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When Sunday Comes: Gospel Music in the Soul and Hip-Hop Eras

Historians in the News
tags: religion, Christianity, African American history, Gospel music, popular music



Claudrena N. Harold is a professor of African American and African Studies and History at the University of Virginia and an editorial board member at Southern Spaces. She is the author of New Negro Politics in the Jim Crow South (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2016) and The Rise and Fall of the Garvey Movement in the Urban South, 1918–1942 (UK: Routledge Press, 2007).

Excerpted from When Sunday Comes: Gospel Music in the Soul and Hip-Hop Eras by Claudrena N. Harold. Copyright 2020 by the Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois. Used with permission of the University of Illinois Press.

 

While I was an undergraduate at Temple University in the mid-1990s, gospel's ubiquity in both secular and sacred spaces was a source of great fascination for me. On a Saturday night stroll down the halls of my dormitory, Temple Towers, one might hear Kirk Franklin's "Silver and Gold," Mary J. Blige's "My Life," and Biggie's "One More Chance" in succession. Though hip-hop had the loyalty of most undergraduates, my inner circle, particularly my fellow women's basketball teammates, had a deep appreciation for gospel music. On our road trips, at the dining halls, and in our dormitories, gospel music occupied the same space as R&B and old-school soul. Fortunately, my academic work as an African American studies major and history minor reinforced many of the lessons provided during my extracurricular activities. Classes and conversations with Professors Sonia SanchezBettye Collier ThomasGreg CarrValethia Watkins, and Mario Beatty, among others, strengthened my already firm sense of the importance of the spiritual lives of black folk. Seeds sown in my childhood home of Jacksonville blossomed under the guidance of these teachers and the music journalists and cultural critics whom I read over the next two decades: Horace BoyerMark BurfordMellonee BurnimPortia MaultsbyEileen SouthernJon Michael SpencerBrooksie Eugene HarringtonMichael W. HarrisRobert DardenAnthony HeilbutGlenn HinsonWyatt Tee WalkerPearl Williams-JonesRobert Marovich, and Jerma Jackson.1 Their respective histories of gospel music enriched my understanding of the genre's centrality to black culture, its early relationship to the recording industry, and its role as a source of individual and collective uplift for people of African descent. They also reaffirmed my belief in gospel music as a subject worthy of in-depth cultural criticism and historical analysis.

And yet, despite my admiration for their work, or perhaps because of it, these authors always left me wanting more, particularly greater engagement with the gospel music of the post-civil rights era. Why couldn't their razor-sharp analyses of gospel music's "golden era" (1945–65) extend into the 1970s and 1980s, I often wondered? Why did the black sacred music adored by so many of my generation seem inconsequential to the historians whose scholarship mattered so much to me? To be sure, Heilbut's The Gospel Sound and Darden's People Get Ready! extended their analyses beyond gospel's golden era. But their discussion of the genre's later years lacked the detailed attention given to the earlier period.

By focusing primarily on the last three decades of the twentieth century, When Sunday Comes shines light on gospel's golden era of commercialism. Instead of dismissing this period as one of musical decline and questionable crossover pursuits, this book treats these years as a time of great artistic innovation and advancement.2 It details how Kirk Franklin, the WinansTake 6, and the Clark Sisters, among others, not only advanced the black sacred music tradition but also ensured that gospel remained embedded in African American culture. That embeddedness has surfaced in a variety of cultural contexts and arenas and continues to do so: BET's annual award shows; the music of secular stars like Beyoncé, D'Angelo, Missy Elliot, Snoop Dogg, Chance the Rapper, and Kanye; the cinematic offerings of such avant-garde filmmakers as Arthur JafaKevin Jerome Everson, and Cauleen Smith; and even the televised funerals of some of the entertainment industry's biggest icons. Take as a case in point the very public mourning that followed the deaths of Michael Jackson and Whitney Houston. On July 7, 2009, twelve days after Jackson's death, millions of fans watched the homegoing service of the "King of Pop." The memorial opened with Andraé Crouch and his choir humming the melody of the gospel classic "Soon and Very Soon" as Jackson's brothers rolled his casket to the center stage of Staples Center in Los Angeles.

Three years later, Crouch's music had a strong presence at the homegoing of another pop legend, Whitney Houston. This time, the musical vessel was not Crouch himself but his student Marvin Winans. Standing before a grief-stricken audience of family, friends, music legends, and curious onlookers, Winans belted out Crouch's latest hit, "Let the Church Say Amen," as he closed his eulogy of a woman who had been raised in New Hope Baptist Church under the tutelage of her mother, Cissy Houston; who had supported the careers of his younger siblings BeBe and CeCe Winans; and who fifteen years before her passing released the multi-platinum gospel album The Preacher's WifeThe presence of Crouch's music at both Houston's and Jackson's funerals not only symbolized his importance to the gospel sound but also showed how often African Americans have turned to this vibrant and life-affirming art form to make sense of the tragicomic reality of human existence.

As I reflected on what gospel music has meant to African Americans, my thoughts often turned to the song that inspired the book's title: Donald Lawrence and the Tri-City Singers' 1995 hit "When Sunday Comes." Seven minutes long, the song features gospel legend Daryl Coley on lead vocals. Throughout the performance, Coley titillates the crowd with a flurry of vocal riffs, drawing from the improvisational styles of both gospel and jazz. The audience's shouts of approval convey their agreement with his message of the joy that awaits Jesus's Second Coming and also their recognition of his mastery of form. "When Sunday Comes," as both a song and a metaphor, captures the wide range of emotions, relationships, and processes operating in African American gospel music: the climactic moment in a performance when a musician reaches the height of his or her artistic and spiritual powers, the gospel audience's contribution to and immediate recognition of such moments, and the deep cultural meanings the sacred songs hold for people of African descent in America.

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