This season Duke Performances has scheduled two of the biggest names in gospel music: John P. Kee and the Mighty Clouds of Joy. Their shows mark the first steps taken by Director of Duke Performances Aaron Greenwald to bring a genre of music only rarely hosted by comparable—predominately secular—concert series.
“Not many people host gospel musicians,” said Greenwald. “It’s definitely an experiment. But the quality of the music stands on its own.”
Gospel music is and has always been concerned with spreading the Christian message to a wide audience, which may raise questions for non-Christian students.
“Since the beginning gospel music has been about two things: edifying the saints and going outside the walls of the Church to bring the gospel to everyone,” said Duke Musicology Ph.D. and Visiting Scholar Georgiary Bledsoe. “As a result, gospel needs to be palatable, inviting and entertaining.” “Gospel music is evangelist—there’s no question about it,” Greenwald said. “But we’re not presenting it so that we can have the complicated conversation about religious music. We’re presenting it because the music is good.”
Among gospel performers, Kee and the Mighty Clouds of Joy could hardly be more different. Pastor Kee—whose rapid footwork and vivacious energy have earned him the nickname “the Prince of gospel music”—infuses hip hop and R&B influences into the traditional choir sound. Mighty Clouds of Joy, on the other hand, works within the traditional quartet style, which has been around since the 19th century.
“Quartet is for gospel music what Bach is for European classical music” said Braxton Shelley, a gospel singer and Reginaldo Howard Memorial Scholar who graduated from Duke in May. “Mighty Clouds of Joy is a sort of throwback, a way to pay homage to the tradition.” That doesn’t mean that Mighty Clouds of Joy haven’t shaken things up. Their last record was produced by the same R&B producers who have produced Mary J. Blige. “They’re both trying to appeal to broad audiences,” Bledsoe said. “That’s what keeps them at the top of the charts.”
Though the two artists represent the first gospel Duke Performances shows, Greenwald has long been committed to bringing talented African American musicians. Jazz, blues and soul concerts are common and each of these musical traditions has been heavily influenced by gospel music. During Jim Crow, the same musicians often played jazz and blues in the clubs on Friday evenings and gospel music on Sunday mornings. When Ray Charles was at his height, many Christians thought he was only rebranding, if not stealing from, gospel music.
“Gospel is foundational in the history of music,” Bledsoe said. “Hearing it today, it’s easy to say that gospel sounds like jazz or blues. But it’s the other way around. That music sounds like gospel.” Both gospel groups will perform at the Hayti Heritage Center, a building that was once the St. Joseph AME Church and now has become a National Historic Landmark.
“Hayti is both an historic and intimate space,” Greenwald said. “Presentations of sacred music in that building have been really powerful experiences.”
The gospel shows further demonstrate Duke Performances’ dedication to the music and culture of Durham. Gospel has a long relationship with the Bull City. Pastor Shirley Caesar, the “First Lady of Gospel” whom Bledsoe calls “the second most famous gospel musician,” was born in Durham—as was Kee. Gospel music is the main musical outlet for Durham’s many black churches. Durham’s radio station 103.9 The Light plays gospel on Sunday mornings. And then there’s the Duke’s own gospel choir United in Praise.
“There are a lot of places to go for gospel music,” Shelley said.
Unlike most Duke Performances shows, the gospel performances will be interactive. One of the goals of gospel music is to engage its audience both spiritually and physically.
“Students will be asked to be very openly expressive,” Bledsoe said. “The more the audience gives and participates, the more everyone will get from the experience.”
“People won’t sit and wait to clap,” Shelley said. “If the music demands standing and clapping, they’ll do it. If you’ve never experienced gospel music before, gauge the way others are interacting and decide what you want to do. There’s no wrong way to react. Be open and have fun.”
John P. Kee and the New Life Community Choir perform at the Hayti Heritage Center at 8 p.m. on Friday Sept. 14 and Saturday Sept. 15. The Mighty Clouds of Joy perform at the same time and place on Friday Nov. 16 and Saturday Nov. 17. Tickets for both shows are $10 for Duke and NCCU students. For the whole Duke Performances schedule check out their website (dukeperformances.duke.edu).