This essay is published by The American Prospect in partnership with The OpEd Project's University of Texas at Austin Public Voices Fellowship.
Any recognition of black history and culture in this month or the next must acknowledge the central role spirituality and religiosity have played in the lives of African Americans. In the face of the killings of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, and countless other black men and women who have needlessly lost their lives, if we ever needed faith before, we sure do need it now.
So it was with great interest I watched the Grammys and reveled in the power and resonance of John Legend and Common performing “Glory” the song they wrote for the movie Selma. Then my heart sank instantly when a rendition of the gospel song “Take My Hand Precious Lord” was performed by Beyoncé.
Historically, spirituals and gospel music played an important role in the struggle for civil rights. These songs, also called freedom songs, were often the emotional spark behind the marches, sit-ins, and other forms of peaceful demonstrations. When the lyrics to the slave spiritual “I Woke Up This Morning With My Mind Stayed on Jesus” were altered to “I woke up this morning with my mind stayed on freedom,” this conveyed that freedom and equal rights were just as important as knowing Jesus.
This is not insignificant when you consider research consistently shows African Americans are among the most religious of all ethnic groups. For African Americans with a strong Christian identity, replacing “Jesus” with the word “freedom” was significant. It showed the link between religion and the civil rights movement. It also demonstrated the power freedom songs had to move ordinary citizens to revolutionary action.
Referred to as the “Queen of Gospel,” Mahalia Jackson was considered by many to be the greatest gospel singer of all time. She was internationally known for her powerful contralto voice. She was also known for her civil rights activism. The average American may not be familiar with her (unless they’ve watched the 1959 version of the classic movie Imitation of Life starring Lana Turner) so Selma may be the first time some people have heard of her. However, for many African Americans of a certain age, Jackson represented the pinnacle of gospel music.
The power of gospel music lies as much in the authenticity of the singer as much as it does in the power of the lyrics. Everyone can’t sing gospel. Or using an idiom from African-American culture, you may be appointed but not anointed. Translation: You may be a talented singer, but singing gospel music is about much more than having raw talent. There is a certain gravitas and realness that exudes from the best gospel singers. They’ve been through some trials and tribulations.
Like many African Americans, I was surprised to see "Precious Lord" performed by Beyoncé instead of Ledisi, who portrayed Jackson singing the song over the phone to Martin Luther King, Jr. (played by David Oyelowo) during the movie as a healing balm in a tense moment. By some accounts Beyoncé turned in a great performance. However, as she took up the song, I found myself incredibly agitated and angry. Growing up in the black church and being a musician, I know the power of gospel music and the impact it has on people. As I watched Beyoncé sing, I thought her rendition was out of place, and consequently found myself emotionless and unmoved.
This was perplexing, as I recall the countless number of times my mother sang this song in church. Each time the song was sung people would be rendered to tears. I know I sound harsh and overly critical, but I’m keeping it real. Beyoncé may have been technically great, but she failed miserably in her connection with African-Americans for whom gospel music was a central part of their experience. Judging from the large number of social media commentaries, especially by African Americans, I was not alone in my reactions.
Beyonce’s seemingly innocuous act immediately resulted in a controversy. Was Beyonce throwing shade—a.k.a., disrepect—at Ledisi? Was she using her power and fame to sing a powerful song loved by Martin Luther King, Jr. and symbolic of the civil rights struggle? Or did she simply sing the song for the pain her father and other black men experienced when they attended all-white schools, which was her quickly publicized explanation after receiving the unexpected backlash?
While this makes for interesting watercooler conversation, I am less interested in Beyoncé’s motivations and more interested in why some African Americans reacted so negatively. To understand this requires a deeper understanding of the role of spirituality and the power and centrality of gospel music in black culture.
In 2006, Oprah Winfrey aired scenes from a three-day celebration at her California home honoring 25 African-American women who were luminaries in art, entertainment, and civil rights. The most memorable and powerful moment for me was the gospel brunch. Gospel singers Denetria Champ and BeBe Winans were two of the performers. At one point Oprah turns to Winans and says, “You know what needs to happen.” What followed was simply remarkable. Winans started to sing the gospel song “Changed,” and without warning he gives the microphone to the 11-time Grammy Award winner and “First Lady of Gospel Music,” Shirley Caesar. In a totally unscripted moment, Shirley Caesar grabs the microphone and starts singing. If you have ever witnessed Caesar performing, you know she commands a deeply spiritual presence rooted in an organic and sustained connection to the black church.
Winans then hands the microphone to Dionne Warwick, and then to four-time Grammy Award winner and 16-time Stellar Music Gospel Award Winner Yolanda Adams. If you are unfamiliar with Adams, watch her 2012 NAACP Image Awards tribute to Whitney Houston. Few gospel singers today can match the power, emotion and grace of Yolanda Adams.
In a series of unscripted performances, the microphone exchanged hands one luminary after another. Chaka Khan. Gladys Knight. Valerie Simpson. And when the microphone was passed to Patti LaBelle, Patti did what Patti does: She brought the house down!
Famed actor Sidney Poitier described the experience as “Spontaneity was the force. It was spectacular.” ABC News anchor Diane Sawyer said about the experience: “For the rest of my life, I think that may be the most transcendently spiritual moment I’ve ever been part of.”
That is how gospel music is supposed to make you feel. At its best, gospel music is spontaneous, improvisational, emotional and authentic. Gospel music is a reflection of black culture. The gospel singer connects with her or his audience in a profoundly personal and spiritual way.
This is what African Americans expect when hearing songs like “Precious Lord, Take My Hand.” After all, this was a song written by Thomas Dorsey after his wife died during childbirth followed by the death of his infant son. There is a pain and sadness in the lyrics that cannot simply be performed.
Conversely, Beyoncé’s performance, and the lack of due diligence to authenticity and cultural relevance, serves as a metaphor for the tone-deafness black people and movements like #blacklivesmatter seek to address.
Sorry Queen Bey. Gospel music should not be commodified as the revolution won’t be, either. Ultimately, no amount of pop stardom and superficial attention in what is arguably an exceptional cultural moment in time can replace the gravitas needed to sing a song like “Precious Lord, Take My Hand” in a way that emotionally moves people.