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Black Music Month, Day #7

Flash of the Spirit is about visual and philosophic streams of creativity and imagination, running parallel to the massive musical and choreographic modalities that connect black persons of the western hemisphere, as well as the millions of European and Asian people attracted to and performing their styles, to Mother Africa. . . . The rise, development, and achievement of Yoruba, Kongo, Fon, Mande, and Ejagham art and philosophy fused with new elements overseas, shaping and defining the black Atlantic visual tradition.

These sentiments, developed during the high years of the Black Consciousness Movement, are from the “Caucasian black cultural nationalist” and art historian Robert Farris Thompson, or “Master T,” as he is affectionately called by his legions of former students. This formidable list includes the path-breaking African American art historians Rick Powell, Michael Harris, Kellie Jones, Judith Wilson, and the late Sylvia Boone, among many others. The words describe his view of the inter-textual relationships in New World black

Visual representations of 19th century church services often depicted similar body language

cultural expressions such as dance, music and visual culture, including vernacular yard work and burial practices.  Rather than depict a set of modalities untouched by history and the social world, as some critics of “African retentions” claim, they urge us to view these relationships as representing historical processes of communal identity building through conscious and selective identification.

The Modest Urban Paradise UpSouth

Nowhere do we see this theory of culture more robustly evident than in traditional black preaching styles.  These epic speech/music events combine the semantic ingenuity of rapping, the musical virtuosity of gospel singing, and the body grammar and mechanics of delivery of the “Soul Man,” a cultural archetype codified in the work of Mark Anthony Neal.  All presented in a contemporary Italian V-collar shirt with extended cuffs and a business suit.  (I can’t see the shoes in the video example below, but I know those “kicks” must be killing; I just know it).  I’d be missing an important point not to mention that this brand of preaching style draws heavily from singing techniques developed by females in the tradition.  In turn, when females occupy this cultural space of whoop and tune, they adopt the growls typically associated with codes of masculinity. (And you thought contemporary gospel star Tonex’s announcement was news?).

To make historical sense of this dynamic tradition, we can look to well-known accounts of the ring shout ritual, a transplanted and transformed cultural practice observed during slavery in the “invisible church”:

About this time I attended a “bush meeting,” where I went to please the pastor whose circuit I was visiting.  After the sermon they formed a ring, and with coats off, sung, clapped their hands and stamped their feet in a most ridiculous and heathenish way . . . I then went, and taking the leader by the arm, requested him to desist and to sit down and sing in a rational manner . . . He replied: “The Spirit of God works upon people in different ways…there must be a ring here, a ring there, a ring over yonder, or sinners will not get converted.

If thousands of black Southerners flooding urban centers in the North during the twentieth century’s great migration left worldly possessions, they brought with them a profound sense of cultural identification, and of course, an openness to the shifts that occurred when these traditions met “modernity.”  Check out this description of a hot 1929 storefront church service:

It is night.  My errand brings me through a busy street of the Negro section in a city having a colored population of seven thousand.  Suddenly I am arrested by bedlam which proceeds from the open transom of a store front whose show windows are smeared to intransparency.  What issues forth is conglomeration itself – a syncopated rhythmic mess of tune accompanied by strumming guitars and jingling tambourines and frequently punctuated by wild shrieks and stamping feet.  Above the din occasionally emerge such words as “Jesus”, “God”, “Hallelujah”, “Glory”, and then I realize that this frenzy is being perpetrated in the name of religion.  A young man of my own race who has stopped in amazement turns to me half-quizzically and says, “What do you know about that? Jazzin’ God.”

Today’s twenty-first century preachers are still valued for their ability to “shout the congregation.”  They need not be seminary trained, nor formally educated, but they must acknowledge a divine “call to preach” which is usually the result of a vision of an “inner witness.” The most successful preachers excel at expressive singing, as the climax of great sermons become powerful musical events.  This ability is sometimes referred to as one aspect of “the anointing.”  The most popular among the “vernacular-styled” black preachers’ singing could rival Otis Redding, James Brown, or Joe Williams in their vocal quality and in power and impact.


In the example below of Prophet Brian Carn, we see this cultural formation in high gear.  The sheer power of his voice, his management of all musical parameters comprising this stage of the ritual, and the congregants knowing and enthusiastic expertise in maintaining their labor role in it is a thing of beauty to my ears and eyes.  Note how his crafty modulations ratchet up the intensity of his storyline. (In all fairness, we’re coming in near the end of the event; this sermon was probably not only about Jesus wanting everyone there to have a new house. I hope that Fannie Mae didn’t base its deplorable moves on this thinking).  When he implores the drummer—at mid-sermon!–that he’d rather have him punctuate his phrasing with a crash symbol and not the high-hat without missing a beat, Carn is insisting that the soundscape be filled with a more dynamic mosaic of timbres.  (Umm, very African).  He even upbraids him at one point to push him more “Come on drummer, you ain’t pushing me, you act like you on a break or something.”  This meta-song text in the performance event, the message of everyday uplift, the apparently repurposed building fully loaded with a concert level sound system, the colorful visual backdrop comprised of blue pews and walls, white nurses’ uniforms and grand piano, perfume and pastel church hats, and, of course, the red, black, and white robes are not haphazard.  They work together and purpose to charm every sense.  Indeed, they ground these participants in a common history, comfort them in a challenging present, and encourage to a brighter future.  Y’all don’t hear me. Yeah-ah! Yeah-yeah-ee-yeah!

P.S. I feel for that drummer. This was probably hour five of the shift at his station.  All that Holy Ghost moving can be a little hard on the wrists. (#don’tbeputtingmeinyoursermons).

Preaching, Teaching, and Reaching