Where Have Our Songs Gone?

“They sang songs about freedom now we act like we don’t need ‘em…”- Mike Hicks “Where Have Our Songs Gone?”

Have you ever noticed that when some sort of tragic uprising is going on in the world that the first song most urban radio DJs reach for is Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On” which came out over 40 years ago? Now I’m not complaining about the song of course. It’s timeless much like all of Marvin Gaye’s music. I’d much rather hear his version than the pop star studded remake (sssshhh let’s not talk about that…nope, let’s not even).  But are we really that desperate for songs with meaning that we have to reach back over 40 years?

While pondering this, I issued a challenge on Facebook that went like this:  In light of recent tragedies regarding black men being senselessly murdered by police, if you were a DJ, could you put together an hour of music (about 15 songs) limited to only the following criteria:

* Is reflective of today’s societal  issues
* Performed by artists that have been on the Billboard charts within the past 3 years
*Encourages the listening audience towards peace, love, hope, self reflection and personal responsibility

And let’s not forget these stipulations as well:

* The song can’t contain the N-word or B-word used as a term of endearment because to me that’s a double negative (hey my challenge, my rules).
* You can only repeat an artist one time so no, playing The Roots and John Legend’s Wake Up album for an hour straight does not count.
*Insert Jeopardy music here*
After a total of 24 hours and 104 comments, we came up with a whopping SEVEN songs:1. Robin Thicke’s “New Generation” (Yes, “Blurred Lines” Robin Thicke. Don’t let the fluke of the success of that song fool you. He’s quite the songwriter actually.)
2. Erykah Badu’s “A.D. 2000”, a tribute to Amadou Diallo.
3. Jon Batiste and Stay Human’s “Social Music” (This was a new one to me. Glad I was introduced to his music.)
4. Aloe Blacc’s “Love is the Answer”.
5. Esperanza Spalding’s “Black Gold”
6. Janelle Monae’s “Sincerely Jane”
7. Mali Music’s “One”

7 songs in 24 hours.

Before I posted this challenge, I mentioned it to a friend who coincidentally found himself challenged on the way to work to find something to alleviate his frustration with current events, most specifically the uprising in Ferguson, Missouri.  He told me “I put on the Wake Up album but I got frustrated that I had nothing more to ‘soundtrack’ all of this to.”  Reminds me of something that John Mayer said in his song “Speak for Me”.

Show me something I can be
Play a song that I can sing
Make me feel as I am free
Someone come speak for me- “Speak for Me” John Mayer
Now if I were to say let’s pull some songs together from the sixties and seventies, we’d have no problem. Stevie Wonder, Curtis Mayfield, Marvin Gaye, The Staples Singers, Nina Simone and many others “spoke for us”.  They gave us a soundtrack for our frustrations and cries for freedom, peace and justice during a very tumultuous time in our country.  And it didn’t just stop with their music. Many of them used their platforms to speak out against injustice and to unify people to bring about change.  But if you look at then and fast forward to now?
Now they’re celebrating broken things
I don’t want a world of broken things
You can tell that something isn’t right
When all your heroes are in black and white-
“Speak for Me” John Mayer

Make no mistake, I am not picking on these artists of today.  Promising to be socially responsible is not a criteria when it comes to signing a recording contract no more than the guarantee that one is mentally stable.  I can’t imagine putting the pressure on some of the most popular artists today to suddenly become socially conscious.  I don’t even think that some of their record labels would allow it.  Besides, after witnessing some of the things that they can get arenas of people to repeat and co-sign that aren’t exactly socially responsible to begin with, I honestly don’t think it would be fair. We have indeed become a society that celebrates broken things.  So contrary to what you may think I was getting at with my challenge, my point was not that today’s artists need to change.  My point is music has become less and less about music and more and more about amusement.  What necessarily has caused this imbalance in our music?  I don’t have all of the answers but what I do have is a theory that may reveal a part of the problem.Besides producing socially conscious music that has stood the test of time as well as using their platform to bring about social change, there is one more thing that Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, Nina Simone, The Staples Singers and Curtis Mayfield have in common: they all started in the church.

In a recent Time article, Questlove was quoted as saying something that up until I read him say it, I thought I was the only one that saw a correlation:

“…I don’t think it’s a mistake that a lot of of my favorite artists are coming from Down Under. A lot of them more soulful than what we’re dealing with now. When you think soul music and Aretha Franklin and the Baptist-born singer, that’s sort of an idea in the past. As black people, we’re really not in the church as we used to be, and that’s reflected in the songs now.”

He’s right. Black people, particularly young black people, are not in the church like they used to be and we need to ask ourselves why.   How can generations carry on the traditions of those that started out in church when they aren’t even there?
“Sing a new song, can we just sing a new song? Somewhere along the way we got it wrong…” Mali Music “One”
As I mentioned, one of the songs that we came up with during the challenge is “One” by Mali Music.  He along with many others have gone through so much criticism for going mainstream; a fight that seems so illogical to me in 2014.  Thankfully he has gotten past that criticism and has forged ahead to put out a very important, non-compromising album.  But what about those that could never get past the criticism? Those that have either let their talent stay and wither inside the four walls of the church or that have left the church altogether?  What about them? Could they be our missing voices?

Is the church to blame for shutting up the mouthpieces that we desperately need to speak to and for our culture? 

Yes it completely and undoubtedly is.

The way the church, and not just the black church but the church as a whole, has grossly mishandled the musical talents and gifts of its members is a shame and a sin rooted in both fear and elitism.  It’s across the board. I’ve heard too many stories about mainstream artists who are Christians that are criticized for what they do but no one minds them sending their tithe check in off of what it is that they do; too many stories about artists who have gotten preferential treatment because of what they do and have been pressured to be in the spotlight in their churches all the while their personal lives were falling apart with little to no recognition from pastoral leadership.  I’ve seen church musicians frustrated and completely resent the church and leave never to trust the church again while the pastors were too busy worrying about where they will find a replacement before Sunday than that person’s soul.  The Church needs to repent for how we have treated our “Davids” and our “Asaphs”.  It was never the intent of God to keep His children and their gifts within four walls.  If you truly believe in the word of God, if you believe that “where the spirit of the Lord is there is liberty,” don’t just let but SEND with your blessing outside the four walls of your church those with the Spirit that brings about liberty to convey that in their songs so that they can impact our culture. Who else to sing about love than those who believe in and walk in Love?  Who else to talk about the issues of life than those that have been given abundant life?

“Won’t you help me sing these songs of freedom…” Bob Marley “Redemption Song”

It’s time to wake all the way up, Church.  I am pleading with those in leadership to please acknowledge the fault and take the lead.  We’ve got to call our prodigal sons and daughters back and tell them that we were wrong. That the very gifts that we cursed or exploited were ones that could have been used to speak life at this very moment when our culture needs them the most.  We’ve got to train, equip, affirm, and intercede for those that have been called to mainstream music.  We must because here’s the thing: so much of the resistance from the church that musicians have faced when it comes to going mainstream is rooted in fear; fear that the industry will be too tempting and too much for them to take to the point that they will compromise their faith.  And it is all of those things… when you have to do it alone.  They shouldn’t have to do it alone. We need to stand with them.

So where have our songs gone? They’ve gone with the very ones we’ve shut out and shut down.  It’s time to invite them back in.  We need them now more than ever before.

“Gotta Serve Somebody”- The Debate Between Serving Both God and Money in Regards to Christians in Mainstream Music

I find it very interesting that often times one of the reasons given why Christians should not perform mainstream music is that “you can’t serve both God and money”  (Matthew 6:24).  Out of all the scriptures in the bible that I find most misinterpreted, this is high up on the list; right behind “The love of money (which is usually misquoted as just money itself) is the root of all evil.” Interestingly enough these scriptures are very similar.

I find this argument interesting because it is presumptuous to think that one would pursue a career in mainstream just to chase money . Quite honestly, I think it is just as easy to say that there are those that pursue careers in Gospel/CCM music for the same reason.  This is purely my opinion (one that I stand wholeheartedly by) that there are believers who have been called to impact mainstream culture but because of the competition, criticism, and when we get right down to it, the grind that is required, they shy away.  I am not trying to make the career of one in Gospel/CCM sound trivial but for the most part there is a plan laid out.  You play these set of churches, you get on this particular gospel show, you play these types of conventions… there is a set blueprint.  But unfortunately there are not too many trailblazers who have been successful in mainstream while not compromising their faith.  It is difficult trying to find a sure shot pattern to follow.  Because of our lack of impact, music itself is suffering greatly.  It’s evident every time you turn on the radio.

I fear that there are too many talented believers that are desperately needed in mainstream that are defaulting to singing gospel/CCM music (please don’t take that as a slight to those industries.  A career in either is not easy at all.)  I know this happens because I have had conversations with artists where they have revealed to me that that they were going to go gospel.  I am all for doing that if that is where you are supposed to be but these conversations that we were having were out of frustration due to lack of success in mainstream. Going gospel just seemed easier because of the audience and structure already in place.  At the end of the day it’s not always an artist desire to be rich; they want to eat. They want to consistently pay their bills on time.  For an artist that started out in the church and was most likely urged to only perform in church, it’s easy to have second thoughts and go with what seems to be an easier means to an end.

Unfortunately because these artists aren’t called to be in gospel/CCM music they run the risk of creatively suffocating.  There are certain parameters in these industries that don’t allow room to explore not just different types of content but musical creativity.  It’s not a religious thing; it’s a business thing.  Actually, it’s more of a comfort thing. This industry just isn’t into taking many risks.  It doesn’t matter how many record executives say they like your music because you are “outside of the box”, the Gospel/CCM industry tends to go with what they are most comfortable with.  More times than not, an artist that is outside of the box will have to scale back on their creativity to make their music seem easier to digest, in the industry’s eyes yet not necessarily to the audience’s ears.  I think the average listener would be amazed at what some industry execs think their ears are not ready for or won’t welcome.

Bottom line: Be where God called you to be and don’t pimp gospel/CCM music for money.  The matter doesn’t lie with gospel vs. secular; the matter lies with motive and calling. I know it’s risky but according to 2 Peter 1:3 God’s divine power “has given us everything we need for a godly life through our knowledge of him that has called us by his own glory and goodness.” If you truly have what it takes and mainstream is where you are called to be, I encourage you to take the road less traveled. Psalm 23:3 says “He refreshes my soul.  He guides me along the right paths for His name’s sake.”   There are people just like you who are going to need some footsteps to follow.

R&B Singer Howard Hewett Explains Why He Will Never Call His Music “Secular”

Along with being a writer, I am also a media coach.  A media coach coaches people for media appearances such as interviews, hosting, etc.   Often when coaching an artist who is a Christian in mainstream music, I try to get them out of the habit of saying that they perform “secular” music.  The reason is because of something I once heard R&B singer Howard Hewett say about why he doesn’t call his music secular.  I thought that was really interesting so I looked up some other interviews to to find out his thoughts on being a Christian artist in mainstream.  Here is what he had to say in interviews from GospelFlava.com and NPR.

On being called a “secular artist”:  “I’m not a Gospel artist.  And I’m not one of those raunchy R&B artists either.  A long time ago I stopped calling my R&B music secular.  Because if you really look at the definition of secular, it’s deep.  The dictionary defines it with words like ‘heathen, ungodly and without God.’  And I don’t think anything I’ve ever done in my career has been without God.” 

On being criticized by non-Christians for singing his Gospel hit “say Amen” during his performances:  “Through the years I’ve had atheists come up to me, I’ve had Jehovah’s Witnesses come up to me, I’ve had ‘Science of the Third Mind’ or whatever come up to me after shows.  I remember a couple of atheists come up to me saying, ‘we were having such a  great time, and then you started talking about God. What was all that about?’

And that’s my opportunity to plant a seed.  I’m not saying that it would take root right away, but God says that his Word will not return void.  If I was a ‘Gospel artist’, then those same people may not even have been there.”

The difference between singing about love and sex:  “I believe that romance has a spiritual side to it.  There’s a big difference between singing about love and romance and singing about sex.  I don’t sing about sex.  I sing about love.  God is love, you know what I’m saying?  And I don’t know about you but you know when I’m getting read to set the mood, I’m in a romantic situation and I want to set a romantic mood for me and my wife, you know, I love Shirley but I’m not going to reach for Shirley Caesar…But I don’t want to have to reach for somebody who’s irresponsible in the way that they project and portray love and romance like some of my peers do, you know , in today’s music.  So I stand in that gap, I think, of respecting- love is  a very, very, very sacred thing to me.  It’s a very important thing to me.  And I respect it that way.”