How gospel music is shaping my faith (Black History Month reflection)

The Rev. James Cleveland with Aretha Franklin in Los Angeles, 1972.

This Sunday, I was invited to share very briefly at our worship service, responding to the question, “How has black faith encouraged your faith?” Our church has been considering this question during Black History Month. What follows here is a slightly longer version of what I shared on Sunday:

How has black faith encouraged my faith? The word that most comes to mind is “praise.”

I am an amateur collector of vinyl records. One of my portals in to collecting was gospel music. When I was a freshman in college, I met Dr. Stephen Newby, who was, himself, a gospel music artist and a pastor in the Seattle area, where I was going to school. He became an important mentor in my life during that year and introduced me to the uniqueness of black music, especially gospel music. He showed me Sister Rosetta Tharpe, James Cleveland, Andre Crouch, and Mahalia Jackson as major touchstones in the history of black gospel music. From there, it has been an endless labyrinth of artists’ connections from the super famous and well known (Thomas Dorsey, the Soul Stirrers, the Swan Silvertones) to the much lesser known (The Consolers, Alfred Bolden, The Psalmoneers, or Alex Bradford). All of it has changed me in some way.

I started collecting these records because it’s the only format a lot of this music is on. I really got into the sound and the songs themselves, and have had some of the more moving listening experience in my life listening to these old gospel records I’ve acquired. Listening to this music has caused me to ask a number of questions: First, why is it so moving? What is it about this music that is so special, so unique? Why do I experience this music much, much differently than I experience other “Christian” music like Hillsong or Bethel or Chris Tomlin?

The answer was that this music — gospel music — comes from a different place. The roots of this music is different than the roots of other Christian music. It comes from the black experience. Gospel music began in fields, it began in hidden meetings in the corners of dilapidated barns, or the late night gatherings in slave quarters, under trees and in shacks. Gospel music’s rhythm and style came from Africa, and found its clarity of sound, style, rhythm, and lyrics inside the context of slavery. This is to say this music comes from the darkness of real pain experienced by generations of black people. This music is unique because the pain from which it comes is unique.

When you hear gospel music, you hear songs exuberant with joy — a kind of spiritual ecstasy alien to many like me from white European cultures. But also a misery so excruciating it will bring tears to your eyes (another thing us Anglos have worked to suppress over the generations). Listening now for over fifteen years, I realize that gospel music is praise music with its roots in agony. Gospel music is the adoration of God with the backdrop of generational terror and suffering. Gospel music is a joyful noise and a lament all in one. This is to say that gospel music is a reflection of the spectrum of spiritual reality.

The great gift of the black church to a white guy like me is right here. It has caused me to ask this question as I listen to it over and over through the years: What does it mean to praise God like this? What does it mean to worship him like this? What does it mean to truly express adoration to Jesus from my place in the world?

Growing up in largely white contexts, I was often told to, “Worship, even when you don’t feel anything.” But gospel music and the black church teaches me something more terrifying and convicting: what does it look like not just to worship God when you don’t feel like it, but what does it look like — and what does it sound like — to worship when you’re certain you’ll die?

Gospel music was written and sung by people who were sure death was near. A lot of white music comes from the opposite place, where artists talk about dying with the underlying assumption they will not. But in gospel music, hope — truthful understanding of God’s salvation — is placed inside the context of certain death. Only the privileged assume they will live forever. Gospel artists look at death square in the face and do the impossible: sing. The music they write is a revelation in that it actually tells us we can praise in the midst of death. And this is its power: because the music communicates the cross of Jesus Christ more clearly than any other style. Hope in the midst of death.

So you might be thinking…so why don’t we sing more gospel music at It might be a good idea. But here’s the crazy thing: gospel music is a style that invites us to a posture that anyone can adopt no matter what music we sing in worship services. We can sing Bethel or an old Scottish hymn with the attitude and mindset and heart that comes from the black church. If we are humble enough to hear it.

I sense an invitation here, as a white guy, from our black brothers and sisters’ own experience that any of us can embrace, if we humble ourselves. It invites us to a new posture of praise: one that praises God — worships him fully — even when we’re not sure if things will get better. We can praise and we can worship in light of death…because death isn’t the end. If our black brothers and sisters can not just sing, but write worship songs, when they were enslaved, whipped, and subjugated to near nothing, can we not do the same when we’ve had a bad week? Their songs were their survival—does that not humble you to sing differently, with a different perspective?

Aretha Franklin is someone to reference here, as she is perhaps the most well known gospel artist in American history. You know her for soul music hits like “Respect” or “Natural Woman.” But Aretha came from the church. Her father was a pastor and her one of her early producers, James Cleveland, is probably the most important (albeit unrecognized among many white people) gospel music producer and artist of the 20th century. After a decade-plus long soul career, , getting back to her roots. It included famous songs from black gospel artists like “Precious Lord, Take my Hand” and “Climbing Higher Mountains” or “Mary, Don’t you Weep”…but it also includes the title track: “Amazing Grace.”

Her version is spellbinding. You cannot speak after you hear it or watch it. But “Amazing Grace” was not written by Aretha. It was not written by a black person. It was not written by someone who was enslaved. It was written by John Newton. Newton was a white guy, an Anglican priest in the 18th century who, at one point, captained a slave ship. He also heavily invested in the slave trade in England. But, upon his conversion, he set his slaves free and divested his funds from the slave trade and began as one of the foremost voices in the abolition movement. In other words, the gospel of Jesus Christ changed his life.

He wrote the lines,

“Through many dangers, toils, and snares

I have already come

’Tis grace that brought me safe thus far

And grace will lead me home”

A white guy wrote this as a hymn, but when it is sung by Aretha it became “gospel music.” When she sings these lines, she obviously brings her unmatched talent, but she also brings her history, her pain, her urgency, and her glory that comes from her experience. This is to say she brings everything to this song. Gospel music comes from somewhere. When Aretha brings all of this to John Newton’s words, the song’s very meaning transforms. Black artists often get the reverse treatment when have been for mass consumption. It’s rarely an upgrade. But when the reverse happens——the results can be electrifying. In these instances, the power of the songwriter’s original intent only increases when the unction from Aretha or Nina or others are given to it. “Amazing Grace” was never meant to be sung with an apathy of routine or familiarity because it came from a man (Newton) who had seen the humiliation and the majesty that comes from the gospel of Jesus Christ. It was meant to be sung in desperation, not indifference.

Our opportunity now is to sing any song in this manner, like Aretha—not stylistically, because not one of us will ever hold a candle to her, but in her same posture. Aretha, through her experience as a black woman, opens a door for all of us to sing this song (and any song) differently: to sing it as if our very life depended on it. To praise as if it’s not a choice. That’s how to sing with a gospel music posture. For many people in our world now and throughout history, their lives actually are dependent on praise. It’s how they have survived or how they currently survive. For those who are oppressed, the gospel is not just something that makes them feel better, it actually saves them from death’s grip of despair.

What does it look like for us to sing songs written by all kinds of people in the way and path of gospel music artists? This is one way black history and the faith of my black brothers and sisters can shape me as a white Christian: to learn to sing as if my life depends on it. Because, as I’ve been learning, it actually does.

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Chris Nye

Living in Portland, Oregon with my wife and son. Doctoral candidate at Duke University. Author of a few books: