‘Joyful noise’: Spotlighting the global influence of Black sacred music
Asked to describe the deep influence of Black sacred music on American culture, Braxton Shelley, a minister, musician, and musicologist at Yale, invoked the words of the 19th-century Czech composer Antonín Dvořák. In the early 1890s, Dvořák, then the director of the National Conservatory of American Music, was introduced to Black American spirituals by the American composer Harry Burleigh.
While the Czech composer’s subsequent approach to Black and Indigenous American music was appropriative and simplifying, Shelley explained, Dvořák’s initial observations are evidence of the enduring significance of those expressive traditions.
“After hearing the spirituals, Dvořák said that if there were to be a unique school of American music — if a distinctive form of music were to arise in the young country — it would have a foundation in what he called the ‘Negro melodies,’” said Shelley, a tenured associate professor of sacred music, of divinity, and of music at Yale.
“That’s a very early statement of an idea that has become commonplace: that Black sacred music is distinctive, and its influence extends well beyond the church.”
The musical creativity, virtuosity, and improvisation at home in the Black church has helped shape American and global musical cultures, Shelley said. To make his point, he reeled off a list of artists from renowned popular traditions who started in Black sacred music or were heavily influenced by it: Thomas Dorsey, Mahalia Jackson, Elvis Presley, Aretha Franklin, Jennifer Hudson, and Chance the Rapper, among others.
And yet, while programs and institutes across academia are dedicated to the study of Western art music, jazz, folk, rock, and other genres, there has been no concentrated, interdisciplinary scholarly endeavor focused on gospel music, and more broadly, the music of the Black church.
Shelley came to Yale in 2021 to fill that gap. Last year, he established the Interdisciplinary Program in Music and the Black Church at Yale’s Institute of Sacred Music (ISM).
Since its launch, the program has brought scholarly attention to the music of the Black church and the tradition’s extraordinary influence through a range of programing and events — concerts, residencies, and symposia — convening scholars, practitioners, and students of Black sacred music. And it has forged ties with churches in the New Haven community and collaborated with Yale’s Oral History of American Music (OHAM) project to document and preserve the voices of practitioners of Black sacred music.
While the ISM has endeavored over the past two decades to incorporate a diversity of faith traditions into its programming and scholarship, Black sacred music historically has been overlooked, said Martin Jean, its director. In Braxton Shelley — an accomplished scholar, skilled keyboardist, and moving preacher — ISM has the right person to correct that oversight, he said.
“Braxton is the real deal,” he said. “To say that the program has transformed the institute is an understatement. And it’s still transforming it in real time.”
The relationship has been mutually beneficial. For the program, Yale’s historic strengths in the arts and humanities, its rich tradition of supporting the study and performance of a diversity of music at the highest levels, and its openness to the study of the sacred has made the university an ideal setting, said Shelley, who has affiliations with ISM, the Yale Divinity School, and the Department of Music in Yale’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences.
As Shelley envisions it, the program has two primary goals: to facilitate the study of the tradition by historians, musicologists, theologians, and other scholars; and to create and perform a lot more Black sacred music on campus and in local communities.
“I think if we do that — make more ‘joyful noise’ — and help develop a richer vocabulary for talking about this vibrant, centuries-long musical tradition, then we will have achieved something worth celebrating,” he said.
‘Inspiring, soul-felt, and entertaining’
True to Shelley’s goals, the program officially launched on Nov. 3, 2021, with an event at the Divinity School’s Marquand Chapel that combined exemplary scholars with beautiful music. The scholars — Cornell West and Cheryl Townsend Gilkes — joined Shelley in a conversation about the Black gospel tradition. A group of accomplished instrumentalists — Pamela Jean Davis, Melanie Harris, Derrick Jackson, and Joey Woolfalk — punctuated the discussion with performances of canonical gospel selections.
Last April, the program hosted a symposium that brought together the music and artistic directors of 15 prominent Black churches, including Oscar Williams, executive director of arts and music at the Potter’s House Church in Dallas, and Patrice Turner, director of music and arts at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta (where Martin Luther King Jr. served as pastor). The event concluded with a concert featuring renowned gospel composer and performer Kurt Carr, who performed with his band, the Kurt Carr Singers, and members of the Yale Black Seminarians Gospel Choir and the Yale College Gospel Choir.
Then, in November, the program sponsored a concert at Immanuel Missionary Baptist Church in New Haven, the state’s oldest Black church, featuring Donald Lawrence, a Grammy-winning gospel songwriter, producer, and artist, and Vincent Bohanan, founder and director of The Sound of Victory Fellowship Choir.
The celebrated musicians were joined by a 50-member community choir composed of singers from Yale, New Haven, and other communities in the region that the program assembled especially for the occasion.
“That was so much fun,” said Christoph’ McFadden, a second-year Ph.D. student in the combined program in music and African American studies, who helps Shelley organize events and participated in the community choir. “Sometimes being at the university can feel isolating, so it was fun to collaborate with singers, musicians, and directors who are practicing music that I study in the classroom. I really appreciated that opportunity — not just to sing with Donald Lawrence but to sing with the New Haven community.”
The Rev. Samuel Ross-Lee, pastor of Immanuel Baptist, called the concert a success.
“It was very inspiring, soul-felt, and entertaining,” he said. “I don’t often like to you use the word ‘entertaining’ in reference to Christian music because that’s not its primary purpose, but it was very good music.”
That concert could provide a model for increased collaboration and engagement between Yale and its neighbors, Ross-Lee said. In April, the program and ISM will sponsor a free concert in New Haven featuring the Clark Sisters, a legendary American gospel vocal group. A community choir will sing with the sisters, and they will make time outside the performance to discuss their work and inspiration with members of the Yale and larger communities, Shelley said.
“We believe these concerts and associated events could be a cornerstone of our work to strengthen ties between ISM, the university, and the community locally and regionally,” he said.
‘A golden opportunity’
During his visit to New Haven, Lawrence also participated in a masterclass at Marquand Chapel, where he discussed with Shelley his work and inspiration and listened as Yale students performed a selection of his songs. Later, he sat for an interview with Libby Van Cleve, who directs OHAM, which now houses more than 1,400 recorded interviews with noted American composers, performers, and musicians.
Van Cleve, who also interviewed Bohanan and Carr while they were on campus, has trained the students in Shelley’s course, “The Gospel Imagination” — which examines the Black gospel tradition’s unique combination of sound and belief — to conduct oral history interviews. As their final project, students were required to interview a practitioner of Black sacred music. To date, they have contributed nearly a dozen to OHAM’s archive.
“It’s been a great collaboration,” said Van Cleve. “This is a golden opportunity for us to serve the Yale, scholarly, and musical communities while enriching our holdings.”
The Interdisciplinary Program in Music and the Black Church is creating a refreshingly expansive learning environment, McFadden said. “Through the program, I can study philosophies of music while also learning keyboard techniques and thinking about the theological implications of the music and how all of that informs my own faith practice,” he said.
And Shelley’s interdisciplinary approach, he said, gives scholars space to study gospel music from multiple perspectives.
“I can think critically about the social-historical implications of gospel music in the context of Jim Crow America, and then think about the Great Migration and how it influenced social standards of worship in the North and how that, in turn, influenced gospel music,” he said. “Scholarship is more enriching when we can weave together these different threads.”
While the program is gathering momentum, it will require continued support to reach its potential, Shelley said.
“People are noticing what is happening here,” he said. “Pastors and music directors from across the country reach out and ask when we’re having our next symposium. They want to come. This is just the start. There’s so much more to be said and thought and written about the multiple genres of Black sacred music.”