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  • Matthew A. Williams

NPR Tiny Desk: Coldplay and the Symbol of the Black Gospel Choir

The black gospel choir is arguably the most internationally recognised musical ‘offspring’ of black sacred music. In our so-called ‘secular’ society of the West, religion is supposedly side-lined and God is no longer meant to be a topic of social discourse (according to Nietzsche (1882), "God is dead"). Yet, gospel choirs and gospel musicians are repeatedly called on in pop culture to contribute their skills to popular music.

The latest NPR tiny desk performance by the British band, Coldplay features The Love Choir, who sing in a traditional gospel style. Coldplay does not articulate a religious belief as a band. Though in this performance, they sing songs with religious themes and messages. NPR reviewer Robin Hilton describes the performance as almost “transcendent”. To transcend means to ‘go beyond’ and is often meant to articulate being in touch with the spiritual. There is a particular way in which the presence of a gospel style symbolises (for some listeners) a spiritual moment. One need only look at the viewer responses to the British performance of the Kingdom Choir at the Royal Wedding back in 2018 to see this, the same can be said of Kanye’s Sunday Service Choir. Although gospel is not musical home territory for Coldplay’s Chris Martin, it is unmistakable that he is open to the improvisational aspect of gospel performance and enjoying every moment of it.

It is clear from performances such as this that even in a secular age people still want spiritual experiences. Perhaps, one of the most important things I would argue is that stylised gospel music has always been an inviting bridge of dialogue between the religious and non-religious. The other conversation that I want to open is that the distinction that the church (in particular) has made between sacred and secular is not as fixed as we think. There are theological and musicological reasons for this line of thinking that I will share another time.

During my PhD research, I’ve been looking closely at the phenomenon of gospel-pop crossovers and hope to share knowledge about this, in language that everyone can understand. I don’t believe that this type of knowledge is just for the academics and I want my studies to help people. Adding to my busy work and study schedule, I plan to post a bit more regularly (here and on my other platforms) to benefit people in my community who are interested in this topic.

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