Every Monday in Listening Closer, Jeffrey Overstreet opens up the art of songcraft, sharing his own musical experiences, interpretations, and epiphanies, while soliciting alternate interpretations and discussion.

All we wanted was a chance to talk
‘Stead we only got outlined in chalk
Feet have bled a million miles we’ve walked
Revealing at the end of the day, the charade. . .

D’Angelo stood front and center on Saturday Night Live two weeks ago, walking around on a chalk outline, flanked by backup singers wearing “Black Lives Matter” and “I Can’t Breathe” shirts. Their concentrated performance of “The Charade” was riveting, characterized by restraint, passion, imagination, complex musicianship, and an undercurrent of sadness. It was a lament.

And it was timely.

Pressure screams from a kettle if things get too hot. Yes, we have seen calls for justice and equality turn violent and reckless in recent months, but that’s to be expected whenever a population is subjected to a perpetual storm of injustice. The promise of equality remains unfulfilled in America. People who suffer ongoing disrespect, economic oppression, prejudice, physical and verbal abuse—and who feel relatively powerless to effect change—are likely to take extreme measures.

Lest you think I’m exaggerating the persistence of racism in 2015, all I had to do was post some praise for Selma, the first feature film about Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., which I regard as the most artful—and the most gospel-charged — American movie of 2014, and ugly complaints poured in, saying we don’t need to waste any more time on stories about “those people.”

It’s so easy to feel helpless. To cry “Really? Again?” It’s so easy to despair. It’s so easy to look at a voting ballot and wonder what difference a checked box is going to make for people who need support and affirmation and justice, like, yesterday. It’s easy to turn to violence. But violence only gives ammunition to the enemy.

Pray, says a voice on my shoulder. Have you been praying?

Yes, actually! I reply. And sometimes it feels as pointless as throwing pennies into a fountain.

But prayer has always been at the heart of meaningful change in these matters. At the heart of any meaningful change.

* * *

On January 20, 2015, as my own Seattle Pacific University community gathered to remember and honor Dr. King and to heed his gospel testimony, author and editor Edward Gilbreath challenged our assembly to go deeper than anger, to exercise more than a right to protest. Pointing to Dr. King’s own approach to reform and revolution in the Civil Rights movement, Gilbreath highlighted the forces that brought about the first signs of substantial change. First, King “believed in the humanity of all people . . . that they were all made in the image of God.” Second, he said, was King’s belief that “change that came had to come in a nonviolent manner.”

And then he talked about prayer.

“Are we prepared,” he asked, “to put prayer at the center of our pursuit for justice and reconciliation?”

(You can watch Gilbreath’s lecture here or listen to it here.)

Thanks to the extraordinary directorial vision of Ava Duvernay, the film Selma gives us a frame to see a subject bigger than King himself. It allows us to see a people charged by the promise of the Gospel, putting their lives on the line for one another; suffering with Christ-like passion; and turning their eyes, hearts, and open hands heavenward. The film demonstrated the centrality of prayer to Dr. King’s ministry.

I’m sure that many saw D’Angelo on SNL and rolled their eyes, assuming that he was merely a provocateur. Some probably wrote it off as a celebrity exploiting a moment to make himself look good.

But the more I listen to D’Angelo’s album Black Messiah, the more I’m impressed with the way this music sounds less like a celebrity ego trip (I’m looking at you, Kanye) and more like a community rising up. The layered harmonies of “Ain’t That Easy” and “The Charade,” the way D’Angelo holds back from self-centered showmanship, the avoidance of garish hooks that would suggest an eagerness to crowd-please—this is a record with healing on its mind and community in its heart. (To be fair, there is one unfortunate exception*)

And prayer is at the heart of it, quite literally with track 8 entitled “Prayer.”

Do you hear it? The Lord’s Prayer—woven into the fabric of D’Angelo’s liberation liturgy, his marching music for the next stretch of a long journey toward the Promised Land of Dr. King’s vision.

* * *

On January 9, as I was listening to D’Angelo, a headline appeared on my screen: The father of Gospel music—Andrae Crouch—had passed away.

As I was growing up, I was familiar with the name Andrae Crouch, and knew he was considered the “Father of Modern Gospel Music.” But it recently occurred to me that I grew up knowing him only as a credit in the liner notes of other Christian recording artists—frankly, white Christian recording artists. I’m learning that the power of gospel music, which springs from the suffering of slaves in America, came to me in a form repackaged for the communities in which I grew up—communities that preferred to listen to people who looked like them.

So, seeking to honor Crouch, I sought out an expert to recommend a particular song that I might share in honor of the man himself. I turned to composer, jazz pianist, and gospel singer Stephen Michael Newby. He responded right away.

Newby—who serves as an associate professor of music, director of composition, and director of the Center for Worship at Seattle Pacific University—recently gave a lecture at Baylor University called “Eschatology and Liberation Theology in the Works of Pioneering Composers Andrae Crouch and Walter Hawkins.” And so his thoughts on this gospel music giant were fresh.

“It is difficult to single out one particular song,” he writes. “But I can single out a particular era — and that time span is between 1968-1973, when Andrae Crouch helped initiate healing to the North American church.”

He recommended that I look up an album called Take the Message Everywhere.

That record, says Newby, “propelled not only gospel, but worship and praise. . . . [Crouch] managed the balance between simplicity and complexity. His melodies were palpable, harmonic rhythms and progressions were dynamic, and his awareness of who ‘needed to be in his band’ was authentically prophetic.”

He continues:

With the expansion gospel music’s foray into American pop culture, Crouch’s theological response to the riots in the ‘60s was expressed within his sophisticated, sound doctrine via a multi-ethnic ethos of diverse musical ecclesiology. Historically, we have seen how Crouch has intentionally worked with white, black, Hispanic, and Asian instrumentalists and singers. . . .

[Crouch’s] leadership encouraged the black North American church to begin to give rise to black leadership through worship arts in the arena of radical racial reconciliation. Take the Message Everywhere, Crouch’s debut with Light records (a white-owned Christian recording company), was not only a musical response to civil rights issues, but also a ministerial leadership move that would open the door for church musicians to serve as ministers, artists, renaissance persons, and evangelical theologians.

In Take the Message Everywhere, says Newby,

. . . Crouch honors gospel music’s magnum opus ‘Precious Lord,’ by giving homage to its composer Thomas Dorsey. This idea of ending the recording with a classical gospel piece serves as a pivotal point for new theological, musical, and African American cultural codes to emerge. And Crouch would not only be marked as the father of contemporary gospel music, but in hindsight we see his extraordinary contributions towards a civility between blacks and whites during a tumultuous racially charged period in American history.

Crouch’s notion that everyone needed to hear the message of the Gospel of Jesus Christ was necessary for radical racial reconciliation. He would use liberation theology and eschatology to serve as tools that would bring diverse cultures together to consider a new way forward, advancing God’s kingdom through the thick mire of exasperating conflicts.

Crouch, says Newby, “knew that if could get people of different ethnicities to worship and sing together, healing would rise in the land.”

* * *

Perhaps it was meant to be that I would learn about the death of Andrae Crouch while listening to D’Angelo sing the Lord’s Prayer. In Black Messiah, even though some critics have decided that D’Angelo himself is the “messiah” about which he sings, the enigmatic singer insists (in the album’s liner-note mission statement) that he’s talking about a spirit, about a community, about our call to be Messiah-like for the oppressed.

This is not to take credit away from Jesus. The lyrics make that clear: “Yahweh, Yehushua / He don’t want no coward soldier.” Like Dr. King and Andrae Crouch, D’Angelo seems to know that prayer belongs at the center of his work. I’m grateful that his record is a summons to make more progress. “A coward dies a thousand times,” he sings, “But a soldier only dies just once.” He’s asking us to stand with the poor, the persecuted, the neglected, the abused. Remember: the sufferings of today are nothing compared to the glory that will be revealed to those who wait upon the Lord.

May the prayers we sing—like the prayers of the Psalmist—remind us of our own responsibility, our own sins, and bring about the beginnings of greater change within our own hearts.

* * *

What prayers do you most love to sing? Share them with me, and I may include them in next week’s installment, part two of this series on prayer songs.

*Alas, Black Messiah’s catchiest tune—“Sugah Daddy”—seriously damages the record’s integrity, as well as the artist’s. It finds D’Angelo and his band getting rowdy and carnal à la Prince or Kanye. And they sound like they’re just having ridiculous fun. Nothing wrong with that. . . until it turns downright nasty. It’s harder to take calls to prayer seriously after blasts of bathroom-stall obscenity and misogynistic boasts.

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