Music, Joy, and a Royal Wedding

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May 22, 2018

Last weekend’s wedding of England’s Prince Harry and Northwestern University School of Communication alumna Meghan Markle was as memorable for its royal pomp as it was for its royally unexpected touches.

The rendition of “Stand By Me” sung by a gospel choir was squarely among the latter.

“The origin of gospel music is American, African American specifically,” says E. Patrick Johnson, the Carlos Montezuma Professor of Performance Studies and African American Studies. “But there are gospel choirs in Germany, in London, in Paris, in Amsterdam, in Japan—they’re all over.”

Even Windsor Castle. Though, the 20-member Kingdom Choir based in Southeast England isn’t unaccustomed to high-profile gigs—they’ve performed for international politicians, including the British Royalty, and alongside world-renowned acts. But this wedding in St. George’s Chapel provided the setting for a different sort of performance: one that married disparate cultures and transformed a typically staid and tradition-bound service into something far more jubilant.

Johnson researches performance and culture in black traditions, as well as matters of gender and sexuality, and his work has included studying gospel music. Johnson in 2003 published Appropriating Blackness: Performance and the Politics of Authenticity, which tackled one particular gospel choir: a group of white, Australian atheists called the Café of the Gate of Salvation. This is an extreme example of gospel’s influential reach, but it proves a point.

“The interesting thing about these choirs is that they are in places where there are no black people, or very few,” he says. “Some of it is about missionary work… and some of it is the deep investment in the aesthetic.”

“Gospel is very lively, it’s very loud; it means joy and sharing the ‘Good News,’” Johnson adds. “And this is something that people are attracted to, especially in cultures where social mores are conservative or self-conscious about expressing emotion.”

Gospel, he adds, does not allow for self-consciousness. The Kingdom Choir, with their smiles and rousing vocals, abided. Perhaps it was this joyful incongruity that made the royal wedding so notable. The marriage of a white man duty-bound to monarchy and an independent, biracial American actress successfully combined elements of their respective heritages and shared ideals: A boys’ choir and a gospel choir; the Archbishop of Canterbury and King-quoting Episcopal Bishop Michael Curry; Queen Elizabeth II and social worker Doria Ragland; Fascinators and, as Johnson pointed out, Oprah Winfrey’s “black church hat.” The African American traditions in particular gave the ceremony its warmth and levity, its feeling of unity in divided times—something that may have been lacking if the bride were a white Brit, Johnson said.

“It takes these moments of culture-building for us to realize that we’re going to be OK. There are some things happening in the world that are really discouraging, but then a baby is born or someone gets married,” Johnson says. “It’s not a panacea for all the ills of the world but these events momentarily bring us together around something that is bigger than us, and that’s usually love.”

By Kerry Trotter