The Head of the Department of Language, Linguistics and Literature at the University of the West Indies, Cave Hill Campus is challenging Barbadians, particularly those engaged in Christian music, to draw from the time-tested methodology of local and international iconic gospel artist, Joseph Niles, in order to determine how his music has been able to remain relevant even into the cyberspace era.
Curwen Best, who is also Professor of Popular Culture, Literary and Cultural Studies at the UWI, made the submission while delivering the second annual Joseph Niles Legacy Lecture at the Grande Salle of the Central Bank of Barbados last night, as part of this year’s Barbados Gospelfest.
Leveraging the theme “Christian Culture in the Digital Age: Reflecting on the Future”, Best suggested that while Niles was not as savvy as the emerging young gospel artists in manipulating the power of cyberspace and the new-age tools of technology to market their music, he still found a way to be even more preeminent across the social network — to this day.
“If you typed in ‘Barbadian gospel’ on a video site like YouTube, the dominant search results will be a proliferation of songs/pictures by Joseph Niles, more than even the young artists,” pointed out the popular culture expert.
“This is not an accident. Niles’ legacy is so well entrenched, his work has been so prolific, his marketing thrust so penetrative and his artist development drive so systematic, that not even the arena of cyberspace which we think belongs to young people, can exclude him.”
The university languages and linguistics intellectual cited Niles’ decision to give up a full-time job as conductor at the Transport Board to start singing professionally, his years of taking to the streets to sell his cassettes and at times giving away some, to illustrate the vision he had and his passionate marketing approach to enshrining his inimitable brand of gospel music into the psyche of his people.
“At the current juncture, as our churches contemplate their relationship to cyberspace and vacillate, we should consider the potential, the possibility and the possible pitfalls,” Best added. “But we can also consider the methodology of Joseph Niles.
“His approach has been mostly to employ the various tools at his disposal, but he has also shown us, through his music, that we can master the phenomena and tools that we employ, so that they bear the burden of our experiences with God.
“His example to us as we continue to grapple with changes within the body social and spiritual, is to forge ahead, and to do so with a clear commitment to our calling and an awareness of where we are situated in relation to the past and future,” he espoused.
He challenged Barbadians to see the potential capacity in young people, bear with them and be less judgemental of them, as they seek to use the social network to propagate their music ministry.
“Our young people (artists) are in cyberspace, because God has called them to minister in this way,” the UWI lecturer said.
He reflected on the similarities in the “uncertainties” which existed among Christian brethren, churches and gospel groups of the 1980s to mid-1990s and today.
“I want to suggest they have always been, and there are tensions in our society …, often tensions between older individuals, or individuals who are much more conservative in their outlook, and younger people, or people who are youthful-minded, and who are driven by a fascination of the tools and the gadgets of our times,” the researcher in popular culture and literary cultural studies observed.
He was of the opinion, that the tensions which were currently felt by young people within churches, are similar to those experienced in the mid-to-late 1980s, when some denominations wrestled with questions of how far should concert performances and leading-edge approaches to gospel music ministry…, how they were booming in an attempt to deliver the message. Best saw such tensions as ongoing.
“We should know (therefore), that cyberspace is hard to stake claim to, though some nations and agencies have set this as their new priority. It is a comparatively open space for all those who would enter. And yes, the youth tend to know it better than most,” Best continued.
“Niles’ enduring presence in cyberspace positions him as much more visible in video display space, than many other local gospel artists. This should also say something to young artists whose excitement with their technology, gives them a false sense of preeminence and new-discovery.”
He was of the view that artists of today and musicians and digital software culture exponents, did not stand singularly, but built on a tradition of technological engagement.
“Cyberspace is not necessarily the salvation for artists seeking an arena of display.