- "You Are My Dwelling Place"Experiencing Black Male Vocalists' Worship as Aural Eroticism and Autoeroticism in Gospel Performance
Within the twenty-first-century, historically African American, Pentecostal settings in which gospel music is performed, there is a long-standing tradition of ministers presenting songs and delivering sermons that promote sexual abstinence among unmarried individuals, encouraging listeners to wait until they get married to have sex. Essential prescriptions for maintaining chastity in the Worth the Wait movement include prohibitive teachings that Christian believers should guard their hearts, minds, and "gates" (i.e., ears and eyes) from sexually suggestive or erotic contemplation, pornographic entertainment, and self-pleasure through masturbation. Yet the songs and sermons through which such messages reach the "gates" of the congregation are themselves a physical and embodied discourse that—for many listeners and performers—can be understood as erotic and pleasurable.
While the performance of gender and sexuality in gospel music has been marked as a taboo discussion in historically African American Protestant congregations, their rich interdependence is exemplified by albums such as Sacred Love Songs (1999) by T. D. Jakes, in which gospel music is intended to get (married, heterosexual) Christian couples in the mood for sex.1 Sacred Love Songs is based on the Song of Solomon and was marketed as "gospel" songs with the most "romantic and poetic texts ever written."2 Jakes, a preacher, narrates intermittently throughout the album, envoicing a divine blessing on the marriage bed and effectively cuing the act of procreative sex as an act of cocreation between husband, wife, [End Page 3] and God. Although there is a growing number of Christian same-sex marriages, most historically African American Protestant churches remain resistant to the movement. According to one iTunes review, the music is "as healing as it is entertaining[.] Sacred Love Songs encourages men and women to love each other in God's way with heartfelt musical messages." The album includes collaborations with popular R&B and gospel soprano, alto, and tenor (SAT) singers Tamar Braxton, Shirley Murdock, Jesse Powell, and Marvin Sapp, but the prominence given to Jakes's own deeper male voice as both speaker and singer draws upon gendered hierarchies of authority to reestablish bass timbres as the conventional sound for the sexual healing of African American Christian believers. The ambivalent reception of Sacred Love Songs and other similar recordings indicates both the success with which Jakes harnesses the erotic potential of gospel music and the discomfort that such an explicit acknowledgment of sonic eroticism causes for many religious gospel listeners, as it marks a glaring demographic omission in the project's potential impact: there is no exploration of a virgin, celibate, queer, or sensual listening to and feeling of gospel music through forms of sensory modalities (vision, audition, olfaction, gustation, tactility, and motion) in order to deepen love and spirituality in charismatic Christian social life.3 Furthermore, there is no consideration of the pleasure vocalists themselves may derive, concurrently maintaining Christian piety while providing forms of musical sexual healing for others.4
In this essay, I tease out the ways in which gospel singing is understood as erotic and sensual for nonheterosexual, single believers, both performers and listeners. I ask what we might learn about the pleasure derived from the auditory and bodily dimensions of gospel music making and contend that sexual abstinence discourses obscure the alternative forms of sensual and sexual exploration occurring in gospel music participation. Informed by womanist and feminist modes of analysis, I conduct this research as a formally trained, cisgender woman preacher, musician, and researcher who is sexually and nonsexually attracted to men, with what black feminist bell hooks might call an oppositional gaze toward black male musicians.5 My research on black men's worship is a critical affirmation of a tradition that I simultaneously respect and critique.
Elsewhere, I have written that throughout popular gospel music discourse, white sexual paranoia about the black male body has been internalized by historically African American Protestant churchgoers. Cultural insiders exhibit a sociocultural fixation on the preservation of black masculinity and heterosexuality with recurrent questions such as "Are all the choir directors gay?" Thus, the gender expression of black...