Last week, PBS held a special screening and Q & A session centered on their latest series “The Black Church.”
The series is a four-hour, two-part special from executive producer, host and writer Henry Louis Gates, Jr. the Alphonse Fletcher University Professor at Harvard University and director of the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research. Gates takes us through the influence of religion on the African American experience not only in the United States, but centuries ago in Africa. It is through worship that Black Americans have found a voice of resilience and connectivity to their roots. The original nature of Christianity in the Americans has continually been thought of as a white institute brought onto Africans during slavery, but African Americans have turned evangelism into a narrative they’re become proud to embrace. Their efforts are found in what we know today as music; Gospel, Jazz, R&B, and more. The Black Church takes all preconceived notions on the what we think we know, and shows us even more.
The screening began with words from Matthew Head, an Emmy winning composer who created the film’s score. Head acknowledged that the film couldn’t be done with the help of Johnson and Johnson, along with Gates, and more. For instance, musician John Legend served as an executive producer. The Q&A was moderated by Darlene McCoy. In attendance, series director and producer Stacey Holman, Anthony Hamilton, and Jekalyn Carr.
McCoy began by asking the panelists about their favorite Gospel track. R&B legend, Anthony Hamilton, answered with “I Don’t Feel Noways Tired” by James Cleveland, known as the King of Gospel. “I saw my grandmother on those tired days after a week of hard work and taking care of the family. That song brought her piece and gave her strength again,” said Hamilton. All of the panelists elaborated on where their love of Gospel came from. Most spoke about their families and how heading to church was a weekly occurrence. When asked about a Gospel song that moved her, Grammy nominated Gospel songstress Jekalyn Carr couldn’t pinpoint only one. Carr stated, “I love hymns. They call me an old soul, but it just connects me to my roots. This is where Gospel music started anyway.” As the youngest panelist, Carr spoke on the role of music in the Black church today as she’s transcended into major figure of blending new and old sounds. “I think that when you really look back on how it all got started and how we have our service and when we’re home we lean on good music because Gospel music gives us that extra push that we need. It’s intertwined with our faith and we can listen to Gospel songs and lift our spirits,” said Carr. She further added how good Gospel music is a pillar that one can lean one.
Gospel music tells the history of the church. “It was something that was forbidden and it became something that was so precious and we held it so dear to us that it became something almost magical to the black community,” said Hamilton. However, Gospel isn’t only a thing of the past, but a gleam of our present and pathway to our future. McCoy explained,“The evolution of Gospel music is so big now. It seems like you’ve got Gospel music in every genre.” Chords distinct in Gospel have often bellowed throughout all genres of music, and across all times. Head noted examples just the week prior. “It has an awareness that’ll lock you in. I was watching the Superbowl and to hear H.E.R sing America the Beautiful. She had a whole bunch of Gospel moments in there,” stated Head. “I just feel like the emotion that Gospel brings and the power that it brings to you and the feeling that it brings is in all the music from Blues to Jazz to R&B to Rock to Hip Hop. It’s everywhere. It’s evolved all across the globe and it’s our language.”
Director Stacey Holman added to this by expending on the effects of blending Gospel music worldwide. She spoke about Sister Rosetta Tharpe, a Gospel icon known for her unique use of sound and lyricism. Sister Tharpe’s legacy is spotlighted in the docu-series.“She was crossing over. She used guitar sound, the way she sang. You look at the Blues, you look at Rock and Roll. That is her. So I think it naturally spills over. It’s just a natural flow of it. I think it can’t help itself,” said Holman
Next, the panelists spoke about how the resurgence of Black Lives Matter last Summer affected viewing the documentary. Head explained how the series was filmed during the same time as the resurgence. There’s been a standstill in attention, but the issue of the unlawful killings of Black men and women in America is still prevalent. Holman added, “I know with my other director and co-producers we were like this film needs to come out now.” Although that didn’t work out, Holman felt the message behind this series is valid. “This film really speaks to what I believe a lot of people are in need of which is hope,” said Holman.
The discussion was brought to an end with a question from an audience member. It pertained to if the power of church music has lost it’s popularity with the rise of contemporary music. All the panelists disagreed stating that it hasn’t lost it’s power, but artists express themselves differently, and all in different times. “You get a mixture of the tradition and then you also get the mix of contemporary. All of that put together, and it still houses the foundation. I think it’s beautiful,” said Carr.