Everything but the Song: Black choir music is pimped out by artists

Kirk Franklin and God’s Property’s “Stomp,” and Kanye’s “Ultralight Beam” are two sides of the same coin. Elements of Black American gospel music have long been used outside of the church’s four walls and have infiltrated into mainstream pop culture. 

Kanye’s “Jesus Walks,” a song about grappling faith with fame, might be the first instance that comes to mind for many. But before the 2004 hit graced our ears, the genre had several breakout pop culture moments.

In 1968, The Edwin Hawkins Singers’ rendition of “Oh Happy Day” hit No. 4 on the Billboard Hot 100. Most notably, at the 1997 MTV Video Music Awards, Puff Daddy & The Family, along with then-widow Faith Evans and band 112, performed a tribute to the late Notorious B.I.G with “I’ll Be Missing You” featuring a gospel choir. And at the 2014 Grammy Awards, 33 couples wed to Macklemore & Ryan Lewis’ “Same Love,” as a gospel choir belted in the background. 

Black gospel music is symbolic of the Christian, African American subculture. Originating in the tradition of Negro spirituals, the mere use of a choir has been used to evoke meaning broader than religion. It’s about unity, hope and overcoming struggle. 

While black gospel musical traditions are used fervently to honor the fallen or to celebrate progressiveness, they’ve also been pimped by artists and institutions in lieu of real empathy or support of the very community the music originated in. 

On the night of Oct. 1 live from Instagram in Paris, Kerby Jean-Raymond, designer and founder of the menswear label Pyer Moss called out the fashion publication, Business of Fashion for their exploitation or Black culture and plight for insincere gain. 

A Black gospel choir welcomed guests to the BoF 500 Gala in Paris Monday night, an annual event to celebrate those shaping the global fashion industry. And to the use of the choir, Jean-Raymond wrote: “This is some insulting shit.” 

Throughout the night via Instagram and later in a Medium post, Jean-Raymond explained the source of his frustration citing instances where Black designers have been lumped together on panels, getting offered the publication’s print cover then having that offer rescinded and other cases of disrespect to Black designers by the magazine’s founder, Imran Amed. Amed also took to the stage to dance with the choir in what Jean-Raymond called a “Kirk Franklin dance.” 

The Haitian designer himself has used Black gospel choirs throughout his runway career — including one that represented the untold stories of Black people’s contributions to American history and culture.

A fellow designer and friend of Jean-Raymond’s Aurora James also commented on her Instagram story.

“Not everyone gets to have a Black gospel choir,” she wrote. “I’m so confused. Aren’t we supposed to be celebrating diversity? And inclusion? Not appropriation? We are at a fashion awards show. Fashion exploits more women of color than any other industry. Why is there a Black gospel choir?”

Her inquiry is valid, and so is Jean-Raymond’s frustration. The choir was just the straw that broke the camel’s back in a long series of shady and disingenuous diversity efforts from BoF. It is disheartening for an organization that can’t get diversity right institutionally to use Black cultural elements as a celebration. In short, BoF couldn’t practice what they aesthetically preached. 

Diversity and inclusion is real work, not a trend. Although it’s been done many times, publications and institutions cannot mask efforts to break down institutional racism with ostentatious celebrations of Blackness or diversity. If, brewing under the surface, designers like Jean-Raymond feel overlooked and undervalued, no gala or performance matters. 

Unlike Diddy’s celebration of his late friend and label mate or Macklemore & Ryan Lewis’ use of the choir to mark strides in LGBTQ rights, the drama surrounding BoF and their use of a Black choir is a classic case of cultural appropriation.

When thinking of other ways in which Black gospel choirs have been used problematically, I circle back to Kanye West. In 2019, we’ve experienced Kanye West as a revivalist. He’s likely coming for Franklin’s spot. His Sunday Service events feature a gospel-esque choir flipping hip-hop and R&B into praise in worship. 

On Oct. 5, at West’s free-to-attend Sunday Service in Salt Lake City, he showcased just how deceiving the use of the gospel choir can be. Kanye’s Sunday Service had up to this point been focused on spirituality and a commitment to Jesus, but this week he took the stage to tell fans that it was the Republican Party of Lincoln that freed the slaves. He also mentioned the flak he’s received for his support of President Donald Trump as a Black man. 

“I ain’t never made a decision only based on my color. That’s a form of slavery, mental slavery,” Kanye said, doubling down on his 2018 comment about slavery being a choice. 

In the same way BoF used a Black gospel choir in an unscrupulous way, Kanye has as well. 

Yes, the Chicago native has a long history of using Black gospel music. And who is to say he hasn’t actually reconnected with his faith and is ready to share it with the world? But it is in poor taste to not only spew false facts about slavery while using the choir as background music but to also publically support a political figure who has proven to not care about the people or culture that this music originates from. It is ironic that the same man who uttered that slavery was a choice is now using the stylings and aesthetics of Black gospel music, a tradition rooted in slavery. 

What Kanye and BoF show us is that Black culture and what it can do aesthetically continues to trump the actual support of Black people. 

Politically, America has a racist president and there are countless ways in which Black people are systematically oppressed. And in the fashion industry, it’s no question that there is a shortage of Black models, designers and creative directors, on top of the usual instances of cultural appropriation and culturally insensitive clothing. Instead of focusing on fixing these issues, both parties have chosen to pimp a symbol of joy, hope and resilience. 

There’s no doubt that there’s power in music, especially in gospel and gospel choirs. Negro spirituals served as the unofficial soundtrack to the Civil Rights movement; artists have long used elements of religion to tell stories and connect people to causes greater than themselves. 

Despite this long withstanding occurrence, we must not always take the use of religion in nonreligious contexts as working in good faith. The word of God, a cute Bible verse or the call and response of a choir is always awe-inspiring in theory, but they mean virtually nothing if the people or parties using — or better yet, weaponizing — it can’t practice what they preach. 

Ellice Ellis is a senior writing about the music industry and social justice. Her column “Everything but the Song” runs every other Tuesday.