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Does contemporary Black worship music authenticate the African American community’s search for justice in God?

The question whether contemporary black worship music authenticates the African American community’s search for justice in God is well illustrated by the words of Obery Hendricks, Jr. He notes that: “Today the prophetic consciousness that, with head and heart, told black people to resist the horrific and race - based mistreatment and exploitation that bedeviled their every step no longer i nforms the music that once inspired them to action.” He further reflects that: “Gospel music has gained the world, but has lost the prophetic heart of black sacred music, (as revealed by) the biblical Exodus and its divine mandate of freedom.” (See: Hendr icks, Obery M. The Universe Bends toward Justice: Radical Reflections on the Bible, the Church, and the Body Politic (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2011), 1, 3).

Therefore, while the prophetic voice of black worship music in the past heralded the liberating God of Moses, who delivered His people from Egypt, the contemporary lyrics of black worship music today undermines a collective effort for justice, while being unmindful of God’s great deeds of justice. It negates the sacred worship songs of the past that invoke the power of the Holy Spirit to propel the heart of the black church to prophetically demand justice. This is unashamedly so, even in the recent past of the African American experience. An experience detailed in the protective, redeeming and libe rating presence of God, when that experience is navigated through the archives of slavery, to the era of Jim Crow, and from the accounts of Klan lynching, to the records of systemic segregation and discrimination.

The contemporary trend of black worship m usic to dispense with the power of Holy Spirit for justice in its songs is disturbing. This is considering the rash of killings of young African American men and women. Starting with the untimely death of an unarmed Trayvon Martin, in 2012 to the killin g of a fleeing Walter Scott this year, on camera for all to see, there is credence for a worship experience that not only seeks God’s protective presence but also His justice. This remains a constant reality check for the black church.

Let me unequivocally s tate that: All human life matter , and the taking of any life White, Black, or Brown - is despicable. However, unless we pretend to deny the truth, there exists the systematic elimination of black life. Hence, the need for the resurgence of worship music with lyrics that authentically profess the justice of God in the worship experience of the black church. This offers faith and hope to b lack life , and provides cultural relevance in the struggle for justice, equality and human dignity

It has been suggested that the lack of emphasis on God’s justice in contemporary black gospel music has evolved with the times. Therefore, the need for God’s justice in music is an overstated claim, considering the lyrical notes of contemporary black gosp el music that reflects black redemption in the Christian faith and black progress up the social ladder.

This supposition erroneously fails to consider the collective experience of the political oppression, social exclusion and economic deprivation that h as always pervaded the African American reality over time. Further, it fails to acknowledge the fact that God’s redemption for a people is always premised on God’s deeds of justice in the past for that people. This gives them faith to hope for a better f uture.

Therefore, the argument needs to be made that the urgency for black gospel music that professes God’s justice, resuscitates the African American spirit and resurrects the African American faith, in times of the community’s plight and distress resu lting from oppression. The resuscitation of the spirit and resurrection of the faith undergirds the foundation of the African

American belief in a God that is all knowing. This m ore so as we live in a time when the affront of racism has been uncovered to go well beyond the audacious nature of dog - whistling and the need to pretend .

Amos's diatribe against music in worship (Amos 5:23) is a position that is sometimes misunderstood. When placed in context this diatribe illuminates the need for worship music that professes God’s justice in worship. Amos speaks about the need for justic e and righteousness to remain an ever - flowing stream (Amos 5:24). Interestingly, the Book of Amos is funneled through a symmetrical poetry and a rhetorical zip that smacks of the vestiges of a contemporary black rap song that was lost in the Old Testament past.

Posted by John F. Udochi with 3 Comments


David Randolph Holder on November 23, 2017 4:21pm

Really important post John. The African American Church has virtually no justice songs written for its own day. Some of it is due to this "personal" gospel that is being preached vs. one that focuses on those out in the streets. However, if we were to look back, gospel music since the 1970's was not justice driven either in any way either. It reminds me of what Ambassador Andrew Young told me earlier this year that most Black churches in the South did not join the Civil Rights Movement because they were afraid. Today, I actually believe gospel songwriters have not been taught biblical justice so they can't write about it.

Sis Jerri on January 21, 2018 11:19pm

Great article Min John and Pastor is correct, in this day and time we as a people of color and under grace have lost our way and zeal for God and so therfore to justice inwhich Jesus practiced daily.
Justice is unfortunately not preached from the pulpit nowadays but I thank the Lord that it is always being shouted from the mountaintop at NYCC.

Donnie Fletcher on February 13, 2018 7:46am

My observation, and it's just a layman's view, is that the lack of justice content in contemporary Black worship music is more than likely due to long-held "conservative" definitions of both The Gospel and gospel music. It seems that many still hold the view that "it better only talk about Jesus, salvation, or talk about The Word. Otherwise, it's not The Gospel and it's not gospel music!" This view is still prevalent despite the presence of old negro spirituals like "Go Down Moses," a justice song coming straight out of Exodus! Many still believe that preaching about justice, in any form, music or otherwise, does not fit into those "conservative" parameters mentioned! While the Gospel is about Jesus, salvation and the Word of God, the "conservative" view of what constitutes that criteria is narrow.

But it seems like it doesn't stop at the lack of justice in gospel. For many years, songs that sounded "too secular" or "too worldly" were often criticized, even if the content did fit the "conservative" definitions mentioned. One remembers The Clark Sisters' "You Brought The Sunshine," despite its lyric of "Jesus is the answer," being criticized heavily for its then-contemporary sound.

Given the above points made, the challenge becomes the ability and courage to create content and music and withstand the criticism, much of which will be subjective, that comes with it.....!