Celebrating Gospel Music After the Civil Rights Era

Gospel artist Kirk Franklin 2017 Soul Train Awards in Las Vegas, Nevada on November 5, 2017 (Jamie Lamor Thompson / Shutterstock.com)

Late in March 2021, Black Twitter became enraptured by a leaked call between critically acclaimed gospel artist, Kirk Franklin, and his son, Kerrion. In this call, the cool, energetic demeanor characteristic of the celebrity’s public persona slips as he and his son trade a few insults and threats. Through this unfortunate exchange, Franklin provides the public with an opportunity to grapple with the responsibilities of gospel artists as some of Black America’s spiritual role models. Like many artists before him, Franklin finds himself in the thick of the persistent conflict between the secular and the sacred. How do gospel musicians balance the personal, the communal, and their calling to serve the Lord?

The tension between the sacred and the secular did not emerge in the twenty-first century. Claudrena Harold’s When Sunday Comes: Gospel Music in the Soul and Hip-Hop Eras is a masterclass in navigating the tumultuous debates that have occupied the gospel music industry since its founding in the early-twentieth century. As the chair of the University of Virginia’s History Department, Harold is known for her intellectual and creative investment in African American political activism as well as her passion for music. When Sunday Comes merges the two fields for a groundbreaking study. 

Arguing that gospel music and artists are at the foundation of Black culture and activism, Harold builds on the scholarship of theologians, historians, and musicologists such as James Cone, Trey Ellis, and Norma Jean Pender. She weaves together national politics, local histories, and life stories over the course of eleven chapters to explore an understudied period in the history of gospel music. When Sunday Comes moves readers through the last three decades of the twentieth century to spotlight the musical innovation and unique challenges faced by the gospel industry in post-civil rights Black America. This “collective biography” gives insight into the upbringings, musical training, and personal struggles of gospel greats like James Cleveland, Shirley Caesar, Andraé Crouch, and John P. Kee (9). Through their personal histories, Harold weaves together a portrait of modern gospel music that imposes its presence on our greater understanding of Black cultural and political life after the “golden era” (1945-65) of the genre (13).

With a focus on the living archives—”the people, churches, record stores, and studios”—Harold writes with deliberate intention to center the voices of institution-builders, gospel listeners, and the artists that moved the genre forward (7). An avid fan of gospel music herself, she goes straight to the sources when pulling together the riveting details of a thirty-year long journey from the baptismal sounds of Mahalia Jackson to the powerhouse vocals of Yolonda Adams. Magazine columns and pop culture publications, artist interviews, Christian television programming, released and unreleased music, comic books, concert memorabilia, biographies, and the administrative papers of James Cleveland’s Gospel Music Workshop of America get at the roots of spirituality as experienced by Black people across the country from 1970 to 2000.

In using a wide breadth of source material, Harold situates geographic location at the forefront of this special moment in music history. Looking to artists such as Andraé Crouch, Al Green, the Clark Sisters, and the Winans, she unravels the ways that hometown sounds as well as local politics influenced the ever-changing artistry of gospel music. The experiences of growing up in cities like Durham, Detroit, Chicago, and Los Angeles shaped the political and spiritual motivations of many gospel musicians. Contending with the consequences of racial violence, deindustrialization, inner-city crime, and poverty, gospel artists used their music to cultivate a growing consciousness within their church-based communities in hopes of bridging the gaps between the sacred and the secular, the holy and the political. There is no agreement within or without the community on the true form of gospel music and several artists between 1970 and 2000 took it upon themselves to push the limits of the genre. 

In a similar vein to Toni Morrison, Harold writes this history without the urge to over-explain the multitudes of Blackness, specifically the culture of the Black church. Through colloquial phrases and dynamic descriptions of the music and performances that populate the three decades under study, she manages to introduce readers to the whispers and the shouts of the sanctuary. In eleven chapters, she glides through thirty years of musical developments and the artists’ struggles to prove the relevance of gospel music to the spiritual and political consciousness of the Black community. Harold pushes readers to celebrate the brilliance of artists such as Walter Hawkins, Vanessa Bell Armstrong, BeBe and CeCe Winans, and Kirk Franklin while recognizing and uplifting their humanity as the flawed spiritual pillars of Black America. Wading into the waters of conflict and controversy, Harold evokes popular debates over musical stylings, traditional versus modern, and crossover artistry. In many ways, When Sunday Comes serves as a playbook for the gospel enthusiast and critic alike.

Unfortunately, despite covering a wide range of topics and artists, Harold falls short when interrogating the gender politics of the gospel music industry. Outside of her insight on the personal decisions of Shirley Caesar, there is little here about the challenges women such as the Clark Sisters and Yolonda Adams faced in the industry. Their struggles attempting to carve out a space in the male-dominated business call for greater attention in future studies.

Building on scholarship that explores the “golden era,” Harold introduces the history of gospel music to a younger generation of readers (and listeners) while making space for the intergenerational learning and love that has grounded and sustained the genre since the early twentieth century. As a new generation of gospel artists such as the Walls Group, Koryn Hawthorne, and Lecrae stake their claim in the world of gospel, they bring with them a new outlook on the role and responsibilities of gospel musicians. Their decisions as artists, like those that came before them, will be crucial in answering the come-to-Jesus question proposed by When Sunday Comes: Where is Black America’s spirit headed and who is leading the way?

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Keiara Price

Keiara Price is a graduate student at Rutgers University. Her specialties are African American history and the history of women and gender.

Comments on “Celebrating Gospel Music After the Civil Rights Era

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    does she get into the political implications of the Gospels of Prosperity in much of contemporary music?

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    This is a well researched and thought out article . This article is very intriguing and it makes me yearn to learn more.

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