The history of gospel music in both Britain and Black Britain is one that – despite the important efforts of a handful of pioneers – still has yet to be told.
While it is my privilege to be part of a research group that is collaborating on what will become the first-ever academic edited volume on Black British Gospel Music (for Routledge), my concern at this moment is not the canon of academic niceties that govern that sort of discourse concerning how this music should be understood. While the word ‘manifesto’ may be a little contrived for what follows, this post should indeed be understood as a declaration of intent regarding my bid to become a Senator of one of the most prestigious bodies in the Western music industry: the Ivors Academy. I have long held that classical music offers the most important intellectual musical challenges in Western music, and that jazz offers the most important creative musical challenges of Western music. I have also held that gospel music is both culturally rooted and culturally transcendent, and that for someone like me it is more than music, and more than a means by which articles of Christian faith can be expressed and shared; it is part of who I am in ways that speak directly to not only my religious faith identity but my ethnicity and cultural heritage – as well as my desire to operate across the widest possible range of human communities in which my identity/ies can be both understood and accepted. Although those of you familiar with my writing on this subject at the Theomusicology Blog will know that I have intensely complicated relationships with the general practice of gospel music here in the UK as well as with more than one element of the Black Church (as well as my own personal church affiliations, none of which are constitutionally part of the Black Majority Church movement) – to say nothing of the professional gospel music industry in the UK – after a great deal of angst, genuine trauma and intensive soul-searching, it is clear to me that there is nothing to be gained in trying to function solely in the contexts of jazz and classical music. There is a sense in which jazz will remain central to my identity for the rest of my life in ways that most will never understand, and there is also a sense in which classical music has given me much, much more than many can understand (and this is absolutely not at the cost of abdicating my ethnicity and cultural heritage as so many of my fellow BAME and BGM creative musical practitioners have done, whether they understand this or not). This is the very first time that there has been a Senate of the Ivors Academy and they have worked hard to try and widen participation with regards to creative musical genres/practices/traditions/communities/etc. I am standing as a prospective Senator for gospel music – and Black British gospel music in particular.
My interest in this opportunity corresponds directly to my single greatest concern for the practice of gospel music in the UK: the fact that much of the ecology of gospel music performance practice here in Britain takes the form of performances of covers of recordings made by outstanding African-American artists whose output is readily consumed by members of the Black Church and other audience constituencies for African-American gospel music here in the UK. It has been exactly 30 years this year since I began to travel (as a teenager) from Manchester to London in order to listen to the Croydon Gospel Choir, directed by a young conductor eight years my senior and barely into his twenties: Ken Burton. Ken Burton stood on the shoulders of Seventh-day Adventist gospel music pioneers such as Oscar Stewart (not only a leading light in the family ensemble The Singing Stewarts but later a path-breaking choral director with the Handsworth Youth Chorale and a very good family friend; we lost him far too soon) but also John Tolman (the founder of the London Adventist Chorale, the professional directorship of which Burton would assume in 1992). The LAC were the very first group to achieve a phenomenal level of excellence in the arranged spirituals tradition and other more sophisticated forms of Black Sacred Music in four parts and more, and the CGC was the first ‘straight-up’ gospel choir to operate with a full-time bass section – which meant a panoply of new arrangements and compositions from one Ken Burton, Esq. And there have been many other artists/creatives developing original music here in the UK over the last forty years. However, there are two very big things that the professional gospel music industry has not achieved here in the UK: a) we have not really succeeded in exporting original music from these shores to the world at large, and there are many reasons for this (some of which must by necessity remain unsaid at this time); b) we have not succeeded in developing infrastructures for the development and maintenance of sustainable incomes from songwriting and new music production.
While it was great that Karen Gibson and her Kingdom Choir were able to take the opportunity to perform a cover arrangement of an old classic at one of the most high-profile events in recent history (even still at this time of writing), it would be wonderful to see an upsurge of original songwriting that is as technically informed as it can be and as truly British – as well as Black British – as it can be. It has not been easy for me to reach the point where I can actually re-envision the gospel music industry here in the UK, and if I am honest, there is a sense in which that project is still a work in progress. But in my other vocational identities – not least as a mental health researcher – I understand with increasing clarity and force that if we do not have hope, we do not have anything. And so I put my heart as well as my mind on the line to say that whatever happens to my election bid, I hope for something exponentially better than anything I have experienced so far in British gospel music. I hope for more recordings and more new songs from our established SAT (i.e. three-part) gospel ensembles, and I hope that there can eventually be more groups working in gospel music who can work in four and more parts without the repertoire they sing being accused of not being ‘gospel music’ simply because it is not clichéd, saccharine and ‘accessible’. What I am about to say will not be popular in many quarters, but I am concerned that a vast amount of what is produced under the rubric ‘gospel’ here in the UK has become nothing more than newly-inscribed minstrelsy – a minstrelsy sponsored by many of our media establishments who have a vested interest in maintaining a sense of the anthropological inferiority of b/Black and BAME people/s whilst denying anything of the sort. It is my sworn intention to resist this egregious calumny and pernicious madness (not least when black people reinforce it) for the rest of my days with every fibre of my being, and to campaign for an understanding of this music that can emerge from the shadow of the outstandingly talented Americans (and other Black diaspora people/s like the outrageously gifted Jason Max Ferdinand, himself inspired as a much younger man by the extraordinary ground-breaking achievements of Ken Burton with the London Adventist Chorale back in the day).
As a composer-creative in my own right, my creative ethos and identity can be summed up in one clause: to create a new sound for the contemporary musical sacred by bringing gospel music into constructive dialogue with classical music and jazz. However, this does not mean that I will only write music that is exclusively for performance in Christian church contexts; what it means is that my own creativity will continue to exemplify the reality of my identity as black (not Black), Christian and non-sectarian. My artistic ambitions are greater than my commercial ambitions, but in an increasingly dissolute and broken world, commercial success that would at least mean that a message of hope and encouragement could be shared with as many people as possible is something that I now pursue in ways I did not before – and not only for myself.
I would be hugely grateful if all those eligible to vote could and would vote for me: https://ballot.ukevote.uk/ivors
And I would be delighted if people could spread the word about this campaign so at least we can grow conversations about this music that include an increasingly wide variety of perspectives.
Thank you so much for taking the time to read this, and for your support.
Blessings to each of you and all of yours,