Ideas53:59A Life-giving Chord: The power of gospel music

A century after the founding of the University of Toronto’s Faculty of Music, the sounds of Black gospel — which from its very beginnings has been steeped in the idea of community — echo at last, from its classrooms. Documentary producer Alisa Siegel takes us into that room where Black gospel is helping to transform the way that students learn, create, and perform music.

It’s a Wednesday evening at the University of Toronto, and the sounds of silence collide with a few hushed whispers in the corridors of the glass-and-concrete building housing the Faculty of Music. 

Until 7 p.m., when a classroom on the third floor comes to life with the awe-inspiring echoes of We Shall Overcome.

Under the guidance of Darren Hamilton, a Juno Award-winning assistant professor, 30 music students of all backgrounds and ages bring Room 330 alive with music that is rooted in faith, freedom and joy.

Welcome to Gospel Choir, the University of Toronto’s first credit course in Black gospel music since its music faculty first opened its doors in 1918.

“I want Black students to be able to go to music class and to be able to feel that they belong,” said Hamilton.

WATCH | Music rooted in faith, freedom and joy:

U of T’s gospel choir sings This Little Light Of Mine in rehearsal

The University of Toronto’s gospel choir is a for-credit course offered by the Faculty of Music with a focus on the rhythm and roots of gospel music. The choir, established in 2019 by assistant professor Darren Hamilton, is also a way for students to learn about Black history.

He established the course in 2019 to give students a more fulsome understanding of Black history, culture and music. Black students, he says, have had to learn about their music in the community because “their music is not being taught.”

Kimberly Brathwaite is a Jamaican Canadian student in her second year of the school’s jazz program. She grew up to the sounds of gospel music but, through Hamilton’s class, is only now beginning to fully understand it. 

“It’s very important to me as a musician that I have that connection with the music of my ancestors,” said Brathwaite. “The music that literally kept my bloodline going and pushing through tough times right down to me.”

A lack of Black music in education

The soundtrack of Hamilton’s youth included both private classical piano lessons and singing spirituals like Jesus Loves Me and Amazing Grace in church on Sunday. But when he began his university studies, he was frustrated by the absence of Black music courses and Black music professors. 

At the time, most faculties of music were almost singularly focused on the Western classical canon. 

Hamilton, who is also the founder and artistic director of a professional gospel choir in Kitchener, Ont., started the course because he wanted Black music to be valued in music education.

Smiling Black man with his arms raised to conduct a choir.
Hamilton’s musical education as a child included private classical piano lessons alongside the Sunday singing of spiritual songs in church. But during his post-secondary studies, he was frustrated by the absence of Black music courses and Black music educators. (Mike Hwang/Oh Happy Day Photography)

“I want Black students to be able to go to music class and to be able to feel that they belong because they’re able to hear their music, they’re able to learn more about their music in the music classroom, instead of having to rely on learning about their music in the community.”

One of his important mentors is Karen Burke, an associate professor of music at York University, and artistic director and co-founder of the Toronto Mass Choir. In 2005, Burke established the first Black gospel music courses at York — the first Canadian university to do so. 

“I think academia is realizing they’re missing a piece,” said Burke.

“You can’t study jazz for example without understanding gospel — they’re cousins and they’re from the same root. So if you’re teaching African American music and you’re not teaching gospel, you’re missing a whole chunk of the tree.”

The field is now growing with faculty appointments and courses at a number of North American universities and colleges, including at Ivy League schools like Yale. In Canada, York, the University of Toronto and Humber College offer credit courses in gospel music. 

For Burke and others in the field, this was a long time coming.

A Black woman with short grey hair playing a piano.
The Black gospel music courses established by Karen Burke at Toronto’s York University in 2005 were the first such programs to be offered at a Canadian university. (Alisa Siegel/CBC)

“It’s a survival music,” said Burke.  

Mahalia Jackson, Shirley Caesar and Thomas Dorsey were a few of the titans of Black gospel music, which flourished in the 1920s and ’30s. Its faith roots are well-known but with lyrics imbued with double meanings and code words, the songs also played a role in helping enslaved people escape to freedom. 

“This is the principle of gospel music,” Burke said. 

“When you learn it, it’s there. It stays with you, these messages of hope and grace, and they come back to you when you need it. When I’m singing it, it’s ministering to me.”

Secret code in songs of freedom

Hamilton’s gospel course begins with spirituals like Down by the Riverside and Wade in the Water, which show the role of songs both as spiritual sustenance and as a tool to navigate their way to freedom. 

Wade in the Water, for example, is often associated with water baptism. “But the double meaning of this spiritual speaks about warning slaves to submerge themselves in water as they are escaping their slave masters,” Hamilton said. 

Swing Low, Sweet Chariot was often sung to alert slaves to an anticipated opportunity for escape. Harriet Tubman, the matriarch of the Underground Railroad, was often referred to by her code names, Black Moses and Old Chariot. “They would start singing the song,” Burke says, “and then people would know, ‘She’s coming tonight.'”

WATCH | Gospel choir performance for Black History Month:

We Shall Overcome, performed by U of T’s gospel choir

Faith and freedom are integral to gospel music, says Darren Hamilton, an assistant professor at the University of Toronto’s Faculty of Music and creator of the school’s first for-credit course in gospel music. Hamilton led the choir in a Black History Month performance on Feb. 10, 2024.

Alongside the lessons in Black history, Hamilton teaches his students the unique  performance practices of gospel music — its syncopated rhythms and nuances, the call-and-response and the need to memorize the music and lyrics rather than read sheet music. The latter, says Burke, is a skill that — once learned — can revolutionize a student’s playing and singing. 

“It takes a bit of time to learn how to sing by rote,” said Jamie Bateman, a fifth-year student majoring in classical voice. “But then when it all comes together, you can hear just the mix of it and you’re so aware of everybody else around you. And I think that’s something that we don’t get in classical music very often. It forces you to listen.” 

Listen and learn

Learning by ear allows musicians to be more flexible, make changes quickly, and become more versatile, Burke says. It comes down to two simple yet crucial skills: listening and watching. 

“People who learn in this way, their ears become better, you can play in any key, and you’re able to turn a phrase and just be able to make music without the constraints of being tied down to print notation.” 

A powerful example of a gospel-trained musician is the celebrated Canadian drummer, Larnell Lewis.

A man wearing sunglasses points off-camera while seated at a drum kit.
Professional drummer and educator Larnell Lewis has mastered how to listen carefully to what is happening within a piece of music. That attribute is key in gospel music. (Avital Zemer Photography)

One of the most sought-after drummers in the world, Lewis is perhaps best-known for his work with the jazz fusion band Snarky Puppy but his claim to internet fame came when he was asked to listen to something he’d never heard before — Metallica’s Enter Sandman — and then drum to it. 

That YouTube video, which has been viewed more than 16 million times, includes his now-legendary line, “I’ll take more volume, please.” More importantly, it showcases the power of active listening and Lewis’s uncanny ability to listen to a song and then play it back on the spot.

Lewis credits that to his church upbringing, where he first began to learn and play gospel on his father’s lap when he was two years old. 

“You learn these choruses and these songs and these hymns every Sunday. So it’s kind of like the music lesson that you never expected,” he said.

Every week, he said, was an unrehearsed performance. That taught him how to break down a song’s form — the intro, the verses, the chorus, the bridge, the vamping. “All of those things have to be sorted out in your mind after hearing one verse and one chorus,” he said. “And you do that every week.”

A woman holds a microphone in one hand and sings with a choir.
Student and choir member Kimberly Brathwaite takes a solo during the Black History Month performance. Brathwaite was raised on gospel music but, through Hamilton’s class, is only now beginning to fully understand it. (Mike Hwang/Oh Happy Day Photography)

Each week in Hamilton’s University of Toronto classroom, the sense of community that is integral to spiritual songs and gospel singing comes to life. 

The gospel choir has helped Bateman rediscover her joy of music by being part of “not just a choir, but almost a movement.”

The class is bringing even bigger discoveries for Brathwaite. 

“I feel like opportunities like this class give me such a beautiful space of home where my music is being taught, my culture is being taught,” she said.

“My spirituality is being taught.”

For more stories about the experiences of Black Canadians — from anti-Black racism to success stories within the Black community — check out Being Black in Canada, a CBC project Black Canadians can be proud of. You can read more stories here.

A banner of upturned fists, with the words 'Being Black in Canada'.

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