Playing to One Conductor: Ur-text, Context, and Text
By Cynthia Wilson
Excerpted from doctoral dissertation, The Incarnational Nature of Congregational Song: A Deeper Meaning of Performance, by Cynthia A. Wilson, Ph.D.
In the African and Black American historical context, Congregational Song functions as the perpetual soundtrack that speaks to the joys, concerns, hopes, and dreams of a marginalized people.
The Griot/Griotte are the keepers of the history, story, and well-being of village members, and epitomize the power of incarnational community song. As the primary composer, arranger, teacher, and conductor of that song, much like the Black preacher in present day faith communities, historically, the Griot/Griotte is symbolic of a priestly presence and is therefore honored and respected. For this reason I have chosen to capitalize the title throughout this work. Song stands as the fulcrum for spirituality and cultural dynamics in the lives of Black peoples.
The term “glocal” was coined in various social, academic and corporate contexts. It is obviously a synthesis of the words, “global” and “local,” suggesting that one’s indigenous or inside context is fundamentally affected by an external universal. This term strongly insinuates that without the specificity of local culture, the global agenda would be aborted.
The postmodern agenda re-evaluates and de-centralizes Western ideologies and norms toward culture and society. Also, it questions the grounds for Western claims about authenticity, truth, and knowledge.
Africana song has and continues to effect transformation in the church and the world. It demonstrates how artists, “gatekeepers of truth,” have led the way in the incarnational work of making the invisible visible. We hear testimonies and musical offerings of the primary voices that helped forge this contemporary Pentecost called the Civil Rights Movement; these voices include such persons as Bernice Reagon Johnson, Ysaye Barnwell, the Staple Singers, Curtis Mayfield, Stevie Wonder, Edwin Hawkins, Charles Albert Tindley, Thomas Dorsey, and Lucie Campbell’s outstanding contributions to the repertoire of corporate song in the Black Church.
Africa is believed to be the cradle of civilization by both paleontologists and archaeologists. If this is true, then a careful examination of life in Africa can serve as an ur-text that unveils valuable insight for our understanding of communal life. Without such clarity, the incarnational agenda cannot be fully apprehended. In notable ways, song has helped to shape, memorialize, propel, challenge, nourish and create community for Africana peoples. There can be no more appropriate launching pad for this treatise on incarnational song than to rehearse the deep structures of syncretistic worship for African slave communities. More specifically, this conversation provides profound insight into the healing and transformational properties intrinsic to the music of the Black Church in the United States.
Africa is believed to be the cradle of civilization by both paleontologists and archaeologists. If this is true, then a careful examination of life in Africa can serve as an ur-text that unveils valuable insight for our understanding of communal life.
It is important to begin by pointing out that the God of Creation was not introduced to African peoples on United States soil. The presence and power of God was more than familiar to the peoples of Africa, developed mainly through a holistic relationship with the Supreme God, the cosmos, nature, the ancestors, and community. Peter Paris states that God has always been the central Supreme power for Africans. This All-Sufficient God of African peoples enjoys countless names, depending on life’s situations. Africans understood their own limitations as human beings and readily acknowledged them through prayers, sacrifices, and ritual worship. For that reason, we can say that all Africans are theists.
According to Maulana Marenga,
- African religions believe in one Supreme God (monotheism).
- African religions believe God to be both immanent and transcendent, near and far.
- African religions place emphasis on the common bonds of kinship and association through veneration of the ancestors, which creates solidarity among the people.
- African religions seek balance between one’s collective identity and responsibility as a member of society and one’s personal identity and responsibility.
- African religions demonstrate a profound respect for all of nature.
- African religions see death and mortality as: another stage in human development, not the end, but the beginning, as reflective of cosmic patterns transition to personal collective immortality.
The Beloved Community: Ubuntu, Sawabono, Koinonia
The dramatic movement of the Holy Spirit described in the book of Acts bears a striking resemblance to the movement of the “Invisible Institution” established within slavery in the United States:
- A new movement is born out of resistance to greed for power.
- An aberrant community is formed out of this movement.
- A new social order (anti-structure) is established/adapted within the community.
- The community learns new ways to talk, sit, eat, share, pray, and sing.
- The community learns to live syncretistically between the sacred (religion) and secular (culture).
- The dominant structure is intimidated by the new order.
- The community is marginalized and oppressed by the dominant powers.
- The community is nurtured, sustained, strengthened, and empowered by God-Spirit (Sophia).
- The community practices the spirit of radical hospitality in the face of injustice, systems of dominance, privilege and power.
- The community becomes the mouthpiece of God: speaking truth to power as they take the movement into the street.
Music in general, and song creates linkages across cultural, racial, ethnic, ecumenical divides.
Peter Paris, The Spirituality of African Peoples: The Search for a Common Moral Discourse (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1995), 34.
Maulana Marenga, “Black Religion,” in African American Religious Studies: An Interdisciplinary Anthology, edited by Gayraud S. Wilmore (Duke University Press, 1989), 272-274.