft: A History of Institutional Racism, Paul T. Murray, Journal of Black Studies , Vol. 2, No. 1 (Sep., 1971), pp. 57-76 , Published by: Sage Publications, Inc. Stable URL:


Interdependence as a Lifeway: Decolonization and Resistance in Transnational Native American and Tibetan Communities

Natalie Avalos (UC Santa Barbara)

Struggles for decolonization are increasingly global and transnational. Colonization fosters massive diaspora migrations, either forced or out of necessity. These peoples, although residing outside of their home nations, continue to fight for the liberation of their peoples. While decolonization projects are diverse, they generally call for both the undoing of colonization as a structure and the removal of colonization’s effects. A core focus of many decolonization movements is resisting culture erasure through religious revitalization—the logic being religion constitutes the core values and traditions of a given community. When cultural identity is strengthened these communities are better able to resist colonial advances as well as practices of extermination. My research explores how the religious worldviews of transnational Native Americans and Tibetan communities living in the U.S. inform their respective movements for decolonization and resistance. Both of their religious traditions, though distinct, recognize a world in which all phenomena are interrelated. I ask, how does interdependence as a ‘lived’ tradition inform decolonization? In addition, what do Tibetan Buddhism and Native American religious traditions have to offer global movements for decolonization?

Native American religious traditions are rooted in a sacred relationship to the land, one’s community and the spirit world. The spirit world consists of the dynamic ‘life force’ immanent in all natural phenomena. Native American peoples cite an interdependent relationship to all natural phenomena as the fundamental logic driving the protection of sacred sites, sustainable ways of living and nationhood. Tibetan Buddhism combines land-based conceptualizations of interdependence to Buddhist philosophical concepts of ‘dependent origination’ –meaning that all phenomena are inextricably ‘dependent’ on one another—to theorize a unique form of interdependence. Buddhist ethics rooted in interdependence encourage empathy and compassion for all others, since they are ultimately an extension of one’s self. Living in diaspora contributes to myriad losses. However, ethnographic research among transnational Tibetan and Native American communities living in Santa Fe and Albuquerque illustrates that their religious traditions remain. The distance of diaspora has not tempered the desire to work for the betterment and liberation of their respective peoples—if anything it’s bolstered it. Due to a shared logic of ‘interdependence,’ working for the benefit of others is not framed as special or extraordinary but instead as a rational response to connectedness.

For Tibetans in Santa Fe, religious practice has taken on a new political dimension. Religion has historically played an integral role in Tibetan governance, what Tibetans referred to as chos srid gnyis ldan or “religion and politics combined.” The Dalai Lama served as both the spiritual and political leader of Tibetans, overseeing their spiritual and material welfare. Tibet never existed as a united polity as we understand nation-states today. The unifying thread among regional and sectarian differences was Buddhism. To be Tibetan was to be Buddhist. It was only after the Chinese invasion that a new ‘national’ in-group identity emerged, one united by Dharma but also in defense of the land against the ‘invading other.’ In exile, Tibetans make strategic use of this new pan-Tibetan identity, rallying non-Tibetans to join their cause. Thus, religious practice in diaspora has become infused with politics. Consultants state that they must preserve Tibetan culture for those in Tibet who are experiencing cultural genocide. One man says, “I feel even stronger, that I am Tibetan when I know that my countrymen are suffering.” They regularly gather at one another’s homes to pray and make offerings on behalf of those suffering in Tibet. Religious practice helps them assuage the pain and frustration they feel over Tibetan oppression. It is also intended to create merit. In essence, practice creates positive karma that will procure the causes and conditions for Tibet’s liberation. Because all phenomena are related, one’s words thoughts and actions are thought to have material and immaterial effects. Thus, prayers, the recitation of mantras and other Buddhist practices are done with the express intent to change the social conditions of Tibetan peoples. Even the activism on behalf of Tibet’s liberation, such as marches, rallies and petitions, are often pursued with the intention to help others, transforming these mundane events into ‘Dharmic activity.’

Native American peoples living in Albuquerque and Santa Fe live out a diverse set of religious practices. Like Tibetans, Native peoples were not a united polity before colonization. They are distinct tribes, with distinct languages and separate nation-to-nation treaties with the settler state. However, tools of assimilation, like the boarding school system that began in the late 19th century, and a federal relocation program in the middle 20th century, which transferred large numbers of Native peoples from reservations to urban centers for ‘employment opportunities,’ contributed to a pan-Indian identity that thrives today. The exchange of religion, belief and practice characterizes this pan-Indian identity. Historically, these exchanges have informed movements of resistance. For instance, religious revitalization catalyzed the Red Power Movement of the 1960’s and 70’s. While most Native American religious traditions had to go ‘underground’ during the initial decades after the reservation system began in the latter 19th century, due to federal bans on ceremonies, such as the Sun Dance, many survived into the present. Some of most basic features of Native American religious traditions do not require elaborate ceremonies, but only prayer and contemplation. Many of my consultants emphasized that they could maintain a relationship to the spirit world, wherever they were, even if they were far away from their home tribes or had been living in diaspora for generations. I was told by one consultant, “the land is all around you. If you have water, earth, air and fire, you can pray. You can connect with Spirit.” For many, this religious practice was not only a testament to survival but also an active tool of resistance. Due to the interrelatedness of all phenomena, several of my consultants explained that prayer, ceremony and even speaking kind words ripple out into incalculable results—“like a pebble in a stream” one consultant said. Another consultant explained that the prayers of elders in the nearby pueblos shaped everything that happened in Albuquerque and even New Mexico, meaning these prayers had the power to contribute to structural and social change. Decolonization was described as maintaining healthy relationships to the spirit world, the land and one’s relations. An Apache man in his 60’s said “I don’t need a federal recognition card or to live on a reservation. This whole area is where Apaches lived. It’s my home. It’ll always be a part of me.” In this way, he recognizes these places as ‘Native land.’ He and the land are sovereign.

Although these communities are unrelated, they contend with parallel struggles for decolonization. They both hold provocative religious conceptualizations of interdependence that transform their religious practice into resistance and liberation. These religious traditions provide a new perspective on humanitarianism—one that differs from the liberal discourse from which it is currently situated. One need not be a ‘rational’ agent in the world in order to be worthy of humane treatment. These religious logics illustrate that the just and humane treatment of others is necessitated in world in with other’s are an extension of one’s self. The transnational spaces where these religious logics are actualized provide a unique platform for their proliferation. In fact, consultants in both the Tibetan and Native communities explained that these practices are sometimes for oneself, often for their own people but many times intended to end the suffering or oppression of all peoples. As one consultant says, “when you are oppressed, we are all oppressed.” In this way, we can understand the respective expressions of interdependence as a lifeway to translate to a form of anti-oppression politics facilitated through the spirit world. They also de-center materialist interpretations of social justice and resistance by positioning religious practice as an efficacious tool of resistance. In these transnational communities religious continuity is framed as a means of resistance that not only humanizes and empowers but is also contributes to global projects of decolonization by seeking the cessation of suffering and the continued vitality of all peoples.

Citizen Architects: Ethics, Education and the Construction of a Profession, 1933-2013

Anna G. Goodman (UC Berkeley)

My research considers the idea of the citizen architect as an evolving concept in the twentieth-century United States. Specifically, it traces how a form of hands-on and outreach education called “community design-build” shapes architects’ ethical and political identities. Community design-build is an umbrella term for programs in which architectural educators lead students into disadvantaged areas to physically construct designs for community use. American architectural educators argue that in this “win-win” scenario, students master building techniques while aiding a neglected population. The pairing of physical labor and social values, in a profession not known for either, defies standard accounts of the nature of architects’ ethical commitments. Most writing on community design-build focuses on either the benefit of programs for student learning or the positive impacts of projects on the lives of individuals and communities. I instead ask what motivates architects to pursue this mode of practice at specific historical and geographic moments, and what types of politics are practiced as design students encounter poor others. Drawing from social histories of welfare in the United States and feminist readings of political economy, the project considers three significant cases of design-build education from the 1930s, 1960s and 1990s. In so doing, it demonstrates that architects’ humanitarian commitments arise in cycles as responses to shifts in national attitudes towards race, inequality and work. Architects’ reflexive response to what they perceive as periodic crises of nation and profession consists of a celebration of the physical labor of construction and an emphasis on communal spaces and experiences. Professionals and educators understand the practice of “building together” as an alternative to and critique of both capitalist development and state-sponsors social welfare programs. Yet, their alternative practices often reproduce normative dynamics. They elevate architects’ voices over those for whom they build, support a narrow range of acceptable critical positions and, ultimately, obscure the structural conditions that produce the crises into which they intervene. In short, the “can-do” attitude that empowers students and volunteers diverts attention from the efforts of marginalized groups whose individual and collective contributions to alternative political visions are left unacknowledged in the citizen architect narrative.

Architects’ ethical commitments, and specifically community design-build, connect to a larger landscape of humanitarian engagements and religious affinities through their performative nature. Rather than working from ideological standpoints, design-build programs allow architects to practice ethics by placing their bodies in foreign territories and then performing “service” in these spaces. This type of humanitarian engagement is familiar from Christian missionaries, early twentieth-century work camps in the United State and Europe, Peace Corps volunteers beginning in the 1960s and the ubiquitous service learning trips that shape the identities of today’s youth. Structural critiques focused on traditional notions of political economy or those that diametrically oppose top-down and grassroots practices cannot sufficiently explain this persistent decentralized humanitarianism. Critiques of these types of practices often center on the problem of “parachuting” into unfamiliar and inappropriate contexts and volunteers’ failure to deliver on promised material or social gains for locals. These can be powerful correctives to the egoism of “do-gooders,” but they often miss the larger stories of the pushes and pulls that drive middle-class individuals to enact their social consciences in this manner. More productive insights come by way of analyses focused on the practice of the self, the production of identity and the everyday politics that take place between specific groups and individuals. These types of analyses, of which I consider my own, demonstrate surprising affinities between the religious and secular, across race and class and among individuals with seemingly opposite worldviews. As a starting point for re-imagining the role of the volunteer, the beneficiary and the scholar herself, a focus on humanitarian ethics reframes all three as participants in a performance across difference. The acknowledgement of this performance is the first step in understanding the meaning of oppositional and collaborative politics in practice.