Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Even in Sweden

Last week I had the great pleasure and privilege to travel to Sweden with my friend and colleague Mark Miller and the band Subject to Change. We were invited to participate in the Festival of Sacred Arts in a town called Skanör Falsterbo, a beach community although trust me, none of us got in the cold Scandinavian 30 degree waters.  However, what we did dip our feet into was Gospel Music.  Apparently, the Swedes love it and is something that by their own admission, have trouble doing.  Now you know that they gave the world great music by the likes of Ludvig Norman, Joseph Martin Kraus and of course, ABBA! (Yup! Dancing Queen), but Gospel is one of those genres that is difficult to find.
Now there are some churches that are doing their best to build a Gospel choir because what they have discovered as many of us have is that there is something magnetic and fulfilling about Gospel music that probably doesn't happen in any other genre of music. As we began rehearsals with the choir of youth and adults I began to see the transformation take place in each person and noticed the familiar reasons why most of us are attracted to it.
I think it has to do with the way Gospel music reaches into the soul in ways that can only be understood if you are willing to understand the way it connects to the story of liberation.  Gospel music comes from a community that developed a survival mechanism in the importance of learning how to shout.  From the time of slavery and oppression at the hands of the Egyptians, people under the yoke of subjugation found the connection between the ability to discover the places where freedom could be experienced in spite of their circumstance.  Gospel music comes from that great line and heritage.  
I can remember the first time Gospel music came into my life.  I was 9 years old and I heard Rev. James Cleveland for the first time singing "Peace be Still."  I felt every note and every lyric in every fiber of my body.  My heart began to beat faster and I knew that there was something in this musical expression that connected to a part of me that I did not understand but that somehow I had always been a part of.  It was connected to my own ancestors and their story of exploitation, slavery and second class treatment. 
Then in 1976 I discovered Andrea Crouch and my world turned upside down.  The album was This is Another Day and it included the incredible "Soon and very Soon." I couldn't get enough of this album and of this sound, and of the way it connected to my own deep story and soul and when I sang the songs, I could be anything or anyone.
Throughout my life, I have always turned back to Gospel music especially when I've lost God's voice in the midst of pain and struggle. Gospel music is struggle music.  It is the struggle of all those who before me never stopped believing that joy comes in the morning even when weeping last many nights.  Gospel music is resistance music. It says "yes" in the face of every "no" that a racist society has tried to impose over the years and it continues to preach hope when those around us want to declare a war on love, dignity and equality.  
When I think about all of this then I realize why the Swedes responded to this music so well. Sweden like many other European countries are struggling to respond to the refugee crisis in the midst of fear and and Islamophobia. They have actually closed their borders but the Swedish Church has been trying to take a stand against the isolationist politics of the day.  The Church as a whole has been in this crossroads many a times before. 
You cannot think of Gospel music without thinking of the way it connects to the African American story in the United States. When you hear "Precious Lord, Take my Hand" it directly links you with Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and his prophetic voice for equality and dignity of all Black Americans. It moved the U.S. Church farther than it ever imagined. Its been my conclusion that Gospel music centers us and calls us to live to the higher ideals of love, acceptance, dignity and sacred worth of every human being. If you are around Gospel music long enough the fear of the other begins to fade as you hear the songs that recall those who have seen the dark night and have learned to sing "through it all."   
I may be over-speculating but I also know what I experienced this past week, when people who may have had little or nothing to do with the Church and who are basically emotionally reserved and not too expressive, melt in the sunlight of a Gospel song and sing as though their life depended on it. Its funny but I've never considered how much Gospel music is actually a U.S. product, it was made in the U.S.A.  It is the gift that African Americans have given to the world. Oh what a gift it is!! I hate it when people say it is fun to do without acknowledging the pain and struggle it represents.  Maybe what they really mean is that Gospel music helps us experience joy when everything is trying to squeeze the life out of us.  Everyone can get with that...no matter where you come from. Pain is pain is pain, and sometimes the best thing you can do is throw your head back and sing.




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