Can’t You be White and Sing Gospel Music?…
“Can’t you be white and sing gospel music?” This was food for thought brought to me by a black friend after reading through my post ‘Braids, Gospel, and Connection’. He really got me thinking. How would I answer this question? How would I honor both black and white people with my response? It felt like a loaded question with an answer that someone, somewhere would find fault with.
As I spent weeks, months even, thinking on this, I spun out different answers, but each of them fell short and cast a light on the complexity that such a question brings. I came to realize that I can’t answer this question for the vast majority of people. The only way to answer is to openly and honestly share my own thoughts on this. As I delved into what was behind my thoughts towards culturally or even stereotypically black things and the answers I came up with, I realized where I had errors in my own thinking, insecurities in my racial awareness, and how very scared I was to ‘open up a can of worms’ on this topic.
The Fears Within…
If I let my fear win and never respond, how can I ever be a part of healthy racial discussions? I really want to be safely free to ask questions about black culture and be willing to answer questions about my own culture. I wrestle with the worry, ‘Will my curiosity and naivete be misconstrued as belittling or racial bias when I ask questions or will it be seen as trying to understand another culture, black or otherwise, with openness and a desire to truly see from another perspective?
Out of Reach…
With that in mind – wanting racial & cultural understanding and my own self-exploration – I answer the initial question, ‘Can’t you be white and sing gospel music?’ The short answer is, ‘Yes.’ However, underneath this question seems to be, ‘Why did I perceive gospel music to be somewhat out of reach for me as a white person?’ As a child, I saw gospel music represented by mostly black choirs on CD covers, in movies, and in conversation. I felt like an outsider looking in because I wasn’t connected to a community that participated in this type of music.
True, I sang along to the songs that I loved and I imitated the stylist effects that I heard in gospel music at home, but I didn’t have an external outlet for it. When I reached high school and college I got to know about more traditional gospel and spiritual music through choir. When we got to sing a Moses Hogan song I was elated! It felt so good to sing with the depth of feelings this music evoked inside of me. But, I was also aware that it wasn’t ‘my’ music to own. I couldn’t fully give in to the passion of the music because it wouldn’t ‘look right’ for me as a white person to be ‘acting black’ while performing. Would my enthusiasm be misunderstood as me trying to be something I’m not? Would I be offensive to the culture that created this music? Would I be judged or laughed at? At what point could I be comfortable being white but fully engaging in something from another racial culture and at what point would that be acceptable to said culture or become offensive? What I was missing was a sense of permission to enter into this cultural context.
“Imitation is the Sincerest Form of Flattery…
‘Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery…’ is a well recognized quote. We see something we like and imitate it because we want to be like it, or in this case, that people group. But, I once heard it suggested that white people are trying to take things that belong to other cultures and make them their own. Whether this was said in seriousness or as a joke, it brought up a new worry.
This topic is even addressed in the popular musical, Hairspray, when the black group of kids come up with some really cool music and the white group takes that music and presents it as their own in a more palatable-to-whites way. However, there are a few white people in this musical (the main character) that recognizes how awesome the black culture’s way of doing music is and is warmly welcomed into this new group. She and her friends break cultural barriers (in the 60s) to create racial unity.
More recently while watching an African American sitcom, one of the black characters said, ‘Katy Perry wearing cornrows? Seriously? Can’t we have anything of our own?” So, still in today’s society, I worry, ‘Will another race or culture think I’m trying to ‘steal’ or ‘change’ something that was created by them just by expressing myself similarly? In my heart, I’m just doing my best to enjoy the creation from that culture.
…That Mediocrity Can Pay to Greatness”
Obviously, white people can sing and participate in gospel music. But for me, it really had to do with my fears of rejection, being misunderstood, and accidentally offending people. I needed to feel like I was permitted by this people group to do these things. These are big worries and concerns for a (recovering) people-pleaser like myself. If I’m really true to myself, then I say…bring on the gospel rooted music! Let it dive into my being and bring up the treasure of my soul. Let me try my best to imitate what’s been done even though it will have my own racial and cultural stylings too, because as the quote says in full…
Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery that mediocrity can pay to greatness
So, I’ve come to realize that some people will misunderstand me, others will critique me, and still others will cheer me on in this endeavor. But in the end, I need to decide how I will feel about me. I need to be true to myself and that means I need to freely sing gospel from time to time. It means that I will hold my head high, unashamed, as I respectfully engage more in this style of music. I can be white and sing gospel – and that’s not being dishonoring of my African American friends, but rather celebrating them and their cultural heritage!
3 thoughts on “Can’t You be White and Sing Gospel Music?…”
Thanks again Brittany for a well read article! I’ve had many blessed times singing with my black sisters and brothers in Martin Luther King, Jr. Choir! Nothing like singing with those dynamic, Holy Spirit filled brothers and sisters! Although, I could sing those gospel songs with them, I failed in keeping up with their rich strong energetic voices! If you’ve ever sung in a black choir, you know exactly what I’m talking about! Yes I can sing gospel songs as a white gal, but not like my black family!! I love them all!! I love you! Keep singing and keep writing dear Brittany!
Julia, I didn’t realize you had been a part of the MLK Jr. Choir. That’s really neat! So cool. When I was researching for this blog post, I came across a group on the East Coast called the Salt and Pepper Gospel Singers. I really enjoyed this article about the group: https://www.nytimes.com/1996/03/31/nyregion/black-rhythms-white-voices-in-concert.html. Although this article is from 1996, the group is still active! Anyway, I’ll say the same to you, keep singing too, Julia! 🙂