Black Music Month, Day #22
In a stunning article titled “Revelations,” journalist Kelefa Sanneh detailed the scandal surrounding contemporary gospel artist Tonéx’s (b. Anthony Charles Williams II) coming out as a gay man in a 2009 interview. The prolific singer/songwriter whose body of expansive work is exemplar of the intersection of hip-hop production sensibilities and traditional gospel, had taken the gospel industry by storm. Successfully reaching a young market committed to the church, he was at the time of his announcement an award winning, groundbreaking musician, recognized with six Stellar Awards for the presciently named double CD, Out the Box (2005). His music videos like “Fail U” feature him in edgy hip-hop gear, a Prince-like wig (the Artist, not William), bandana, and a necklace of spikes dancing like Janet Jackson with some other saints through an outdoor postindustrial scenario. With a wide ranging musical arsenal at this command, Tonéx could out traditional the traditionalists (he was raised in a gospel church) and could give hip-hop producers a run for their money because of his rich knowledge of harmony and vocal arrangement, a quality that separates secular and sacred hip-hop output, in my view.
Of course, his coming out sent ripples through the industry and has severely impacted his career. Although it is a crucial issue to discuss, I’m less interested here in hashing over well-worn debates about sexuality and religious belief. What I do wish to think about, however, is what the man’s music and his admission can suggest for music analysis on gospel music with its long history of “the open secrets” that surround the style. What does it say about the politics of identity in gospel music? What can it teach us about understanding the role of gender and sexuality in our work on gospel music as a genre? For this I turn to a trusted guide, the work of feminist musicologist Susan McClary.
Working against the privileging of “chronology” in music history, McClary proposed in her book Feminine Endings an alternative approach. Historical chronology tends to flatten out issues of power and struggle (i.e., gender, sexuality, race, and class) in music history to the service of organic style development. But even the supposedly nonrepresentational instrumental music of the canon, she argued, could be analyzed with respect to its registration of historically contingent social energies. Such analysis uncovers, among other things, how institutions and power structures have sought to police knowledge, expressive culture, sexuality, the body, and so on and how historical agents have resisted these efforts by fighting back. As a viable factor in these struggles, music circulates social energies throughout society in potent, and, of course, pleasurable ways.
Much of this energy occurs at the borders of a perceived musical style or genre. And here is where the case for gender study gets compelling with regard to artists like Tonéx and others producing on the edge of convention. McClary argued that “[g]enres and conventions crystallize because they are embraced as natural by a certain community: they define the limits of what counts as proper musical behavior.” Thus, the occasions of stylistic disruption—those times when musicians seemed to push the limit of acceptable generic expectations—are important sites to tease out gendered meanings because in the space between convention and innovation exists the stories of power struggles through experimentation. In other words, as musicians push against a listening community’s acceptable codes of musical behavior, they are usually articulating who they believe they are in the world through displays of musical prowess, stylistic challenge, and experimentation.
As I said, in the artist Tonéx we have a large body of work available for cultural analysis. But this work should develop from understanding how the Western system of tonality has governed musical creativity, reception, and interpretation. These supposedly abstract conventions have, in fact, socialized audiences to experience struggle, fulfillment, repose, and climax, among other states of being, as part and parcel of the listening experience. Backed by a codified body of theoretical treatises seeped in conventions that assigned masculine and feminine identities to various musical procedures, analysts have shown how Western music helped to shape the social realities of its Subjects. These ideals were further fortified as they were employed in the narrative conventions of opera, an art world in which gender roles were central to its dramaturgy and made larger than life through its glorification of the spectacular. All of this has circulated, by the way, within a network of ideologies in which popular and “Other” cultures were historically rendered “feminine,” providing another example how musicality and gender were policed diligently.
Of course, we know from the degree of fallout surrounding Tonéx that such analysis must take into account the specific modes of policing gender and sexuality that take place in the black church, this, in conjunction with its appetite for gender bending artists. How do we account for this tension in our analysis? A theory of gender and sexuality in gospel would necessarily need to situate ideologies of musicality, masculinity, femininity, tonality, and even “the popular” in terms that are historically and socially specific to black musical practice specifically (and not just “Western” music generally). Does phallic power—in the guise of spiritual transcendence—operate the same way in an out gospel artists’ work as it does, say, in the Western traditions in which McClary’s brand of feminist musical criticism first emerged? This question and others can only be answered by moving through these musicians’ rich catalogues with the right toolbox. Indeed, for all the doors that have been closed to Tonéx recently, many more have been opened for those of us who want to venture ideas about the complex cultural work his music achieves in the social world.