The secret power of gospel music and its kinship to Black history

Dr. Martin Nalls is the head of school for the I3 Academy in Birmingham, a tuition-free, public charter school serving kindergarten through seventh-grade students.

By Dr. Martin Nalls
I3 Academy Head of School
BIRMINGHAM — I remember growing up in Marion County, Ala. My parents' home would be filled with the sounds of Shirley Caesar, the Winans, Vanessa Bell Armstrong and other gospel music greats. This was especially the case on Sunday morning as we prepared for church.
Just hearing the sounds of rich organs against rhythmic drums, paired beautifully with emotional voices telling the good news of our Lord and Savior, filled me with peace and celebration. This was likely your experience, as well.
While serving as the Minister of Music at First Baptist Guin, it didn't take me long to learn that having a rhythmic drummer, a soulful organist and pianist and a spirit-filled vocalist alone weren't enough to create gospel music.
Sitting almost unnoticeable behind every note were two subtle—oft-overlooked—elements. These elements are always appreciated by those who are blessed enough to be moved by gospel music because they are the force that connects this genre of music to each of our lives.
These hidden elements are struggle and triumph.
Struggle is what powers gospel music. Triumph is what shapes gospel music.
The power of both of these elements would come to life during the annual Choir Day hosted at my church. Choirs from many of the local churches would visit and deliver their very best A and B selections. It is an understatement to say that all of the choirs always brought the house down.
Just as struggle and triumph have shaped my life, they have also shaped the way we celebrate the journey to overcome life's many travails. The ability to connect with listeners—meeting them in their struggle—and encouraging them to overcome is gospel music's superpower. This unique ability is why I believe gospel music maintains a lasting impact on society, our lives and how we celebrate history.
If gospel music is undergirded by struggle and triumph, it must also be heralded as the soundtrack for Black History Month.

Black History Month
Founded by Carter G. Woodson, Black History Month designates the entire month of February to honor and celebrate the many triumphs and struggles of Black Americans throughout U.S. history.
Along the way to becoming heralds of Black history, Black luminaries had to brave impunity and oppression, resist segregation and omission and dare to pursue their dreams of creating a more just world.
Their bravery, resistance, and willingness to dare could easily fill the lines of every gospel hymn ever written. The beauty, grace and power exhibited by those we lift up during Black History Month befit the purest form of gospel music.
To celebrate Black History Month, one must first recognize and reconcile with the fact that the barriers, inequities and cruelty that Black pioneers had to overcome along the way to becoming legends were so potent that they are worthy of distinction. It is this that makes the lives of Black heroes analogous to gospel music.
Here are a few examples:
Alvin Ailey's life is gospel music. Before his triumph as the founder of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, he faced struggle. His struggle included overcoming segregation, racist violence against him and his mother, and poverty that required his mother to work in cotton fields and as a domestic servant. His journey towards triumph is what we celebrate. Gospel music is the soundtrack for his life.
Harriet Tubman's life is gospel music. Before her triumph as a famed abolitionist, Tubman had to first overcome slavery herself. The mental and emotional ties that bound her to the cruel institution had to be broken in her own life before she could help others overcome. Her journey to break those chains is what we celebrate. Gospel music is the soundtrack for her life.
Booker T. Washington's life is gospel music. Before being heralded as the founder of Tuskegee Institute, Washington faced struggle. Born into slavery, Washington emerged after the Civil War as a young boy in Virginia with limited options to earn a living wage. So, he worked as a coal miner, in a salt furnace and later as a janitor to earn the money he needed to fund his education at Hampton Institute. His journey to rise above poverty is what we celebrate. Gospel music is the soundtrack of his life.
But just like the heroes and pioneers we celebrate during Black History Month, your life, too, shares a kinship with gospel music. For centuries—ever since the dawn of mankind and womankind—struggle has met each of us. Struggle is tethered to life itself. It compels us daily to reckon with our ability to find the strength to overcome and triumph.
As you look for the encouragement and strength to overcome the struggles life thrusts upon you, I encourage you to turn to the tried-and-true melodies of gospel music. Embedded in its cadence, notes and lyrics are the keys to summoning up the strength to overcome—and the power to triumph.
Just as the pioneers we celebrate during Black History Month, you will face struggle. The good news is that, just like them, you too will overcome. Your journey—every time you face it—makes you a hero. And thus, gospel music too is the soundtrack for your life.
So, as my parents did when I was a child—and as I do for my children today—tune your radio to the gospel music of your choice. Turn the volume up. And celebrate.

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