British Gospel: The truth that must be told by Juliet Fletcher

It’s a time when a definitive source of truth emerges and stands visible, accessible and sustainable on the true story of British Gospel Music. And this truth must be attached to its true source: the Black Church movement.

There are several reasons for this view, and one of the factors that has put the fire under me is this: Although there have been fascinating and interesting discussions on Zoom and Facebook Live in particular, some of them, sadly, have been an absolutely appalling revelation of how much we lack in true knowledge of the music – gospel music – which has come out of our churches. And this root is very specifically out of the Windrush era of Black churches.

It isn’t just about the music, but the importance of its role in empowering our voice within British society; engaging diverse communities in various settings; leading the way in arts and culture, and – last, but certainly not least – identifying the key individuals, who have passed on (died) and who have been integral to our existence, growth and progress on a local and national level. Furthermore, even without realising it, some of these significant individuals have never spoken openly or on record to their peers about those experiences, so there is nothing – Nothing! Nothing! NOTHING! to demonstrate some of the first-hand, eye-witness accounts of key moments during the early years; namely from about 1948 to 1968. We fare much better from 1969 to 1989, and from 1990 to 2000 and even better from 2001 to present day.

It isn’t really hard, then, to believe the amount of misrepresentation and total ignorance that exists among our gospel music community in Britain. It’s heartbreaking, because it spills over into the wider understanding that people have about our music’s history: the ‘how, why and wherefore’. But I’m going to ‘fess up’ and admit that primarily it’s the ‘fault’ of those who have ‘lived’ the music from its early start. And that reprimand includes me. Unfortunately, we were not mature enough at the time to be aware of ourselves in this way. We were too engrossed in living it, surviving it and thriving in it.

WINDRUSH FOUNDATION – OUR TEMPLATE EXAMPLE

But now we have actually reached the point where, if we do not have dynamic progress on how we register our history, we will be history. Everybody and anybody will dispute ‘the truth’. Tokenism in social history will prevail. There will be very little visible evidence that we have contributed to change – for ourselves AND for the wider community. 

Our prime and practical counter-example is the superb and irrefutable work of the Windrush Foundation, started by the late Sam King MBE and Arthur Torrington CBE in 1995. Together they redefined the socio-cultural landscape of reference for the Caribbean community; it was ‘us’ collecting and collating our own records – on film and written memorabilia. 

Sam King MBE and Arthur Torrington CBE

Sam King came to the UK on the ship Empire Windrush and, according to his memoirs, he recalls collecting the names and contact details of everyone he could. This became the bedrock of their research premise, when years later the concept of telling the story became a reality with the charitable, registered foundation. 

I remember actually being in attendance at some of the filmed interviews Arthur conducted with our WWII veterans. It was amazing, but unfortunately at the time I still didn’t see or understand its importance. The Windrush Foundation was the first organisation to annually commemorate from 1995 the arrival of the Empire Windrush on 22nd June 1948. 

It publishes educational resources at KS2 and KS3 levels, freely available at www.windrushfoundation.com. And it became the key driver of an official, government-recognised annual Windrush Day.

Now the Windrush Foundation has become the first port of call for recognising the contribution of Caribbeans (or West Indians, as they were more commonly called back then), when referring to our participation in and contribution to the War effort and the subsequent rebuilding of Britain – the pivotal reason why Caribbeans came here during that era. For this very reason, I am proud to associate the work, which we (more than 400 volunteers) did in 2018, commemorating 70 years and entitled Windrush Church and Music – Singing Our Story from the Front Room to the Palace, with the support of the Windrush Foundation. Visit https://WindrushChurchandMusic.uk for more information.

After a long hiatus, Windrush Church and Music (WiCaM – do you get the pun?) has been regenerated to tell and ensure the retelling of ‘Our Story’ to all generations and communities – ad infinitum. In this unprecedented time, with the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic and the #BlackLivesMatter action, it is clear that working together is the primary way to bring about a change of mindset and behaviour towards ourselves and of people towards us.

The Singing Stewarts

Windrush Church and Music is focused on keeping the legacy of music and liturgy in the Black Christian community alive, but also to be an advocate and champion of the new sounds being formed in the Black Church movement now – to have all the Christian family near and far literally singing our songs. 

With an organisation of this kind, we can make sure that the story is told in the right context. Here are my top three practical reasons:

1. We need to recognise the contribution of individuals

We need to identify our individual role models, the champions of our cause or faith, our (s)heroes, those who we can look up to… so that we can recognise the high individual achievement of those who paved the way, and on whose shoulders we stand – not to look back in arrogance but in humility. Our church leaders, who blazed the way, rose up against the odds they faced, and spoke into our lives personally and corporately. Examples include: Bishop Kenneth McCarthy, International Evangelistic Fellowship (IEF); Rev Dr Io Smith, New Testament Assembly (NTA); Bishop Sydney Dunn, Bethel United Church Of Jesus Christ (BETHEL) and Evangelist Eileen Hendricks, Church Of God Seventh Day (COG7D). Just naming these four leaders reflects a huge number of young people who, through their efforts, became pioneers of the British Gospel sound. 

2. We need to recognise families

During this time, when the news seems to focus on the demise and weakness of the Black family, this aspect of WiCaM evidences its strength. 

Part of my desire is to bring acknowledgment of the very significant way in which families are – and to this day remain – central to British Gospel. The family is the central heart of every church! This will remain so until JESUS YESHUA comes. Families of note include: the Stewarts, who made up The Singing Stewarts (Adventist Church), of which renown gospel radio broadcaster Frank Stewart was a member; the Thomas family – key leaders and contributors in the Merrybells Gospel Choir (COG7D), of which Tyndale Thomas MBE was the first person to receive royal recognition for services to gospel music and the Preston city area, and the Hudson family (COGIC), which comprised the superlative vocalist/musician/songwriter Lavine Hudson and her four brothers, who sang close harmony together. This is just such an exciting area of work to me. I call these ‘The Royal Families of Gospel Music’. There are so many of them – brothers, sisters, cousins – and we don’t realise how reliant our music is upon these families, and how much its creative strength is derived from them. In reality, we have a strong foundation, just like the Winans, Williams and Clarkes in the US.

3. We need to highlight the evidence of our spiritual and moral impact on the nation

There is no doubt that the music of our churches has and continues to have impact on the music found within indigenous churches of this land. The intrinsic power of an outward expression of ‘freedom in worshipful song’ was powerful to witness, but sadly we don’t share those stories. Greenbelt, Spring Harvest and many other major events… even to this day, when we speak of ‘Big Church Day Out’, it isn’t necessarily viewed correctly!

There are many other key reasons – I’m sure you could tell me some of them – for us to think about celebrating the difference among ourselves, and for linking our Caribbean churches’ heritage with our African churches’ heritage. We need to celebrate difference – even among ourselves. We need to highlight and map out places, landmarks and other commemorative markers accessible in public places; and have regular, annual and seasonal events that are financed and curated solely by us. We also need to demonstrate how central our faith in God is to our corporate and individual practice of spiritual, moral and mental well-being, and how it ever will be in our Black Church community.

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