The pitfalls of gospel tourism

Fiqah over at Racialicious and Possum Stew has an extensive, fascinating and much-needed take-down of Harlem gospel tours, from a personal perspective.

As you may know, there are plenty of African-American, largely Baptist, churches in Harlem which are well-known for their excellent (primarily gospel) music.  It’s not necessary to be a believer to appreciate the talent and incredible sound, and Fiqah herself describes how she’s not religious, but rather goes to church with a friend occasionally just to appreciate the music.  This doesn’t seem at all problematic to me; a few people going occasionally, behaving respectfully toward church community members, and appreciating good music can only be positive.

However, to make money, some churches have opened up to “gospel tours,” which essentially means white Americans and European and Asian tourists paying money to come in and hear the music.  But Fiqah describes some downright disrespectful behavior: nonstop talking, cell phone conversations, and worst of all, acting like the service and the music were spectacles to be gawked at instead of human beings making some good sounds in the service of their beliefs.

When people’s experiences on these tours have been written up, it sounds uncomfortably like old-school ethnomusicology (read: “I went to a faraway place with strange brown-skinned natives and listened to their crazy music.  They are so sensual and primitive!”):

I meet Tim Rawlins at the Memorial Baptist church choir practise. He’s rare proof of the fact that white men can sing gospel. He says I’ve got to surrender to the music – feel it – and forget I’m English.

Tim: “What I like about gospel music, is that it breaks from that old European tradition which separates intellect and reason from feeling and really in Gospel music you feel with great thought and you think with great feeling…”

That probably means loosening up physically too. When the elderly women start to practice I find myself entranced watching the soloist, Lonnie Gray. She’s 77 years old but she’s out there, her face enraptured, her hips swaying, moving with the rhythm – feeling it.

Please, spare me.

The takeaway: respectfully appreciating, enjoying, potentially participating in, learning about music of other communities, and hopefully thereby building relationships across communities = good.  Fetishizing those communities and reinforcing existing problematic power structures = emphatically not good.

Ethnomusicology has largely moved on from this approach; maybe we need to be doing more as a discipline to help educate mainstream society on respectful, egalitarian ways to learn about musical communities.

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4 thoughts on “The pitfalls of gospel tourism

  1. wow, what a fascinating story, thanks for pointing it out! I’m totally going to use this for a class discussion at some point

    I’ve myself twice been assigned to go to church for a class–once in an undergraduate ethno class, and again in a graduate class on gospel music. In the latter case, ethics were less of a worry because our professor was a member of the congregation and had coached us–and the congregation–on the situation. But I’ve always felt very weird about the undergraduate experience. Our professor just sent us off into whatever local church we chose, without much training, and with the instructions to do a simple ethnography. I went to a staid mainline methodist church and so knew how to behave–and they were thrilled to have someone under the age of 40 in attendance–but I cringe at remembering what some of my classmates ended up doing.

  2. Thanks Fiqah!

    PMG, interesting point and one that hits home as I am currently in a field methods class where we are participating in musical events at local churches. In our case I feel pretty good about the ethics–our professor knew the pastors beforehand, got in touch with the church communities over the summer to ask if it was ok, and the churches have been really welcoming of us–but nonetheless my classmates and I have been navigating some of the same questions.

    For example, most of us do not share the same religious beliefs as these churches so it has been tough finding the right balance between participating enough in services, and not participating at times when that might seem like we are professing beliefs we do not have, or when it would be disrespectful of the beliefs of church members.

    Anyway, at least we’re coming up in ethnomusicology in a time when the discipline is trying to train us away from some of these more racist/essentialist/primitivist characterizations of musical communities–not that we don’t still have to reckon with it, but I think the reckoning is slowly getting a little easier.

  3. Pingback: Participation, the Wauwatosa casserole brigade, and the notion of gospel brunch « Meredith Aska McBride

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