By Cheryl Townsend Gilkes, Religion News Service
(RNS) — The first time I heard R. Kelly’s song “I Believe I Can Fly,” I was spinning records for “The Uncloudy Day,” my weekly gospel music radio show at the radio station where I teach. An ivory tower academic, I was (and am) lax in my engagement with secular popular culture, and I knew little about Kelly, his stardom and his ugly ways. But I had recently emcee’d a concert by gospel great Dottie Peoples, and it was her version of “I Believe I Can Fly” that I played.
I knew it as a secular song that was being embraced by choirs and music educators. At the time I categorized it with a number of songs that echoed a favorite text from the Book of Isaiah: “They that wait on the Lord shall renew their strength. They shall mount up with wings as eagles.”
It was years before I connected “I Believe I Can Fly” with R. Kelly and his crimes. When I did, I ceased to air it on my show.
If the #MeToo movement has taught us nothing, it has revealed how deeply embedded predatory sexuality, drugs and slavery-like exploitation are in the entertainment industry.
These predations are often visited on Black people, since entertainment, especially the recording industry, has traditionally been an alternative pathway to economic mobility for members of excluded and oppressed groups. These riches become force multipliers in the vulnerabilities and victimizations that seem to define the industry.
In light of his criminal conviction, some people now wonder if Black churches will stop singing “I Believe I Can Fly.” As church historian Anthea Butler pointed out recently, the Black church has maintained a relationship with Kelly despite the increasingly disturbing news about him. As a result, she wrote, “Kelly’s conviction is also a conviction of Black religious life and popular culture.”
Segments of the Black church have always been suspicious, uncomfortable and occasionally downright hostile to popular culture and the recording industry. Seeing it as “the world,” some parents have prevented their children from signing recording contracts. Some gospel singers, like Mahalia Jackson and Marian Williams, refused to sing worldly songs. Others, such as Kim Burrell, Clara Ward and the Ward Singers, and Mavis Staples have walked a fine line between the sacred space and popular culture.
Yet other popular singers, for instance Aretha Franklin, Whitney Houston and Jennifer Hudson, insist they still maintain their relationship with the church. In the words of Jennifer Hudson, “I still sing in church.”
The entangled history of the recording industry and the Black church arises from music’s central place in the church culture. W.E.B. Du Bois called the spirituals created by enslaved Africans and their descendants “Sorrow Songs” and used them to frame his classic work, “The Souls of Black Folk.” He provided a foundational critical model of the African American Christian experience. The “Negro Church,” Du Bois said, comprised three vital elements: “the preacher, the music, and the frenzy.”
Du Bois’ categories require translation for us in the 21st century. It helps to think of those categories as the leadership, the music and the ecstatic worship tradition with its emphasis on the person of the Holy Spirit. Although one can view African American Christianity through the lenses of denominational bodies, there is a trans-denominational dimension that music does much to constitute and sustain.
Music is so central to the Black church that Zora Neale Hurston termed the rise of new denominations in the early 20th century — the Holiness, Pentecostal, Apostolic and Deliverance churches that comprised “the Sanctified Church” — a “music making movement.”
That movement was a significant source of gospel music, a genre that from its beginnings had a strained and troubled relationship with commercial interests and secular artists. Gospel music’s foundations were inextricably linked with the Blues, a genre indigenous to African Americans and itself a source of the explosive growth of the recording industry.
The horrific behavior of R. Kelly, and the popularity of “I Believe I Can Fly” (long after his crimes were suspected), is now part of that history of the Black church and its music.
If people still sing “I Believe I Can Fly,” it’s important to note that long before there was an R. Kelly and his song, flight was a core theme of our sorrow songs: Transcendence from trauma was and remains deeply embedded in traditional African American culture.
African American folklore from slave traditions described people who could fly to escape slavery, a tradition Toni Morrison deploys in her novel “Song of Solomon.” In her book “The People Could Fly,” Virginia Hamilton memorializes stories of a shipload of West African Ibo people who landed along the southern U.S. coast and alternately walked on water or flew back to Africa. These tales are echoed in Paule Marshall’s “Praisesong for the Widow” and Julie Dash’s “Daughters of the Dust.”
Poets Maya Angelou and Nikki Giovanni drew from these traditions — Angelou in her book, “Oh Pray My Wings Will Fit Me Well,” and Giovanni in her rapturous poem, “Ego Tripping,” which famously ends, “I mean I can fly like a bird in the sky!”
One famously important spiritual asks for “two wings to veil my feet, two wings to veil my face,” and, most importantly, “two wings to fly away where the world can’t do me no harm.” These spirituals demonstrated a deep kinship to the prophet Isaiah’s vision.
This rich, deep tradition of lyricism gives us many texts to draw upon to praise God and transcend trauma without making racist and sexist predators rich with royalties they do not deserve.
Will the Black church continue to sing “I Believe I Can Fly”? I sincerely hope not.
(Cheryl Townsend Gilkes is the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur professor of African American studies and sociology at Colby College and assistant pastor for special projects at the Union Baptist Church in Cambridge, Massachusetts. She is the author of “If It Wasn’t for the Women: Black Women’s Experience and Womanist Culture in Church and Community.”)