Church music inspired John Legend's stellar entertainment career.
“I was around all this singing and I wanted to be a part of it,” he explains. His grandmother was his church’s organist. His mother was its choir director. And his father was a church drummer and singer.
“We were at multiple services during the week and on Sundays,” he says during a Zoom conference. “That was my first extensive exposure to music of any sort during that time.”
The Grammy-, Emmy-, Tony- and Oscar-winner details his journey in “The Black Church: This is My Story, This is My Song,” a PBS special tracking the 400-year history of Black churches in America and how they served as inspiration for people who have endured intolerance in many forms.
“When Dr. (Martin Luther) King sang, ‘I’ve been to the mountaintop,’ he was referring to Moses being on the mountaintop and not getting to the Promised Land with the Israelites,” he says. “I think we’ve taken that on as part of our struggle for freedom.”
Jesus’ message, he says, was about helping the poor, the downtrodden, the people cast out by society. “As members of the lowest caste in American society, we have taken that on as a way of encouraging resilience and seeing a bigger purpose in our struggle and in our suffering. I think that’s why the message of the church has been so resonant with Black people.”
Produced by Dr. Henry Louis Gates Jr., the two-part documentary digs into the Black Church’s roots and how they go back before African ancestors crossed the ocean. “Between 8 and 20 percent were practicing Muslims,” Gates says. “The king of Congo had converted to Roman Catholicism in 1491 and almost 29 percent of our enslaved ancestors came from this Catholic kingdom.”
Protestants and Anglicans didn’t want to baptize Black people because they were afraid they’d want to be free, Gates says. “But there was a big battle. Finally, the Anglicans, who became the Episcopalians, started converting them. The big wave was Methodism, in the period of the Great Awakening. That started in 1730, 1740.” Methodists baptized “everybody…and out of that came the first Black denomination, which was the African Methodist Episcopal Church.”
Gospel singer Yolanda Adams, who’s also featured in the special, says Jesus gave them hope. “The way he expressed himself was not about hell and damnation,” she says. “It really was about the kingdom being on the inside. When you have a kingdom on the inside, you feel more empowered, more inspired. You feel like you can take on the world.
“That’s why we, as African Americans, hold on to our faith. It does give us that, ‘you can make it until tomorrow’ (feeling). This is not your final destination. It is just a part of your destiny.”
Like Legend, Adams knew if Gates was involved in the project, it would be an accurate, respectful history.
“So many times in movies and short films, you have the church choir or gospel section where it is almost farcical or lampooned,” she says. “But I knew this would be a project that would show the elegance, the grace, and the true story of not just gospel music, but also the church.”
When Gates was searching for a title for the documentary he and fellow producer Stacey L. Holman were torn between “This Is Our Story, This is Our Song,” from “Blessed Assurance,” and “How I Got Over.”
“Finally, I emailed Oprah,” Gates says. “I said, ‘Stacey and I are arguing about this, what do you think?’ One morning, I woke up and turned on my cellphone and there was a message and it was Oprah. It was, ‘This is our story, this is our song.’ And that was it.”
The irony? “Blessed Assurance” was written by a blind white woman, Fanny Crosby. It was accessioned by Black churches and it became one of their most frequently sung songs. “Literary critics would call it, ‘intertextuality,’ but (that’s a sign of) borrowing, signifying, riffing, taking a text and making it Black. That’s what I like,” Gates says.
“The Black Church” airs Feb. 16 and 17 on PBS.