For centuries, gospel music has evolved to become a form of artistic expression that helps understand the roots of American music. In particular, African American gospel music has become an important musical genre that expresses the roots of the African American heritage. According to Murphy, the African American church and gospel are shared institutions among protestant denominations developed and administered by members of this social group in the United States. Indeed, it has developed into a religious ideology for the African American Christian churches (Akanle and Shadare 31). Many African American gospel music concerts tend to portray this characteristic, which portrays the Christian faith as well as the identity of the African Americans. A recent gospel concert “Royalty: Live at the Ryman” by Tasha Cobbs Leonard can be used as a good example to develop an ethnographic analysis of the modern African American gospel concerts.
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Tasha Cobbs Lenoard, an American gospel musician and songwriter, performed the concert “Royalty: Live at the Ryman” at the Ryman Longform Concert on 12th February 2021. During the session, the performer, as well as the large audience, is actively involved in dancing and singing. Throughout the performance, the singing is accompanies by loud musical instruments, particularly the piano, guitars, and drums. Furthermore, the performers dance vigorously, moving the entire body and frequently changing positions. There are also lights that focus mainly on the lead singer at the dais but also change positions frequently to focus on the audience as well as the band behind the performer (Akanle and Shadare 31). Moreover, there is a good coordination between the lead performer and the entire audience that singings and dances along with her.
Ethnographically, the first thing that one notes in the concert is the concept of emotions. The performer is the main character in the concert and the chief individual through which emotions can be defined. Noteworthy, there is a happy mood expressed in the performer’s face. As the musical continues, emotions rise and the performer become ecstatic as a sign of devotion to God. Indeed, the audience also copies the emotions that the lead performer portrays at a given time, making the entire hall overjoyed and rapturous. This is one of the major characteristics that the African American gospel music portrays (Akanle and Shadare 31). According to Hill, during many sessions in most African American gospel music concerts, an inner spirituality and an inward focus are created. As the author states, these aspects cannot be taught but highly encouraged in the African American Christian churches (Titon 4). The performance and the ecstatic emotions arising from the session tend to act as facilitators to achieve something that is spiritually great. Historically, African American gospel music tends to manifest spiritual freedom (Boon 252). This ethnographic observation is in line with the view that most African American music, whether gospel or otherwise, manifest both social and political freedoms. The performance shows that music is a tool that becomes fluid for inchoate and winged power of the Holy Spirit that allows the body to experience its full and true freedom in the Promised Land. In a Christian view, the Holy Spirit is located in the human body and its revelation occurs when the actions of the congregants show joyful speech as well as the shouting behavior. This behavior is a transcdendental experience that most ethnographers are likely to meet when interacting with and observing praise and worship sessions in most evangelical churches dominated by African American congregants.
In the concert, the body language observed tells the common and traditional characteristics of the African American churches in the United States. In this performance, there is a more expressive and creative approach that the lead singer and the band use. This is in contrast to the traditional Western and white-dominated mainstream churches that use a more limited approach to singing in church (Akanle and Shadare 31). The approach in this song creates an atmosphere where the body actions promote flexibility in the tempo and expressions. Consequently, this style seems to encourage emotionally charged performance and interpretation of the music, a common phenomenon in most evangelical churches associated with African Americans.
Another aspect that is observable in the concert is the pace at which the musical performance takes place. At the start, it is slow and relatively calm and the lead singer slowly leads the still audience in setting a pace. But as the music progresses, the sound bursts through the room as the performer and the audience rock and sway to the steady beats on the drum set, powerful guitars, and piano (Boone 249). The vowels are both articulate and bright and the mood is energetic and uplifting. The pianist is observed pounding the piano keys and seques nicely towards the end of each piece. Consequently, the coordination brings the tempo, energy, and volume down to a more relaxed level when each piece is ending. However, at the mid of each peach, the performer and the audience are overjoyed and highly spiritual and appear to be overwhelmed with emotions as their voices seem to reach the climax.
The relationship between the music, the performer, and the audience provides evidence that there is “concert audience understanding” of the context and content. It should be noted that in ethnomusicology, the nature of the concert determines the manner in which the audience receives the performance. In most African American gospel music concerts, the concept of Gospel Extravaganza emerges and alludes to the notion that the audience is almost always familiar with the musical piece (Akanle and Shadare 36). It provides evidence that the audience is mainly composed of individuals or groups who have some background understanding of the music and the musician. Consequently, it is evident that the audience is homogenous in terms of religious background, which means that they belong to the church and are aware of its traditions. This observation also demonstrates the audience’s identity as that of the African American evangelical Christians. In the video, it can be seen that the audience is not only familiar with the songs, they are also aware of the historical significance in the church’s tradition. Furthermore, the audience’s familiarity with the music and the performer demonstrates their ability to appreciate the value in the words and themes, which relate to the traditions of the African American evangelical churches. Therefore, it can be deduced that the homogeneity of the audience is a common phenomenon that gives the church its identity in the history of African Americans in the country.
Unity is also a critical aspect or characteristic of the concert that one observes in the video. According to Titon, it is imperative to maintain unity and variety for an effective musical session, especially when performing for a homogenous audience with the same belief system and traditions (8). One way of doing this is to select a song or group of songs with a central theme or set of themes. In the main song “Release the Sound”, Tasha revolves around the theme of openly praising and worshipping God even in the presence of enemies who pose a real threat. The song starts with the Biblical story of the Fall of Jericho (Leonard 00:03:21-00:01:58). When the children of Israel shouted in praise of their God, the walls of the Great Canaanite City collapsed at the roar of their shout. In the same manner, the song tells the people to shout out to the Lord in full voice and the roar will make the walls of their problems fall. In this way, the lead singer is able to achieve unity with congregation through a common theme that inspires and lifts the spirits of every member of the congregation. This aspect is common in most evangelical churches traditionally associated with African Americans as it reflects their ambitions for religious, social, and political freedoms that include invoking the Bible to advance their influence and interests in the country.
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In conclusion, the performance in the concert provides evidence of the performer’s and the audience’s close association with the conventional African American approach to praise and worship. The mood, emotions, body language, music selection, familiarity with the song, and unity established in the concert all show that the whole congregation is highly familiar with the traditions of the church.
Akanle, Olayinka, and Babajide Richard Shadare. “Why has it been so difficult to Counteract Cyber Crime in Nigeria? Evidence from an Ethnographic Study.” International Journal of Cyber Criminology vol. 14, no. 1, 2020, pp. 29-43.
Boone, Will. “14 we can’t go back: Liturgies of worship and consumer culture at one African American Church.” The Spirit of Praise. Penn State University Press, 2021, pp. 247-261.
“Tasha Cobbs Leonard – Royalty: Live At The Ryman.” YouTube, uploaded by Tasha Cobbs Leonard, 2021.
Titon, Jeff Todd. “Ethnography in the Study of Congregational Music.” Ethnography, vol. 1, no. 4, 2017, pp. 1-15.