Performing blackness down under: Gospel music in Australia

E Patrick Johnson*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter

2 Scopus citations

Abstract

An all-white, mostly atheist, Australian gospel choir: at first it sounds contradictory. Yet when situated within the contested contexts of "blackness" and "performance," white Australian, atheist gospel singers are no more contradictory than black, gay Republicans. We live out the contradictions of our lives, and an aversion to religion does not exclude persons from making personally meaningful connections to gospel music that sometimes resemble, sometimes contradict, and sometimes supersede black gospel music's functions in the United States. Once signs-or, in this case, sounds-of "blackness" are "let loose" in the world, they become the site at which cultures contest and struggle over meaning. Gospel music, as a sign/sound of "blackness," has become one such contested site. This essay examines the performance of black American gospel music in Australia. Focusing first on the formation and performances of the choir, the Café of the Gate of Salvation, and then moving to a general discussion of gospel performance in Australia, I examine the ways in which the medium of gospel facilitates a dialogic performance of "blackness." Given the racial, cultural, and religious composition of the Café and other Australian choirs, the essay also addresses the politics of appropriation by highlighting the ways in which Australians explain their interest in and performance of gospel music and the ironies that underlie their explanations. 1 The analysis, then, demonstrates the problematics of gospel performance in terms of cross-cultural appropriation, as well as the mutual benefits garnered when self and Other performatively engage one another via gospel music. Initially, however, I wish to discuss the ways in which I construe "blackness" as a racial trope-as opposed to a biological essence-and its connection to authenticity and gospel performance. "Blackness" does not belong to any one individual or group. Rather, individuals or groups appropriate it in order to circumscribe its boundaries or to exclude others. When blackness is appropriated to the exclusion of others, identity becomes political. Because blackness has no essence, black authenticity is overdetermined-contingent on the historical, social, and political terms of its production. Moreover, "The notion of [black] authenticity implies the existence of its opposite, the fake, and this dichotomous construct is at the heart of what makes authenticity problematic."2 Authenticity, then, is yet another trope manipulated for cultural capital. That said, I do not wish to place a value judgment on the notion of authenticity, for there are ways in which authenticating discourse enables marginalized people to counter oppressive representations of themselves. The key here is to be cognizant of the arbitrariness of authenticity, the ways in which it carries with it the danger of foreclosing the possibility of cultural exchange and understanding. As Henry Louis Gates, Jr., reminds us, "No human culture is inaccessible to someone who makes the effort to understand, to learn, to inhabit another world."3 And yet we must be aware of the reality of living within a racist, white supremacist, and capitalist society in which cultural appropriations have social, cultural, and political consequences. History demonstrates that cultural usurpation has been a common practice of whites and their relation to art forms not their own. In many instances, whites exoticize or fetishize blackness, what bell hooks calls "eating the other."4 Thus, when white- identified subjects perform "black" signifiers-normative or otherwise- the effect is always already entangled in the discourse of Otherness; the historical weight of white skin privilege necessarily engenders a tense relationship with its "others." This reality withstanding, human commingling necessarily entails syncretism whereby cultures assimilate and adopt aspects of the Other. Given that, all forms of cross-cultural appropriation are not instances of colonization and subjugation. Some of these appropriations are instances of genuine dialogic performance-instances that provide fertile ground upon which to formulate new epistemologies of self and Other. Because gospel music is inextricably linked to black bodies and black culture in the United States, it necessarily registers as a signifier of "authentic" blackness. Accordingly, it is my contention that when Australians perform gospel music, they are engaging not only in the coproduction of the music, but also of blackness itself. Harry Elam suggests that "African American theater and performance have been and remain powerful sites for the creation, application, and even the subversion of notions of blackness and of concepts of African American identity."5 Although Elam is referring specifically to theater written and performed by and about African Americans, I believe that black art forms performed by nonblacks extend the same creative and subversive possibilities of identity claims. Indeed, I argue that the Australians' performances of gospel are dialogic performances of blackness and thus "serve to reinforce the theory that blackness, specifically, and race, in general, are hybrid, fluid concepts whose meanings depend upon the social, cultural, and historical conditions of their use."6.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Title of host publicationBlack Cultural Traffic
Subtitle of host publicationCrossroads in Global Performance and Popular Culture
PublisherUniversity of Michigan Press
Pages59-82
Number of pages24
ISBN (Print)0472068407, 9780472068401
StatePublished - Dec 1 2005

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Arts and Humanities(all)

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