Updated: Apr 20
On the occasion of Easter Week, we focus on womxn in music that is religiously influenced. We begin our musical journey on equal rights with the style of music that was to have a major influence on American pop music: the gospel.
To reflect on the role of women in gospel music, we should first clarify the historical origins of the Gospel. The roots of today's gospel music lie in spiritual music. The Spiritual originated with the beginning of slavery in the 17th century in America. The Spiritual describes the development of Christian music on the North American continent. The songs of the Spiritual tell stories of beaten and oppressed people who long for freedom. At the heart of many of the songs is a deep sadness that relates to different levels of the slaves' lives at that time, combined with the religious context from which they originated. Over time, the slaves began to hide secret escape signs in their songs.
The call for protest stands beside the longing for freedom.
Gospel, as we know it today, was originated in the 1930s from a mixture of spiritual, jazz, and blues. It was primarily cultural, spiritual, and commercial processes that have shaped the practice of African American church music to this day. Today it is important to preserve these musical elements that come from that African-American heritage. Women have always played an important role in this kind of music. Gospel is the expression of African-American women's activism. How empowered the strong women of gospel music are, show their skills in handling multiple areas besides their big musical influence in their lives. In addition to their musical commitment, they have also taken on tasks and responsibilities in their families, in their communities, and in the music industry, demonstrating that greatness in gospel music is the result of extraordinary abilities and various intertwined forms of work.
Through both creative and entrepreneurial activities, women paved the way for the creation of feminist musical culture.
They find the first published use of the term "gospel song" we have to jump back in time because it probably appeared in 1874. The original gospel songs were written and composed among others predominantly male authors by Fanny Crosby. She was known as the "Queen of Gospel Song Writers“ and her gospel songs were paradigmatic of all revival music. She lived in the time from 1820 to 1915 and was an American poet, lyricist, composer, and mission worker. She wrote more than 8.000 gospel songs and hymns and is known for being one of the most prolific hymnists in history. There were made more than 100 Million copies printed of her works. She achieved all of that despite being blind from shortly after birth. Fanny was described as a very giving person, what she did receive, she gave to those in need. She said once: "From the time I received my first check for my poems, I made up my mind to open my hand wide to those who needed assistance.”
While Fanny Crosby was the "Queen of Gospel Song Writers", Mahalia Jackson (1911-1972) was the "Queen of Gospel Song". Mahalia Jackson was described by entertainer Harry Belafonte as "the single most powerful black woman in the United States". She was brought up in a strict religious atmosphere, later in her life, she refused to sing any but religious songs. "I sing God's music because it makes me feel free", Jackson once said about her choice of gospel, adding, "It gives me hope. With the blues, when you finish, you still have the blues.“ During her career, she recorded about 30 albums, eight of Jackson’s records sold more than a million copies each.
A good example of empowering family history in the gospel is Clara Ward (1924-1973), who performed together with Mahalia Jackson at New York's Carnegie Hall in 1950. The group to which she belonged at the time was "The Famous Ward Singers", founded by her mother Gertrude. Gertrude took care of the performances and management of the singers, while Clara was responsible for the music. Besides her activities in the family trio, Clara made her first solo recordings at the age of 16.
The history of gospel is marked by unique singers who became God's mouthpiece.
Probably the most famous singer among them to this day is Aretha Franklin (1942-2018). Like so many other gospel singers, she comes from a religious background. Her father was a Baptist preacher, so she came into contact with music at an early age through her father, singing in the choir of her father's "New Bethel Baptist Church". „Let's start with the church. As you know, it's my background, it's a natural setting for me and it's definitely my roots.“she said about her religious background. 1960 Aretha Franklin recorded her first pop album. Her number one hit "Respect" became the anthem of the African-American liberation and women's movement. On 3 January 1987, she became the first woman to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, which had been founded a year earlier. What an empowered women in music she was is also shown by the fact that she started her own record label at the age of 79.
„I think women and children and older people are the three least-respected groups in our society.“
While the musical spectrum of Aretha Franklin also included R&B, jazz, pop, and dance, Karen Clark Sheard devotes herself exclusively to gospel. She too was, so to speak, born into the cradle of music. Her mother, Mattie Moss Clark was the musical director of the Church of God in Christ and had founded the Clark Conservatory of Music in Detroit. Her first album was an instant success, her second one, with a guest appearance by Missy Elliot, was to be an even greater success and so was the rest of her career.
"Gospel is a music that announces good news to people, brings hope and builds a spiritual connection: I feel with God, God feels with me."
Queen Esther Marrow
The list of women who paved the way in gospel music is really large and we are going to introduce you to a lot more of them these days - also via our other channels - but there is one more, we would like to present to you now: she already has the "queen" in her name. Queen Esther Marrow. Born in 1941, she was discovered by Duke Ellington at the age of 22. In 1965 she joined the civil rights movement of Martin Luther King and also used appearances for politicians or religious leaders to draw attention to human rights. With her choir The Harlem Gospel Singers she set a record at the 1998 Montreal Jazz Festival with 100,000 spectators - more people have never attended a gospel concert. For 25 years now, Queen Esther Marrow has been touring the world with her choir of Harlem Gospel Singers to spread, as she says, the hope for peace.