For this arts-loving Bishop’s baby, music and faith are intertwined like sugar and sweetness– I can’t have one without the other. I know theologically speaking, one does not need music for faith, religious and spiritual practices– there are some denominations and churches that don’t even believe in the use of instruments or singing– but again, we’re in Mimi’s musings, and how this brain works, music is one of the key ways I am able to worship God and dive deeper into my faith.
Gospel music sets the tone for most of my days. Since I’m guilty of not attending a specific church every Sunday, music is my praise routine and one of the most intentional ways I practice my Christian faith — in addition to regularly praying. Music is often responsible for some of my deepest prayers, loudest praise and most eye-opening spiritual awakenings.
While I cherish sound as part of my spiritual practice, the interconnectedness between music and faith is biblical and, for African Americans, ancestral. It’s both in the Bible and our bones.
As the Association for the Study of African American History and Life (ASALH) uplifts “Black Resistance” as its 2023 theme, examining music and faith as sources of power and protest is key. Faith and music, and the intersection of the two, have historically and continue to be integral to Black Resistance.
Make a Joyful Noise
Now church, turn your Bible to the Book of Psalms. The title “Psalms,” comes from the Greek word “psalmoi,” and is generally translated to mean “songs,” or “instrumental music.” The words in Psalms are not only meant to be sung, but literally instruct to use music as a form of praise.
Psalm 100: 1-2 (KJV) says: “Make a joyful noise unto the Lord, all ye lands. Serve the Lord with gladness: come before his presence with singing.”
Then go to Psalm 150: 4-6 (KJV) which says. “Praise him with the timbrel and dance: Praise him with stringed instruments and organs. Praise him upon the loud cymbals. Praise him upon the high sounding cymbals. Let everything that hath breath Praise the Lord. Praise ye the Lord.”
Music from Africa to the Americas
In a 2022 Brown University article, Assistant Professor of African studies and music Charrise Barron said the “connection between music and protest and activism in Black American culture predates the founding of the American nation.”
“Black people who were brought to the U.S. through the transatlantic slave trade brought with them traditions of communal music-making,” Barron explained. “Music-making, for them, wasn’t just something they did as part of religious rituals — it was a part of what they did in community. And so once we began to see Black folks adopting Christianity in the U.S., before the end of slavery, we began to see them mix their music-making practices with the Christian music they were being taught and theologies they were developing. That birthed spirituals and other music that allowed them to express their hopes and frustrations about the situation they were in.”
From “Go-Down Moses,” to “Wade in the Water,” spirituals were religious freedom songs, expressing pain, praise, power and plans of action.
Hilary Daniel, a singer, educator and one of the stars of DC Black Broadway’s April production of “The Giz,” noted that spirituals rooted from the musical tradition of call-and-response — which started with African drums, survived the slave trade, and spread across plantations.
“Think about ‘Go Down Moses,’ where the leader sings verses and the chorus replies with each refrain, ‘Let my people go,’ that’s a perfect example of call-and-response,” Daniel said.
“Spirituals, while most consider them simply songs to keep spirits uplifted, [African Americans’] wit allowed for them to find ways to turn these songs literally into freedom,” the singer continued.
Barron unpacked how music was a powerful tool for African Americans to “send coded messages, communicate with allies and even persuade those who weren’t initially on the side of whatever cause they were fighting for.”
Beyond slavery, music and faith are central to Black culture.
Spiritual leaders such as the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Rev. Jesse Jackson, Rev. Al Sharpton and Minister Louis Farrakhan used their religious platforms, teachings and foundations as a means of fighting racism and empowering African Americans, ultimately leading large movements.
Consider Marian Anderson singing “My Country Tis of Thee” on Easter Sunday in 1939 as a form of protest, to marchers linking arms and chanting “We shall overcome,” to Kendrick Lamar declaring, “We gon’ be alright” in 2015” — these moments show the long tradition of music as a source of power and protest for Black Americans historically and today.