I Got A Song: The Influence of African-American Music on the Christian Experience

In a 2013 Huffington post article on how music shapes identity, columnist Frank Fitzpatrick, ponders, “Can music, like a good teacher or a close friend, help us discover things about ourselves that we might not otherwise recognize? Does music actually help us form a vision of who we are . . . and who we will become in the world?” As I pondered this question, I concluded that indeed it does, and in profound ways.

But I also asked a different question. As an African-American Christian, I wondered: If indeed music shapes our individual identities, how does music shape our corporate identities? More specifically, has there been any shaping of Christianity by music from the African-American narrative?

To my surprise, there has been a much greater influence than is often realized. Wyatt Tee Walker goes as far as to say that black religious music has been “the primary root of all music born in the United States.”[1] What then has African-American music contributed to Christian experience at large? Though more can be said, I want to highlight two contributions: a culture of unification and a culture of transformation.

A Culture of Unification

In African-American religious music there is a powerful unifying force, or as some have called it, a “soul force.”[2] Similarly, in their comprehensive work on the Black Church, The Black in the African-American Experience, C. Eric Lincoln and Lawrence Mamiya note that “ . . . congregational singing is a well-known device for the temporary reduction of social alienation and for the accomplishment of an ad interim sense of community.”[3]

In the African-American context, corporate worship is an affirmation. Every person present is included in the worship experience. No matter who you are or where you come from, whether high or low, rich or poor, on-beat or off-beat, in this experience “I got a song, you got a song, All God’s children got a song.” Or as another person has put it, “ . . . black music is unity music. It unites the joy and the sorrow, the love and the hate, the hope and the despair of black people.”[4]

As an example of cross-cultural unity, consider Contemporary Gospel music. What’s so beautiful about this relatively new genre is that it serves as a cross-cultural bridge in the church today. It takes the good of European musical culture with the good of African-American culture and creates a new experience where all can feel loved and celebrated. It has been observed that African-American religious music “Africanized” Christianity, but this “Africanization” was not a means of division. It has served as a powerful cross-cultural unifying force.[5]

A Culture of Transformation

African-American religious music has not only contributed to Christianity by producing a culture of unification, but also a culture of transformation. While preaching is the “focal point” of worship, “ . . . singing is second only to preaching as the . . . primary vehicle of spiritual transport for the worshipping congregation.”[6]

Preaching and singing go hand-in-hand in the Black Church. Both serve to transform the worshipper as he or she comes in contact with God’s truth and God’s presence. Therefore, what Dr. Robert Smith explains regarding preaching is equally true of singing: “. . . the function of the exegetical escort is to embrace the text of Scripture in order to usher the hearer into the presence of God for the purpose of transformation.”[7]

The worship experience is not just aimed at moving the heart but also moving the life. The music is meant to be a means of discipleship. This is what is so powerful about storytelling in the African-American experience. In these songs, we see a profound theological paradigm. There is a theology of story that shows God’s story as the one giving significance to our stories. Though creation, fall, and redemption may not have been presented in systematic form, the musical lyrics demonstrate real continuity between the way God worked in the Scriptures, on the one hand, and in the way God worked in their lives.

African music has been organically connected to the discipleship of the people. It is, therefore, no surprise that this music is called “Gospel music,” for it proclaims the gospel and embodies the reality of God’s grace on display for all peoples. But we can’t forget it is a real experience. As the people sing of God, this is meant to be a transformative experience of celebration. Some would sing, some would shout, some would dance, but all would be enjoying God together. As some would say, “Ain’t no party like a Holy Ghost party cause a Holy Ghost party don’t stop.” Because God is good, present, active, and worthy, He should always be celebrated when the church gathers for corporate worship.

This, then, is a taste of what African-American music has contributed to the Christian experience at large.

________

Dante Stewart is currently a student at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky. He is a graduate of Clemson University, where he was a student athlete and received a BA in Sociology. He and his wife, Jasmine, have been married for three years. They now live in Augusta, Georgia, where he teaches Bible at Heritage Academy. They are members of Crawford Avenue Baptist Church where he serves as pastoral intern.

[1]Walker, Wyatt Tee. "Somebody's Calling My Name": Black Sacred Music and Social Change. Valley Forge, PA: Judson Press, 1979.

[2]Ellis Jr., Carl. Free At Last?: The Gospel in the African-American Experience. Westmont, Illinois: Intervarsity Press, 1996.

[3]Lincoln, C. Eric, and Lawrence H. Mamiya. The Black Church in the African-American Experience. Durham: Duke University Press, 1990.

[4]Cone, James. The Spirituals and The Blues. Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books, 1992.

[5]Lincoln, C. Eric, and Lawrence H. Mamiya. The Black Church in the African-American Experience. Durham: Duke University Press, 1990.

[6] Lincoln, C. Eric, and Lawrence H. Mamiya. The Black Church in the African-American Experience. Durham: Duke University Press, 1990.

[7]Smith Jr., Robert. Doctrine that Dances: Bringing Doctrinal Preaching and Teaching to Life. Nashville, TN: B&H Publishing Group, 2008.

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