When John P. Kee took to Instagram to announce he’d battle Hezekiah Walker, “Finally!” could be heard from every corner of Black America. Patterned after the Swizz Beats/Timbaland led #Verzuz battles, it was time for the genius of gospel music to be highlighted. Who better than these two? If you ask most male R&B singers, they’ll say leading a John P. Kee song in church was a rite of passage back in the day. And most sisters in R&B and gospel would agree that those Hezekiah Walker modulations were the blueprint for “she doesn’t have the range.”
Be clear. This battle was a big deal. Like church anniversary big deal; I even made a plate (and one to go) to mark the occasion. As churches are in their second month of social distancing, the event provided a much-needed momentary distraction from what was become the new normal. It took us back to the days of A and B selection choir anniversaries when you had to get there early because the ushers wouldn’t let you save seats. Or second and fourth Sundays when the Young Adult choir would sing. Or those beloved evening services at another church when the choir would show out and the host pastor would say our pastor owed him for the carpet that got torn up during the praise break. It took us back to the days of monogrammed choir robes, asymmetrical hair cuts, french rolls and spiral curls. And we need those memories right now more than ever.
As Covid-19 continues to hold the world hostage, no one can ignore its particular impact on Black communities. We represent 13% of the US population but account for more than 30% of coronavirus infections and deaths. And as Black people navigate through a global pandemic, Black churches feel it. Beyond the expected difficulty of the moment, Covid-19 has claimed the lives of many of our pastors and leaders. And, in the earlier stages of the pandemic, some of our churches continued in-person worship for a number of reasons and several pastors were vocal about their refusal to close. As a result, the virus spread within many of those church communities and news of pastors dying has rocked us. We are losing loved ones and are unable to grieve and celebrate their lives in ways we are traditionally accustomed. It has all become too much.
For more than two hours, Kee and Walker lifted those heavy burdens with a trip down memory lane. Unfortunately, prayers that the spirit of Teddy Riley would not manifest itself in this battle did not avail as we struggled to actually hear the music. (…by the way, my friend musician/tour manager/all around church boy Dre Bouie said folks doing two-party IG Lives need to “use a mixer and mute the loop channel so the audio from the live participant doesn’t feedback.” Thank God for Dre.) But poor sound quality wasn’t a deterrent. Matter of fact, many of us convinced ourselves the fact it sounded like those AM gospel radio stations from back in the day made it even more nostalgic. Once Hez played “Let the Glory”, you couldn’t tell me I wasn’t back in that two-bedroom apartment on Cole Road with my mama, listening to Winston-Salem’s 980 WAAA and getting ready for another Sunday morning at Zion Hill Missionary Baptist Church.
These songs soundtracked the experiences of a generation. They told our stories in a way no one else could. Even as we reminisced on one of the greatest gospel adlibs, it spoke directly to another time when our community was ravaged by yet another epidemic. Songs like “I Believe” teleport us back to those days when we heard a song like that every Sunday and they accounted for an additional 30 minutes over time because songs like that don’t let you go until they have their way. Through them, we honor ancestors who didn’t have all the musical accoutrements we have now. All they had was a clap, a foot stomp and a testimony.
These songs have stayed with us even as some of us have left the church as we knew it. As theological shifts and lack of accountability make it hard for many to remain connected to the churches of our youth, these songs still ground our relationship with God and love of Black church culture. And those who have remained in church hold fast to these songs and miss them dearly. As many Black churches and gospel artists embrace CCM and more Eurocentric musical styles embodying (what pastor and recording artist L. Spenser Smith calls) “the sounds of gentrification”, they rob Black people of a music that is as theological as it is cultural. “Power Belongs to God” contains some of the greatest verses in gospel music and there is no telling what contemporary Black faith would look like without “Jesus is Real”. If the need to return to our sound and our story wasn’t clear before, it should be now.
Last night, 100,000 people–mostly Black Christians–got on a digital platform to remember. To remember better days. Remember loved ones gone before Covid-19 and those the virus took from us. Indeed, it was difficult to witness this moment and miss the voice of gospel music savant and Black Twitter O.G. Clifton Brown, known to most as @seabethree, whose commentary would have been spot-on. We have lost so many and will lose more simply because this country sees Black flesh as disposable. And in knowing that, the Saints still took to Instagram in droves to be reminded that our faith in God has always been more powerful than the fear the powers would try to instill in us.
The hardest part of memory is exactly what it is. We remember knowing that we will never get those days with those people back ever again. And, as we are uncertain what the church will look like when we emerge from this moment, those memories can create unease about what lies ahead. But last night wasn't just about memory. These two gospel legends showed us what is possible when we remember how we got over. The church will survive. It will look different and we must accept those difference. But the Black church will survive Covid-19.
John P. Kee and Hezekiah Walker deserved all their flowers before last night’s battle. But, now, we owe them more than we can ever repay. Yes–they fulfilled the mission of the Gospel and offered hope to a dying world. But they did so much more than that. They hoped us and created a little more room to run on and see what the end will be. And I’m mighty glad about it!