Ever since President Jimmy Carter held the first Black Music Month celebration on June 7, 1979, the country has observed the great contributions of African-American artists in June. The genres of rap, pop, and rhythm and blues are among the most popular in recent years, but I like to pause and reflect on my personal favorite: gospel music. Gospel music has been an influential part of my life since childhood. Growing up in Ebenezer Baptist Church West in Athens during the 1970s and ’80s, I looked forward to the worship and praise of our services every Sunday.
Choirs were really popular during this time before praise teams and praise dancing emerged, and as a child I thought the tailored robes that Ebenezer choir members wore were especially cool. I made sure that I had a good seat each Sunday so that I could watch them line up and march into the sanctuary.
One processional song that the congregation particularly loved was Dr. Margaret P. Douroux’s “If It Had Not Been for the Lord,” which was released in 1980. This stanza was genuinely moving: “He kept my enemies away/He let the sun shine through a cloudy day/He rocked me in the cradle of his arm when he knew I had been battered and scorned.”
I was too young to understand what being “battered and scorned” meant, and I had not experienced the annoyance of having an enemy, but from the emotions the adults displayed of raised hands and even tears, I knew this song touched the core of their spirits.
Gospel music has this effect because it is the lyrical expression of the resurrection power of Jesus Christ. In many African-American churches, you will often hear people say the choir or the praise team sang “till the Spirit came down” or that a song’s “anointing” ushered everyone into the presence of God.
Some legendary gospel singers who were known to tap heavily into the Spirit were Mahalia Jackson, Andrae Crouch and Inez Andrews. I never grow tired of listening to Mahalia’s velvet contralto voice in “Trouble of The World,” Crouch’s brilliant blend of horns and piano in “Take Me Back,” and the slapping gospel blues bass in Andrews’ “Lord Don’t Move My Mountain.”
In March, we lost another legendary gospel voice in Daryl Coley. Coley had a tenor range that would, to paraphrase Tamela Mann, take you to the King. Just listen to his “When Sunday Comes” collaboration with Donald Lawrence and you’ll be in a worship mode all day long. Coley compellingly sang about overcoming trials and how our tribulations were molding us for a greater purpose. This theme is found in “He’s Preparing Me,” one of Coley’s most beloved songs, where he sings about how God trains, tunes, purges and prunes us for everything that comes in life.
The ministry of gospel music is one that uplifts, delivers and heals, and anointed worship leaders operate in their musical gifts that get the church on one accord. We see this now with praise teams, and when I come home to Ebenezer I always enjoy hearing Jaclyn Brown sing during the beginning of service.
We grew up together in Ebenezer, and the signature song from her that I always remember when we were kids was her belting out “I’m Gonna Sing When the Spirit Says Sing” as a true soprano at 6 years old.
A former 2013 BET “Sunday Best” contestant, Jaclyn sings with lively passion and hope, and has the kind of soul-stirring voice that leaves you hanging on each note.
As I’ve listened to gospel music while maturing in adulthood, I’ve learned to appreciate how specific songs reflect the trajectory of my life. How a song lifts a heavy burden or decrees triumph in an area of struggle.
Gospel music just has a distinctive way of speaking to your inner person, urging you to live victoriously as God intended. It’s definitely the soundtrack of my soul, which I’m proudly celebrating this month.