Secular Jams That Make Me Cry Like Gospel Music
Gospel music, to me, is music that helps us to tell the story.
Is it just the story of a man who got up on the third day? For me, yes, that’s part of it.
The story that also matters to me is the one that knows this world is not right-side up. And that story gives us something good to do with our hearts, minds, bodies and souls in the meantime.
So of course, what counts as gospel music to me is not just Christian music. (And I’m picky, so, I don’t listen to much of what people call Christian music after John P. Kee’s Show Up). Gospel music, to me, is music that encourages people to look out, look up, look internally and wonder how we might ethically spend our days on this Earth.
There’s an unnamed movement happening (which I won’t link because you already know what it is and you likely can imagine how I feel about it) in which a certain man remixes “secular” music and jazzes it up with some Theology Sprinkles.
On another day, we can trouble what we mean by “secular” and “sacred.”
On another day, we can argue if such a project is earnest or if we ought welcome it without question, given said man’s past political statements and continued selfish behavior.
On another day, we can talk about what’s lost when worship becomes a disembodied traveling tour and doesn’t grow sustainable roots or nurture folks over time.
On another day, I’ll tell you how irritating it is that people run behind rich, powerful and famous men when there are so many regular-degular-shmegular people doing incredible life-bringing work with .01% of the necessary resources.
(You can guess how I feel.)
But instead of spending more time whining about that, I felt challenged to share what brings me joy. Also, my blood pressure and hives made that decision for me.
So I spent a day to jamming to my favorite so-called secular songs to see what they could offer us as faithful people. Because seeing the Good News all around us is part of our Black tradition(s). It didn’t start with a mega-church traveling tour. It’s why I shouted watching Coco and it’s why the Muses from Disney’s Hercules had the power, intelligence, clearance, access, influence, profile, international implications that they have. Hearing God outside of church is not only common, it is necessary for our survival. If we can only feel connected to God and the Story of our faith in our pew between 10 am and 12 noon on Sunday, we’re in trouble. And that’s what that unnamed movement is tapping into.
In that spirit, here are some of my favorite non-gospel gospel songs. I also included some scriptures, if that’s your jam. All scriptures are from the New Revised Standard Version. Spotify playlist at the end!
“Paradise is here, it's time to stop your crying.
The future is this moment and not some place out there!
Tonight I need your love, don't talk about tomorrow.”
Companion Scripture: Ecclesiastes 3:12-13
“I know that there is nothing better for them than to be happy and enjoy themselves as long as they live; moreover, it is God’s gift that all should eat and drink and take pleasure in all their toil.”
This is the hymn for the Afrofuturist haunted by the notion that her dreams may never come true. At least not on this side of The River. I spend a lot of time in the future. But sometimes I spend so much time in future that nothing in the present satisfies me. In fact, if you have the kind of imagination I do, you might find yourself perpetually underwhelmed. Sometimes we need reminders that the best gift in life is to find a way to seize happiness, to enjoy ourselves as best we can, to take pleasure in the work of our hands. We were not created to suffer and forever chug miserably towards some distant Day of Justice. We oughtta be able to enjoy loved ones (and silence), clean air, healthy food, ethical sex (if sex is your desire at all), safe homes. Sadly, this world is oriented in a way that makes so much of this impossible.
Yes, Hell is here. But so is Paradise, at least in pockets.
And if you can find one good thing in the day to bring you joy, hold onto it. Seeking perfection will make you miserable. Ask me how I know. Signed, a Capricorn and an Enneagram 2.
“Like an eagle protects his nest, for you I'll do my best,
Stand by you like a tree, dare anybody to try and move me.”
Companion Scripture: excerpt from Psalm 46:1-3
“God is our refuge and strength,
a very present help in trouble.
Therefore we will not fear, though the earth should change,
though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea;
though its waters roar and foam,
though the mountains tremble with its tumult.”
Based on the way Tammi and Marvin sing, you would think they were going together. But they never were a romantic couple. Fitting, because the love they sing about could be a romantic love, or a love that a parent may have for a new baby, the love we have for our movement comrades, the love we have for our friend who shows up with wine and a listening ear after a major breakup, or the love an older sibling may have for younger ones (I will fight for my siblings, nobody trolls them except ME, their big sister).
Could this also be the love that God has for us? At God’s best, I like to think that God would dedicate God’s life for me—that She would reorient the stars to bring some coin and vacation packages my way cuz She knows I need it. I need to know you’re gonna “dare someone to try and move you.” I need to know you would put me on your Instagram and tag me. Love me publicly, God!
The bassline alone makes it a worthy submission. The end.
“We got to live together
I am no better and neither are you
We are the same whatever we do
You love me you hate me you know me and then
You can't figure out the bag I'm in”
Companion Scripture: James 5:16
“Therefore confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, so that you may be healed.”
In situations where power dynamics are relatively balanced (like between two children of about the same age or between two trustees), this is a great reminder to practice compassion and care. At the most everyday level, communities of faith should rely upon compassionate communication and patience to make everyday life (like church service, concerts, summer programs, church anniversaries) happen. Whenever two or more people are in a room together, we should remember that we have to live together and no one is more important or worthy of love than another. Of course, there are always disagreements. How we manage them together is a testimony to our community’s strength...or brokenness.
Also, every church meeting should begin with prayer or centering. Cuz you just don’t know what people dealt with before they came into the conference room. And the C train at rush hour drains me of all my Christian kindness.
You know, hypothetically speaking. *hopes no one realizes I’m talking about me*
Perfect offering time music. Even more perfect Annual Usher Sermon music. You need a good bop that will get you down the aisle to put your envelope in the plate. It’s slow enough to give you time to show off your outfit coming down the aisle, but quick enough to give you a little pep in your march.
Church wouldn’t be church without funk. And Parliament was committed to the theme of science fiction and otherworldly get-ups. And Imma just say, for my Baptist Queer Black Feminist Afrofuturist Socialist tendencies… the funk is faithful. The mothership, heaven, a world without prisons, I’m trying to go there.
“What I'd give just to hold you close
As on Earth,
In heaven, we will be together baby,
Together again my baby.”
Companion Scripture: Matthew 6:10
“Your kingdom come. Your will be done,
on earth as it is in heaven.”
Written as a tribute to friends who’d passed due to complications of HIV/AIDS, Janet gave us a praise and worship dance bop with serious lyrics. Much like hearing the groove of “Oh I Want To See Him” at a funeral, songs like these give us a chance to mourn with Joy as our dance partner. In seasons of grief, there’s something comforting about the idea of being Together Again with the people we loved here on Earth. What a strange sonic trip. Such somber words with a strangely upbeat tempo. And yet, such is what it means to love in a world that makes people vulnerable targets, denies healthcare, and socially isolates. Janet’s joyful-sorrowful tribute captures the rollercoaster of what it means to love.
One day, joy will just get to be joy. I cannot wait for joy to be an end unto itself. But until then, so many people will make wine from water, joy from resistance, families from nightclubs and protests.
Honorable Mention: Down, ChloexHalle
Job woulda LOVED this bop. My mans had a rough life and was surrounded by people who wanted to spout cliches. All he wanted to say was “all this is way too much for me.” We’re called to “mourn with those who mourn,” not administer spiritual tic-tacs and Tylenols to avoid the discomfort. Sometimes people lose everything and “just want to lay around in daisies.” And perhaps, maybe, just maybe, those folks don’t need inspirational memes to save them. What would our world look like if we could sing songs about being Down without needing to tie it up neatly with a bow?
“It's such a change
For us to live so independently
Freedom, you see, has got our hearts singing so joyfully
Just look about
You owe it to yourself to check it out
Can't you feel a brand new day?”
Companion Scripture: Revelation 21: 3-5
“And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying,
‘See, the home of God is among mortals.
God will dwell with them;
they will be God’s peoples,
and God herself will be with them;
She will wipe every tear from their eyes.
Death will be no more;
mourning and crying and pain will be no more,
for the first things have passed away.’
And the one who was seated on the throne said, “See, I am making all things new.”
The Wiz is my favorite musical. In my expert opinion, it contains the widest encyclopedic references for Black music, until of course Beyoncé gave us Homecoming. As the story goes, Dorothy and her crew defeat Evilene. But that’s not enough. In addition to the villain being defeated, the people must be set free. In this extravagant benediction hymn, the people who were once zipped into warped costumes get to shed those false skins and dance in bright yellow dance pieces. Somehow, they all knew the choreo and fell into formation.
This song offers a sticky image for what freedom does for people in the most practical sense. It sets us free from the costumes The Powers force us to wear. “Can’t you feel a brand new day?” is a rallying cry, a war cry, a soulful question and it ain’t rhetorical. Can you imagine what freedom feels like? What it smells like? What it would be like to live and not have to pretend to be someone you are not? To spend your days doing something other than “manufacturing sweat” for someone else’s exploitative vision? To be honest about your dreams, your vision, your most powerful wonders? Can you imagine a day where death and dying and pain are no more, where all tears are wiped away, where the presence of God is felt and believed?
And nobody! In all of Oz! No Pharaoh that there IS or WAS, is ever gonna bring ME DOWN!
“And if you threw a party,
Invited everyone you knew
Well, you would see the biggest gift would be from me
And the card attached would say
Thank you for being a friend.”
Companion Scripture :Ecclesiastes 4:9-11
“Two are better than one, because they have a good reward for their toil. For if they fall, one will lift up the other; but woe to one who is alone and falls and does not have another to help.
Musically, this song is pretty flexible. People have already covered it with soulful riffs and runs. Lyrically, it is the sweetest love letter to a friend. So much of the Faith is about gathering and sharing love with people you love. It’s about celebrating life stage events like births, weddings, graduations, sobriety anniversaries, baby dedications and homegoings. The whole point of the faith is to do life together. But more than that-- what a gift it is to have the chance to thank a person for being a friend, just because. I got some text messages to send and a girls’ night to plan.
Honorable Mention: The Nanny, The Nanny
One sentence: She was there to sell makeup, but the Father saw more! My GOD!!!!!!
Thanks for reading!
Next up, the opposite direction: A list of gospel songs that are actually love songs to your besties.
Freebie: A Spotify Playlist