My wife and I have enjoyed watching Netflix’s High on the Hog: How African American Cuisine Transformed America. It’s been one of many eye-opening culinary experiences as well as historical re-education as far as the impact that African American cuisine has truly impacted American cuisine for the better. We learn the history of okra and the real differences between yams and sweet potatoes. I also introduced my kids and parents to authentic soul food this past Memorial Day, and they were all thrilled with how delicious it was (best macaroni and cheese my son had ever had!). It was a joke on a Saturday Night Live! sketch (“Black Jeopardy” featuring the late Chadwick Boseman) that white people don’t season their food.
I (more than) wonder if it’s the same for music.
Us white people, we celebrate the beauty of precision and purity. I’m going to get a bit into caricatures here. Our standards are measured by numbers. Numbers, after all, don’t lie. If our fast food costs a “reasonably low” amount for its ounces and value ingredients, we are content. The quality of our recipes and more gourmet food can also be evaluated through measurements (e.g. are the temperatures, times, weights and other details correct in the creation of the dishes?).
Our standards for good music can be also measured by numbers. Are all the notes and played with the right pitch (according to 440), time-length (rhythm) and decibel (dynamics)? All measurable, like the number of patrons or clicks (a way we can measure artistic value). We tend to like the simple pre-20th century harmonies (3rds, 5th, and occasional flat 7ths, but only with major chords). Us white people seem to be all about what’s uncomplicated, “objectively good” and transferrable, yet still big-scale. Case in point for church music: I was once gently rebuked by a worship leader for embellishing the keyboard part. The worship leader explained that it’s more true to this genre of music to have simple chords (e.g. open 5ths). Between the electric guitars, pads and tracks, we (along with many dominantly-white churches) were trying to replicate a big-scale experience while playing more simple music.
From my experiences in African American churches and communities, it seems that they celebrate the beauty of relationship and nuance. Their recipes are often a complicated and tasty blend of spices and seasonings, passed down from within the family or tight-knit community. Last Thanksgiving, there was a meme from makers of soul food that really resonated with me: “the mac & cheese is more important than the turkey.” I’m not a chef, so I can’t even fathom the skills it takes to make such complicated and delicious dishes because they involve that “white food” doesn’t: complicated blend of spices and more relational education.
The composition and utilization of African American music (including in the Church) can be viewed the same way. It’s introduced us to a plethora of “seasonings and spices” from the more complex chords (e.g. 6ths, MA7ths, and 11ths of jazz and black gospel) to the rhythms and tones of hip-hop and rap. In the Church, black Gospel songs are also passed down, often through oral tradition, within families and communities. Big-scale productions and technical excellence are not as high of a priority in the African American Church as with the dominantly-white church. Black Gospel songs have a much, much longer “shelf-life” than contemporary Christian worship songs (e.g. songs like “Oceans” or “Holy Spirit” lose popularity within a few years or less in dominantly-white churches, but African-American churches have been playing songs like Andraé Crouch’s “The Blood Will Never Lose Its Power” for decades). Case in point: I once attended a dominantly African American church in the heart of Detroit. For their offertory, they played Richard Smallwood’s “Total Praise,” an anthem of black Gospel music. Their choir was only 4 people, and they only had electric piano and pads to accompany. Yet this worship was still very warmly-received by the congregation.
Now, I’m not trying to argue one genre of music over another. I’m an artistic pluralist, believing that there are multiple ways to measure what is “good art” and what is not. I grew up with Bach, Beethoven and Tchaikovsky and have a degree from a conservatory, and later I had the privilege of learning about black Gospel music from a piano teacher from Chicago’s South Side. However, since it’s African American Music Appreciation Month, I’m encouraging everyone to learn more about and enjoy the seasonings and spices of African American cuisine and music. We continually underestimate how the African American community’s cuisine and music have positively transformed our experiences of both.
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