(Photo by John Shearer/Invision/AP)
Beyoncé performs "Take My Hand Precious Lord" at the 2015 Grammy Awards ceremony.
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.