by Kevin Pyon
9 January 2017
The history of black gospel music is a tumultuous story of racial pride and community backlash, evangelical calling and worldly temptation. Since its inception during the “race records” industry of the 1920s-40s, black gospel served for many African Americans as a modern testament to the spiritual courage and cultural creativity of their enslaved forbearers. Yet how black gospel should sound and function has always been fraught with controversy. Should sacred music be instrumentally and vocally distinct from secular music? Can you save souls and sell records without compromising religious integrity?
The lives of black gospel artists do not provide simple answers. Former bluesman Thomas Dorsey faced scorn from mainline black churches for his “gospel blues,” a fusion of his past bluesy style with worship music. Yet Dorsey himself came to disdain the musical career and extravagant lifestyle of Rosetta Tharpe, whose “swinging spirituals” became an unprecedented hit with white and black audiences across America. Both Dorsey and Tharpe epitomize the diverse transformations of African American religion in the music industry. Their legacy can be traced in the hip hop-infused gospel music of Kirk Franklin in the 1990s and—most recently in 2016—in the gospel-infused hip hop music of Kanye West and Chance the Rapper.
Throughout The Life of Pablo, West is St. Paul the Apostle, sharing God’s Word to the world, Pablo Escobar the notorious drug lord, wantonly seeking pleasures with no limits, and Pablo Picasso the artist, creating an ingenious musical synthesis of the sacred and profane. Depending on the persona he assumes during any given track, the result is sometimes brilliant, sometimes trite, but always captivating.
West’s conflicted personalities produce songs like the opener “Ultralight Beam,” a gospel-heavy track featuring a stellar guest verse from Chance the Rapper. Opening with a call-and-response exchange about resisting the lures of the devil, the chorus presents the track as a revelation from God: “We on a ultralight beam (2x) / This is a God dream (2x).” Fittingly, the song closes with a prayer for God’s strength amidst life’s tribulations by Kirk Franklin. Taken by itself, “Ultralight Beam” is another powerful example of West’s revisions of black religiosity since his first major single “Jesus Walks” (2004).
Yet immediately following that worshipful opening track is “Father Stretch My Hands Pt. 1.” In this song, West’s hedonistic desires—the hook proclaims “I just wanna feel liberated”—clashes with his album’s overt religious agenda. The result is some of West’s most insipidly materialistic lyrics to date: “Now if I f— this model/ And she just bleached her a—h—/ And I get bleach on my T-shirt/ I’ma feel like an a—h—.” Here, West stumbles in his navigation of the sacred and profane dimensions of his music and lifestyle. The oscillation between religious creativity and profane banality typified by these opening two songs characterizes the rest of the eighteen tracks.
Picking up where he left off on West’s “Ultralight Beam,” Chance’s Coloring Book is a rap-gospel album in the worship style of Thomas Dorsey’s gospel blues. Released as a free “mixtape” to the public, the album continues his anti-capitalist, anti-record label approach to the music industry.
Chance’s rap gospel combines black activism, brimming optimism, youthful nostalgia, and church choirs to create songs like “Blessings,” wherein a soul hook testifies: “I’m gon’ praise Him, praise Him ‘til I’m gone (2x)/ When the praises go up, the blessings come down (2x).” The first verse of the song captures the album’s theme of black religious resiliency:
I don’t make songs for free, I make ‘em for freedom
Don’t believe in kings, believe in the Kingdom…
Jesus’ black life ain’t matter, I know I talked to his daddy
Said you the man of the house now, look out for your family
He has ordered my steps, gave me a sword with a crest
Chance equates the mixtape format of his album with not just freedom from the commercial sphere, but freedom to worship “in the Kingdom.” He rearticulates the motto “black lives matter” into a religious statement about “Jesus’ black life.” In doing so, Chance turns the political movement against police brutality into a divine sanction from God Himself, Jesus’ “daddy.”
Again, in “How Great is Our God,” Chance re-connects with a black religious heritage forged in the crucible of America slavery:
Don’t believe in singing, I see dollar signs
Color white collar crime,
Good God, the gift of freedom
Hosanna Santa invoked and woke up slaves from
South Hampton to Chatham Manor
Chance counters modern day “color white collar crime” with the religious spirit of Nat Turner’s slave revolt in Southampton County. In one stanza he traverses centuries to reinforce the continued significance of black religion in a contemporary world of capitalism and injustice.
West and Chance’s rap albums challenge our understandings of the limits of worship and worldly music. For West, the contradictions of his sacred and profane lifestyles sometimes pushes him to unmatched musical ingenuity, and other times to sheer banality. For Chance, gospel music functions as a sacred canopy from the corruptions of the record industry. Both artists, in their own ways, submit new entries in the ever-evolving catalog of black gospel music. We can only wonder in anticipation what they create next.
Kevin Pyon is an English PhD candidate at UNC-Chapel Hill who studies African American history, literature, music, and religion.