by Jonathan Chan
During Palm Sunday Service, on the 2nd of April, 2023, the Covenant Community Methodist Church Gospel Choir presented a praise item after the benediction, singing ‘Heaven on Earth’ by Micah Stampley. The choir was initiated when Praise Ministry leader Shu-Lyn Lee invited Jonathan Chan to set it up on the basis of his experience serving in the Cambridge University Gospel Choir as an undergraduate. The choir includes many who sang in CCMC’s Contemporary Voices Choir at the 2022 Christmas Concert.
Based in Atlanta, Georgia, Micah Stampley is a prolific, contemporary gospel singer. Stampley has released seven albums of gospel music; his song ‘Heaven on Earth’ is from his 2011 album One Voice. Exuberant and dynamic, the song moves between Stampley’s leading and a strong choral response. The song begins:
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me His anointing is empowering The kingdom of the Lord is within me And He's calling me to the heavenlies
‘Heaven on Earth’ opens with an explicit invocation of the book of Isaiah, in which the prophet declares of the year of the Lord’s favour:
The Spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me,
because the LORD has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor;
he has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives,
and the opening of the prison to those who are bound
These are also verses fulfilled at the inauguration of Jesus’ ministry at his baptism, as detailed in the Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke. After Jesus’ emergence from the water, Isaiah’s declaration finds its culmination as ‘the heavens were opened to [Jesus], and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and coming to rest on him’. Jesus himself read from the scroll of Isaiah in Luke 4, proclaiming the same words. Just as the prophets anointed kings at the commencement of their reign, so too was Jesus anointed as he began His work of proclaiming the Good News of repentance. The call to proclaim the Good News lies at the heart of gospel music. After all, the word ‘gospel is derived etymologically from the term ‘Good News’.
The intricate layering of three-part harmonies, call and response techniques, kinetic leading, and a choric swell are all evident in Stampley’s song, which was sung by the CCMC Gospel Choir at our recent service on Palm Sunday. However, the effervescence of the gospel style belies a long history of suffering and joy, of captivity and deliverance. The roots of gospel music can be traced to the history of African enslavement in the United States between the 15th and 19th centuries. As a means of disempowering enslaved Africans, those sold from West Africa and who had survived the horrific trans-Atlantic passage, slave owners in the United States systematically deprived them of formal education. Many slaves were rendered forcibly illiterate, leading to oral and non-written communication to remain as the primary way that beliefs and practices were disseminated.
Gospel music emerged both from the work songs sung by slaves labouring in the fields, as well as the songs sung by converted slaves in church settings. These early songs were called spirituals. As scholar Bruce Franklin explains, spirituals were largely rooted in biblical stories while describing the hardships endured by enslaved African Americans, especially the ways in which racist attitudes and physical punishments conspired to deprive them of humanity and dignity. They fused the influences of West African polyrhythms and a metaphysical framework of biblical language. These songs had a pedagogic function in the teaching of biblical stories from one generation to another. The abolitionist Frederick Douglass once described the songs as containing: tones, loud, long and deep, breathing the prayer and complaint of souls boiling over with the bitterest anguish. Every tone was a testimony against slavery, and a prayer to God for deliverance from chains.
It is thus unsurprising that enslaved Africans saw analogies between their lives and the lives of the Israelites under Egyptian captivity in the Old Testament, yearning for deliverance and release. The singer Uzee Brown Jr. describes spirituals as ‘survival tools for the African slave’, a means by which an oppressed culture could resist being wiped out. The missiologist David W. Smith writes that amidst the feeling of ‘utter godforsakenness’ experienced by enslaved Africans, they ‘articulated their agony and despair in the shape of new forms of lament with close parallels to those found on the pages of the Bible.’ Gospel music is therefore embedded in the ancient biblical practice of lament, profound prayers expressing grief, pain, and sorrow in the presence of God.
Contemporary gospel music as we experience it today has transformed in concert with Black history and the Black church in the United States, evolving through the abolition of slavery to the period of reconstruction after the Civil War from 1861 to 1865, from the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s to present-day movements against police brutality. It is a history in which Pentecostalism and Methodism feature in part, with the latter being among the first denominations to evangelise to African Americans and integrate them into church communities in the 1730s and 1740s.
It is also in the context of the expanding global influence of African American cultural and musical forms in the 20th century that gospel music comes to us; gospel is seen as having had some influence on the development on the blues, jazz, rock and roll, and hip hop. As the scholar Braxton Shelley argues, ‘Black sacred music is distinctive, and its influence extends well beyond the church’, having helped to shape American and global musical cultures. There has also been fruitful interaction between African American and African worship music, one that has yielded songs such as ‘Way Maker’, by the Nigerian worship leader Sinach.
Gospel music became an important part of my journey of faith as an undergraduate in the United Kingdom. I’d made the spontaneous decision to join my university’s gospel choir and continued to be drawn back to rehearsals each week. Singing praise and worship within the Gospel tradition provided a new texture to my Christian life, providing space to express lament, grief, joy, and anticipation. It provided an openness and lent a potency to my practice of worship, as I could express the anguishes and stresses I grappled with each week to God. I also grew under the care and tutelage of my choir leaders and fellow singers. As a graduate student in the United States, I found Gospel music return to my life as I had the opportunity to sing in my church’s Gospel choir yet again.
The ability to draw on Gospel music in my personal practice of worship helped to break the hegemony of contemporary Christian music from Australia, the United Kingdom, and the United States that had formed so much of my musical diet. It was a reminder of the many ways that God can be glorified through a variety of cultural forms and expressions, something that we can overlook despite the plurality and diversity we live amidst in Singapore.
With the establishment of the CCMC Gospel Choir, it is my prayer that we will be able to bless CCMC through a distinctive tradition of praise and worship that complements our liturgies and existing songbook. It is our hope that we can provide another avenue through which we can worship God with our bodies and our voices, to feel the sorrow and joy that is part of our journey as believers, and to lift one another up in pursuit and praise of the divine. And it is my hope that as the Choir grows as its own form of fellowship, that we will be able to bring forth the joy of the Lord to our communities through music, to share a glimpse of what it means to in ‘heaven on earth’.