Gospel music is very popular nowadays. Everybody has watched Sister Act and the lyrics of Oh happy day are known by everyone. Nevertheless, only a few people really know the origin of this music and its importance on the empowerment of slaves in the US between the seventeenth and the nineteenth century, and also later on for the african american community.
Between their ancestral culture and their new religion
Why do we talk about gospel music in a travel blog? Because it is actually the result of the meeting between two different cultures, as a consequence of one of the worst evils of mankind: slavery.
In this fragment of the film 12 years a slave we can see how music was used to express pain.
The slave trade in the US started in the seventeenth century. An enormous amount of black people coming mostly from the african west coast were captured and sold in the continent to work in town or in plantations. They brought with themselves their own musical tradition, very based on percussion and rythm. But slaveholders did not allow them to recreate those customs: they could not sing neither dance. They were only alowed to sing christian music. Religion was an instrument for slaveholders to keep them subjected. But it had another dimension: the promisse of a free afterlife and a God who could protect them.
What they did is turning this religious hymns they learned into their traditional kind of music. And they used those songs to stay together and hopeful. That’s how negro spirituals appeared, which would evolve towards gospel music.
A secret language
It also makes sense to talk about this religious music because it was used as a secret language related to the most important journey for an slave: his escape to a free land. Gospel songs where filled up with hidden codes to send not only encouraging messages but also keys to run away.
Here are some of the secret meanings of gospel music:
- Canaan = Canada, the land of freedom
- Moses = Harry Tubman, the founder of the underground railroad ( “a network of secret routes and safe houses used by African American slaves to escape into free states and Canada with the aid of abolitionists”)
- Wade in the Water = to walk in the river’s water so the dogs can’t smell you
In the last decades, gospel music itself has travelled and landed in many different parts of the world, and specially in Europe. In Catalonia, we even have a television program called “Oh happy day”. It can seem positive, but we should be aware because, not being african american people, it’s so easy to fall in cultural apropiation: taking this tradition of an opressed culture and trivilizing it.