Last week, I nearly cried. At Hamilton. The musical. And not when the lady next to me started sniffling at the end, when the songs got a bit more sentimental and the plot more tragic. But somewhere before the first half ended. Because it was just so…good. So well done. The lyrics, the acting, the singing, the leaps off furniture. And if it weren’t for my cousin, I never would have witnessed it.
Let me explain.
Cousin Sydney, a long time musical theatre fanatic, was committed to connecting me and her new idols, the Chicago ensemble of Hamilton. Some happened to be fans of my music and she invited them to an intimate jam session I was having in town.
When they walked in to this room of fifty gospel music fans, mostly Christian millennials, mostly church kids, I had yet to hear even one Hamilton song. I knew it was all the rage though, and I introduced their presence as such. I expected that I was the only one who lived in a cave concerning them, but my announcement was met with underwhelming applause. Hundreds stood in line for hours trying to get tickets to this production but apparently no one in this room was in that number. Some seemed to have never heard of the show at all. The session went great though and the actors sang their hearts out, winning the affection of my crowd anyway. The following weekend they gave me tickets to the show.
Forty-five minutes or so into the Broadway masterpiece, I swiveled my head surveying the audience around me, Aaron Burr hit a note, and my face started doing that weird cramping, tingling thing. Why? Because even though at least 15% of the cast could be characterized as part of the “Black church,” the African Americans that fill up churches throughout the week were grossly underrepresented in the seats of that auditorium. And unfortunately I feel we are grossly underrepresented in most things creative, and most things creative and excellent. But then we wonder why the artistic industries rarely reflect our view and values.
Traditional gospel music, on the vocal cords of the Staple Singers, Mahalia Jackson and the Hawkins family, took the world by storm in the 20th century, even spawning rock and roll, R&B and blues. This sound is the pride and joy of the Black church. It is not preaching, not fashion—as much as we’d like to think it is—but gospel music. Since its pioneering heyday, however, the culture has regularly practiced being behind the trends rather than being the trendsetter. In an effort to protect the jewel that Thomas Dorsey found, the black church is very skeptical of most new artistic expressions to emerge since.
When people strike gold, they tend to settle (see California Gold Rush).
I (almost) cried because I was seeing excellence—an excellence that I largely missed growing up in the local Pentecostal church. That’s understandable, but more significantly, it was a level of excellence that was often accused of being ungodly, superfluous, demonic even. And sure, there was profanity and less than prudent themes, but the excellence is neutral, if not a testament to God’s genius.
Attempting to create a wall to worldly influences, the black church has also created a ceiling for every new generation of creative excellence. After the show, I spoke to two of the actors, two firm men of God. They expressed how the church made them fearful of pursuing their art form, an art form that has ultimately forced their faith and their testimony into the eyes of thousands around the country. God didn’t give them that spirit of fear, but the church did. We celebrate safe mediocrity and distrust most greatness that doesn’t fit in a pulpit.
We were slow to embrace interpretive dance in church. Dance. That art form that has been integral to the Black experience forever. We were slow to approve miming. Slow to embrace the dramatic arts in church, even though the Bible is arguably the most dramatic story ever written. Slow on rap. Slow on poetry and spoken word. Slow on everything! Us church kids grow up so underexposed, so afraid to do anything novel. And the brave ones that want to do something besides play the organ or impersonate the Clark Sisters every Sunday, well, they find no outlet, no “godly” outlet to do what’s in their hearts to do. Our tastes and ideas become so monochromatic, that while we improve, we rarely innovate.
Every atheist must admit that Christianity at least brought great art. From Handel’s “Messiah” to Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel work, we have been ahead and above the artistic world, not cowering behind waiting for the Mothers’ approval on a new way to paint. The rise and world renown of gospel music proved that we still had that pioneering potential, but if we continue the incestuous, isolationist approach for our growing artists and musicians, we will remain ten years late, with only the cool youth pastors doing weirdly placed dabs and nay nays and other “relevant” things.
So I “beseech ye therefore, brethren,” please do not teach your youth to be suspicious of greatness. Don’t treat incredible creativity and big lights and dreams like cookies before dinner or like the creepy house on the corner. Teach them to be adopters, pursuers of it. They are going to see Beyonce’s exploits. Don’t keep it from them. Frame it for them. Trust that the God in them is greater than He that is in the world. You never know what hearing the Broadway story of a restless, genius Founding Father with a minority filled cast rapping their dialogue could do for that teen in the youth choir. While you solidify their knowledge of the afterlife, equip them to do something amazing before the afterlife comes. And when he or she decides to turn the nativity into a hip-hop musical, let them! Teach them to be God’s then let them be great!
Moses was exposed to Egyptian royalty. David was exposed to Saul’s crazy self. Luke was exposed to high-level academia. Gospel music as we know it was created because Christians were exposed to those evil jazz chords. Exposure is not the path to Hell, a rebellious heart is. Exposure is the path to greatness and, oddly, enlightened exposure can prevent a rebellious heart--especially the heart of an artist. Believe me. Thanks Mom.