The question, ‘what gospel music really is?’ has been hotly debated in various fora around Barbados and those who purport to know are divided when it comes to the specific history or roots of this musical genre. Many agree that gospel music is about the good news of Jesus Christ and ought to reflect such. Others argue that a song does not necessarily have to include words, such as Jesus, God, Christ or Saviour to be deemed gospel once there is a positive message emerging.
There is also a school of thought that the Songs of Solomon – which is evidently a book of love and romance – ought to be considered gospel music in that it is a book of songs in the Bible. I thought I would provide another perspective, which I think is quite instructive.
Dr Iona Locke, one of the top Christian intellectuals, vocalists and preachers in the United States of America, says gospel music has it roots in the book of Leviticus when God called a group of singers together. According to her, before members of the group were singers, they were priests.
“One of the things that we always have to remember is that the work of the gospel and the song of the gospel are a complete compliance together; so the expression of what we do for God, whether it is in service or song or in giving or in helping others, . . . all of that is together, . . . so our song becomes our work or feelings our intellect, our message; it becomes our hope, our joy,” she added.
The researcher says such a combination becomes the sum of who we are and that becomes the song; “because we can have the intellectual part of a song, but if it’s not a part of us, you can feel the distance of the song . . . it doesn’t become gospel.”
She notes that gospel is good news and message, adding, “we have to remember that gospel music is a complete composite of who we are as people once we have been called Christians.
“The word Christian emerged out of the New Testament, so it is a younger word than the word Levi. So that comes out of Genesis chapters 13, 14, 15 after the birth of Jacob and the 12 sons, literally 13 sons – we get Joseph’s two sons added into that tribe.
“When God designed, he wanted to make a nation of priests. Can you imagine, a complete, whole nation of priests. One segment of the priesthood is the singing part of the priesthood, and it comes out of one particular tribe and separated from that is Levi.
“Levi does all the chorale part of it along with some of the other duties that he has to do. When we talk about gospel music, we are talking about a message in the music. But the message is not our message in as much as it is the good news. That’s what gospel is. It always has to be good news . . . it’s got to be hopeful.
“But before we can interpret the song well, the song becomes a part of our intellect, it becomes a part of our work ethic, it becomes a part of our devotion, our commitment, our sacredness to who God is and what he means to us. And sometimes when we sing, we are singing out of our pain.
“So when we are singing out of our pain, we are singing gospel music so we can turn our pain into celebration. And that’s when we get real happy in church.
“There is also call-and-response, so that we can move from a garment of heaviness to a garment of praise. So gospel music is extremely important, but not important unless the message is in the gospel . . . good news.
“The call-and-response is from slavery time, because many of our people who came here to the United States came free, but they were ignorant to the European language . . . and for that reason, not many could read; so because they could not read the English of the nation they used this kind of educational mode where if one could read and sometimes that was below a third grade education, the thing they learned to read was the Bible. So the one that could read the Bible would become the preacher. Whether that was male or female, they would go behind the hedges, down by the river and hide out after they had tilled the crops and done what they needed to do at home. They would go down by the river and have their own worship service. And because of the tragedy and hardness of their day, then the preacher would take the story that was sometimes heard from the Methodist Church from under the window and revise it when he got down by the river and take parts of it, and that is where we get call-and-response. And it would go something like the preacher was preaching say, out of Psalms 23: The Lord is my shepherd I shall not want . . . he would take that and present it to the slaves because the slaves had much want and burden, much care and much desire.
The significance of that first verse in Psalms 23 and 1 was so powerful for them . . . . It was hope, so that became gospel. For today, they still brought all of that history from then to now in the 21st century church. So the preacher today would be reading a scripture or be preaching and when he comes to an impactful point, and the congregation would say, ‘Amen,’ ‘yes’ or the musician would play something or the singers would sing ‘yes’, ‘oh yes’. The preacher might even go into song and the church singers or congregation would respond in kind.”
I hope this perspective sheds greater light on this issue of gospel music and its roots.