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.