Why a project on gospel and pop deserves attention

The author is membership program director of the National Federation of Community Broadcasters. NFCB commentaries are featured regularly at www.radioworld.com.

A new effort examining religion's intersection in pop culture may get you thinking about and exploring community media’s incursions into this special conversation.

Philadelphia’s WXPN recently announced plans to distribute a radio documentary and short-run podcast on the influence of African-American spirituals on rock and soul music. According to the public media publication Current, “The Gospel Roots of Rock and Soul” is the noncommercial radio station’s third music-based endeavor to be funded by the Pew Center for Arts and Heritage. In addition to the podcast and documentary, the project will have a website and host live performances that recognize gospel’s dominion in popular music.

Tracing this generations-long relationship is clearly one of the more intriguing backstories in rock and soul. The Rolling Stones, Aretha Franklin and many more Rock & Roll Hall of Fame inductees and nominees have saluted spirituals for shaping their maturation as performers. Moreover, the influence of gospel is something we overlook or simply take for granted.

[Read: Community Broadcaster: Amping Up Low Power]

I was first awestruck by how music often associated with churches could transform a song when I first heard Sam Cooke. The rhythm and blues legend wrote “A Change is Gonna Come” in 1964, after experiencing the harsh realities of segregation in Louisiana. A bona fide superstar at the time, with the iconic tracks “You Send Me” and “Chain Gang” among a string of hits to his credit, Cooke was stunned by the rude treatment he received and ugly racism he experienced. The Mississippi native had spent his early career as part of the Soul Stirrers gospel group, and summoned that element to a song that became what the Smithsonian would call one of pop music’s most historically significant entries.

“I was born by the river in a little tent/Oh, and just like the river I’ve been running ever since,” Cooke crooned as if in service. “It’s been a long time, a long time coming/But I know a change gonna come, Oh, yes, it will.” With “Change” came a civil rights anthem still celebrated today.

Gospel’s influence is hardly the stuff of long-gone eras, though. Chance the Rapper’s biggest release, 2016’s “Coloring Book”, has been covered extensively for its faith-based themes and spiritual touches in sound. The zenith of Beyonce’s “Lemonade” is the song “Freedom,” a song whose lyrics and flourishes are inspired heavily by religious music. If hearing didn’t convince you, the official video makes it abundantly clear, as Beyonce’s beautiful voice belts it a cappella before a small congregation.

Community radio stations offer many soul, blues and rock music programs where gospel’s impact continues. There’s also much faith-based music to catch as well.

Some might assume community media eschews this content, and may in some areas. However, all you need to do is look around to see the mix of programming available. Community radio stations around the nation feature religious music programs of all sorts. There is Gil Fears’ long-running Los Angeles gospel program and KOPN airing faith-based sounds in Missouri. At Houston’s KTSU, the station, operated by the HBCU known as Texas Southern University, the station features gospel from sun-up Sunday into the next day.

Organizations like National Religious Broadcasters do a splendid job of supporting Christian broadcasters. They also help these stations serve their mission-oriented service to communities in unique and at times bold ways. From compliance issues to addressing the issue of religious freedom, NRB and others have an open approach to how they see their place in civil society. Community media similarly should understand how stations serve their respective cities and towns and varying beliefs therein.

In difficult and polarized times, faith can unite people from different walks of life around a core set of values. It is the sort of unity community radio leaders regularly say they hope to emulate, a way of creating dialogue and shared sense of place and purpose. Some stations do this by offering different sorts of programming, like gospel, that appeals to divergent constituencies. Others, like Grand Rapids’ WYCE, seek to strike an overarching tone that appeals broadly and across differing viewpoints. Maybe WXPN’s initiative may motivate your station to see how it can tell a story about your own community.

[Want more information like this? Subscribe to our newsletter and get it delivered right to your inbox.]

Related