(RNS) – The first time I heard R. Kelly’s song “I Believe I Can Fly” I was making records for “The Uncloudy Day,” my weekly gospel music radio show on the radio station. where I teach. An Ivory Tower scholar, I was (and am) lax in my engagement with secular popular culture, and knew little about Kelly, her fame, and ugly ways. But I had recently hosted a concert of the great gospel Dottie Peoples, and it was his version of “I Believe I Can Fly” that I played.
I knew it was a secular song that was adopted by choirs and music teachers. At the time, I classified it in a number of songs that echoed a favorite text from the book of Isaiah: “Those who wait on the Lord will renew their strength.” They will go up with wings like eagles.
It was years before I hooked up “I Believe I Can Fly” with R. Kelly and his crimes. When I did, I stopped showing it on my show.
While the #MeToo movement hasn’t taught us anything, it has revealed how deeply rooted predatory sexuality, drugs, and slavery-like exploitation are in the entertainment industry.
ARCHIVE: As activists rally, hymns of protest rise again
These predations are often inflicted on blacks, as entertainment, especially the recording industry, has traditionally been an alternative route to economic mobility for members of excluded and oppressed groups. These riches become force multipliers in the vulnerabilities and victimizations that seem to define the industry.
In light of his criminal conviction, some people are now wondering if black churches will stop chanting “I Believe I Can Fly”. As church historian Anthea Butler recently pointed out, the Black Church has maintained a relationship with Kelly despite the increasingly disturbing news about her. As a result, she wrote, “Kelly’s belief is also a belief in black religious life and popular culture.”
Sections of the Black Church have always been suspicious, uncomfortable, and at times downright hostile to popular culture and the recording industry. Seeing him as “the world”, some parents have prevented their children from signing recording contracts. Some gospel singers, like Mahalia Jackson and Marian Williams, refused to sing songs from the world. Others, like Kim Burrell, Clara Ward and the Ward Singers, and Mavis Staples have walked a fine line between sacred space and popular culture.
Yet other popular singers, for example Aretha Franklin, Whitney Houston and Jennifer Hudson, insist that they still maintain their relationship with the church. In the words of Jennifer Hudson, “I always sing in church.”
The tangled history of the recording industry and the Black Church stems from the central place of music in church culture. WEB Du Bois called the spirituals created by enslaved Africans and their descendants “Sorrow Songs” and used them to frame his classic work, “The Souls of Black Folk”. He provided a fundamental critical model of the African-American Christian experience. The “Black Church”, says Du Bois, included three vital elements: “the preacher, the music and the frenzy”.
Du Bois categories require translation for us in the 21st century. It is helpful to think of such categories as leadership, music, and the tradition of ecstatic worship with an emphasis on the person of the Holy Spirit. While African-American Christianity can be seen through the lens of denominational bodies, there is a trans-denominational dimension that music does a lot to build and maintain.
Music is so central to the Black Church that Zora Neale Hurston referred to the rise of new denominations at the turn of the 20th century – the Churches of Holiness, Pentecost, Apostleship, and Deliverance that made up “the Sanctified Church ”- a“ movement of musical creation ”.
This movement was an important source of gospel music, a genre which, from its inception, had a strained and troubled relationship with commercial interests and secular artists. The foundations of gospel music were inextricably linked with the blues, a genre indigenous to African Americans and itself the source of the explosive growth of the recording industry.
R. Kelly’s horrific behavior, and the popularity of “I Believe I Can Fly” (long after her crimes were suspected), are now part of this history of the Black Church and its music.
If people still sing “I Believe I Can Fly,” it’s important to note that long before there was an R. Kelly and his song, theft was a central theme in our songs of grief: the transcendence of trauma. was and remains deeply rooted in African tradition. American culture.
African-American folklore of slave traditions describes people who might steal to escape slavery, a tradition that Toni Morrison unfolds in her novel “Song of Solomon.” In her book “The People Could Fly”, Virginia Hamilton commemorates the stories of a shipment of West African Ibos that landed along the southern coast of the United States and alternately walked on water or have returned to Africa. These stories find an echo in “Praisesong for the Widow” by Paule Marshall and “Daughters of the Dust” by Julie Dash.
Poets Maya Angelou and Nikki Giovanni drew inspiration from these traditions – Angelou in his book “Oh Pray My Wings Will Fit Me Well” and Giovanni in his lovely poem “Ego Tripping”, which ends with “I mean I can fly like a bird in the sky!
RELATED: Yolanda Pierce on Grandma’s Theology, Black Jesus, and Mariology
A famous important spiritual asks “two wings to cover my feet, two wings to cover my face” and, more importantly, “two wings to fly where the world cannot hurt me”. These spirituals demonstrated a deep kinship with the vision of the prophet Isaiah.
This rich and deep tradition of lyricism gives us many texts to draw on to praise God and transcend trauma without enriching racist and sexist predators with royalties they do not deserve.
Will the black church continue to sing “I Believe I Can Fly”? I sincerely hope not.
(Cheryl Townsend Gilkes is John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Professor of African American Studies and Sociology at Colby College and Associate Pastor for Special Projects at Union Baptist Church in Cambridge, Massachusetts. She is the author of “If It Wasn’t for Women: The Experience of Black Women and Womanist Culture in Church and Community.”)