Never Would Have Made It
by Jason Ashe
Every time I open my mouth to sing Him a love song, my heart is totally devout. When I close my eyes during a song, I visualize His compassionate smile and it warms my soul because it reminds me that He loves me unconditionally, no matter what I've done in the past. Sometimes, when I'm contemplating the message of the song and I'm in my own spiritual realm, my soul is burning with passion. The world around me is being consumed with flames and the fire blazes rapidly with each step I take. Through the flames, He reaches out His hand, and once I grab onto Him, I don't let go. The feeling is euphoric.
Although I love to sing, over the years I've come to realize that I don't emote the same passion in songs ranging from classic soul, neo-soul, and jazz to Motown as I do when I'm singing a love song to Jesus, the true love of my life. Although this thought seems reasonable, it bothers me because, as a performer, I feel I should be able to get the same message across to the audience, whether the song is about Jesus or the love between two people. A few weeks ago, a friend asked me to sing a song at her sorority's talent showcase. Feeling obligated, I hesitantly agreed. During the performance, I serenaded my friend on stage with a famous love song from the classic soul era, "Inseparable" by Natalie Cole. Although my friend loved the song, I didn't. I felt awkward singing on stage because the performance seemed false. My stage presence was hindered by my lack of passion, and I was displeased with myself because I knew my singing wasn't my best.
Why was it so awkward for me to sing a song other than gospel? What is it about gospel that liberates my soul so that I can be passionate about the words I sing to an attentive audience? Who were the first singers of gospel who began to put their life stories in the words they sang and the message that comes across in the tunes and performance? Why gospel music?
gospel music is unlike any other music. The message that it conveys is inspiring and uplifting. The prophetic life it speaks through its listeners is one of hope, and it has ministered encouragement to people for more than two hundred years. Mahalia Jackson once said, "Blues are the song of despair, but gospel songs are the songs of hope." gospel music originated centuries ago in the form of Negro spirituals sung by African slaves on plantations and in the fields where they labored on scorching, strenuous days. The songs, however, did not serve as chants to help increase the slaves' labor efficiency or motivate them to finish a day's work. Many spirituals served as a secret language among slaves; they were codes and maps that showed them the way to the North, specifically Canada, the land of the free. The slave song, "Follow the Drinkin' Gou'd," in particular is a code for slaves to follow the constellation Ursa Major, commonly known as the Big Dipper. Because slaves were forbidden to read, the songs gave specific directions with reference to several natural landmarks. Another familiar spiritual, "Wade in the Water," was a code that told runaway slaves to run into nearby streams and rivers when slave masters were in pursuit. Usually, the slave masters brought bloodhounds to find runaway slaves; hence, the purpose of running into the water was to throw the hounds off their scent.
What is it about gospel that liberates my soul so that I can be passionate about the words I sing to an attentive audience?
As many spirituals served as codes for runaway slaves, copious slave songs were sung on plantations to instill hope in the laboring slaves. Spirituals were reminders of what God had in store for their future, the freedom each slave would one day attain, the liberation from bondage that they all sought. "It is not surprising, then, that perhaps the most common image found in the spirituals is the deliverance of a chosen people. The core message of the spirituals may indeed be God's ultimate liberation of the suffering slave. The message of liberation in the spirituals is based on the biblical contention that God's righteousness is revealed in his deliverance of the oppressed from the shackles of human bondage…" (Darden 34). Negro spirituals were sung as a way to release all the stress slaves had while working arduous days in the fields. Analogous to what Robert Darden is referring to in this quote, gospel music can be viewed as music that sets up an escape, a way for me to relieve my emotions of anger and sadness in ways I couldn't express by writing poems or just trying to sleep off the pain. gospel music provides an escape for me so that I can let go of all the hurt that's caused by the stress and ache in my life. As I listen to gospel music, I escape to a higher place of refuge in God, and I can have the serenity I need to clear my mind of all the trifling aspects in life that have no eternal hold on me.
Many slave songs allude to the Bible, such as the awe-inspiring story of the Israelites who were held captive for centuries and were miraculously delivered by God's awesome power. In an anecdote from the book "People Get Ready!" the author tells of an elderly slave who, after being whipped severely, crept to a stool on the front porch of his house, knelt down and began to sing the spiritual, "Troubles on my mind." Spirituals were songs passed down from preceding generations, instilling hope in their children that the liberation they sought for many years would soon be bestowed upon them with God's miraculous power. Negro spirituals convey a love for God that we can't communicate in any other folk songs.
gospel music is composed with a goal; it has a purpose to minister to whoever is listening. Once I stepped foot on MIT's campus, I created a playlist on my iTunes titled, "Inspiration." It's a song-list of several gospel songs that minister to my heart in particular, when I'm feeling upset about schoolwork or just life in general. Freshman life at any college, but especially MIT, is not an easy transition and there are times when my sanity is on the borderline. But I just close my eyes, meditate on the words of the songs and imagine that Jesus is sitting right next to me, whispering in my ears, "It will be fine. I'm here with you, and together we can get through this." Comforting words are the assurance I need that there is no need to care about tomorrow's outcome because I know who holds tomorrow and He will take care of it for me. My playlist has served many purposes within the past few months. This past week, I failed a test for which I had studied for three days straight. I was confident that I would ace my chemistry test; I was at the point where I was even assisting other people when we were studying the material. However, when I got my failing grade back, I was sick to my stomach. I couldn't believe how horrible my results were. As soon as I left class, I pulled out my cell phone and called my mother. I began to cry uncontrollably on the phone because I felt that there was no end to this failing streak. I felt that God had completely betrayed me in bringing me to a place where I had no interest in going. (Cornell had been my first choice and I was offered admission.) Then, having put countless hours into chemistry, I couldn't believe the score I had received. I was angry with God, but my mother reminded me I had an ITunes Playlist to listen to before my Calculus test in a few minutes. I had to clear my mind of all the thoughts of being a failure at MIT and believe that God had brought me here for His plan. I had to believe in myself and know that God loves me like no other love. It's incomparable and I needed to believe that. I went into Walker Memorial to take my Calculus exam, knowing that with God, all things are possible. That night, I got my results back and I had received an 81 and the average was a 67. That's God working right there.
…gospel music can be viewed as music that sets up an escape, a way for me to relieve my emotions of anger and sadness in ways I couldn't express by writing poems or just trying to sleep off the pain.
Cece Winans, one of my favorite female gospel singers, released an album in 2005 called Purified. Although I love all of the songs on that album, one in particular stands out for me; "He's Concerned" has a message of hope spread throughout the lyrics. The first verse reads as follows: "So while your tears are flowing through your time of mourning, He's here to lift your heavy heart 'cause He's in love with you." These words serve as a reminder for me sometimes, because when I get into a state of depression, I feel lower than the depths of Hell. When the world seems to be against me, pushing me backwards while I'm striving to reach my goals, I forget that there is a God, my bridegroom, the love of my life who really does care about me. Being alone on this campus without close friends and family members makes it difficult to pour my heart out to someone who's willing to listen, especially with someone who can connect as well. The words of this song minister to me in my time of need because they're a reminder that God is here for me, He's here to wipe my tears when I'm crying and to give me a hug to comfort me.
I always wondered if artists use their songs as a source of inspiration because their listeners are not the only ones who need encouragement. Cece Winans has stated in an interview, "We all face different storms. You have to still know that there is a bigger plan, and God is in that plan." She claims her latest album was inspired by the death of her older brother, Ron Winans, who was also a renowned gospel artist. Winans says that the same song she encourages people to listen to, "He's Concerned," she herself has to play a few times in order to feel uplifted when her emotions take over. Life leaves wounds that seem to be unbearably painful, scars that never disappear, but Winans says, "When you have a message in the music that is healing, it sheds light on a dark situation. It brings laughter and peace. Nothing is more satisfying." gospel music presents that same healing for me. When I'm stressed about all the things in life I don't possess the power to change or I'm contemplating how I can't achieve the goals I've been trying so hard for, my soul needs rejuvenation and I can find that inner power in my gospel music.
The most powerful song on my iTunes playlist is "Still I Rise" by Yolanda Adams. I first stumbled upon this song when I was about twelve years old. I was lying down in my bedroom, doing whatever homework I had when my mother slowly opened the door with a downcast smile on her face. Wondering why she looked down, I asked her what had happened and she told me in a discouraged voice, "I was laid off from work today. It was my last day; they didn't even give me a warning." I couldn't respond at the time because I wasn't sure what to say that could possibly make her feel any better. Hence, she left my room with a heavy heart. A few minutes later, I called her into my room again, put on an old album of Yolanda Adams and told her it was imperative that she listen to this song, "Still I Rise." The song exclaimed striking lyrics, "Yet still I rise, never to give up, never to give in against all odds. Yet still I rise, high above the clouds; at times I feel low, yet still I rise." By the end of the chorus, I had embraced my mother and noticed that her tears were falling on me. And I, being a very sensitive guy, cry once I see my mother cry because my mother is a source of my strength. When I see her empowered, I feel confident, and when I see her cry, I share her despair. As we sat there crying, listening to the song, we weren't weeping about her losing her job nor were we dwelling on the consequences that our finances would suffer within the coming months due to this rather abrupt occurrence. At first, we were in despair but by the end of the song, we realized that God is in charge of everything. He is the King of Kings and Lord of Lords. He has the power to bring us out of any trials that we're going through because He is supreme and the ultimate being. There is nothing too difficult for Him. This road block that we were experiencing was going to bring forth some hard times and we acknowledged that. However, when life pushes us three steps back, God is promising to bring us five steps forward and then some. When God makes a promise to bring us through, not only does the love of my life keep His promises, but He gives an abundance of blessings to offset the trials that we undergo.
The morning I drove up to MIT, I put on my iPod to put me to sleep because I was full of anxiety and I hadn't slept much the night before. The first song that came on was "Never Would Have Made It."
Yolanda Adams is my favorite gospel artist because ninety percent of her music is inspirational. Along with "Still I Rise," my playlist consists of other songs from her such as "In the Midst of It All," "Step Aside," "This Too Shall Pass," "I Believe I Can Fly," "Never Give Up" and many others that send the message that God is in control of our lives and the only requirement is that we let go of all the chains that are binding us and let God be the one to set us free. "Never Give Up" and "In the Midst of it All" regularly bring me to tears because of the power within the lyrics that tell us God is always a step ahead of us, He has constructed a plan for our lives, and we are obligated to fulfill His plan. He knows the hardships that we have to endure but He gives us the power to keep going; we just have to fully trust and believe in Him. Yolanda Adams once said in an interview, "gospel music brings to the listener a sense of hope, encouragement and also truth. It makes you look at yourself, your surroundings and situations and shows you it's not as hopeless as it seems. Everybody can look at the bad of a situation, but gospel makes you look at the end and the God of the situation." With life, it's generally easier to look at the horrible aspects of a situation and sit there in distress and complain in rage about how it seems impossible to come out of the tribulation. However, gospel music helps me to remember that the situation is never as bad as it seems, and because it isn't I can already look at my life from a different perspective, with more optimism. Although looking at the situation with a brighter attitude may not instantly change the consequences of the dilemma, it sheds light on the dark areas in my life, and the happier I am, the easier it is for me to think straight and to be in an encouraging mood for myself and for the people around me. Happiness is infectious; if I think of happiness as a disease, I want to infect everybody in my life.
The morning I drove up to MIT, I put on my iPod to put me to sleep because I was full of anxiety and I hadn't slept much the night before. The first song that came on was "Never Would Have Made It." I immediately began to cry in the back of my father's Honda Pilot, lying side-by-side with my suitcases. In the car, the realization that I was truly off to college to live my own life hit me and it rocked my world. The song spoke to me: "Never would have made it; never could have made it without you. I would have lost it all but now I see how you were there for me and now I can say I'm stronger. I'm wiser. I'm better and when I look back over all you brought me through, I realized I made it because I had you to hold on to." The writer of the song, Marvin Sapp, says the song came to him as he stood up to preach the Sunday following his father's funeral. He looked to the heavens and despairingly cried to God, claiming he couldn't go on anymore. But God said in a reassuring voice, "I will never leave you nor forsake you." There have been times in my life when it seems like I went down the darkest pathway in the forest, with massive obstructing roots tearing up the path and enormous, shadowing tree branches that block the sunlight from peeking through the leaves. But I remember that this life would not have been the same if I had to walk without God's guidance. Furthermore, God has a promise for my life and it's so prosperous that I can't fathom the amount of blessings He has in store for me. Although I may not want to, I have to endure these hardships to truly appreciate the blessings that I will one day attain. God's master plan for my life is written in stone and cannot be changed. So, no matter how long it takes to get there, He has spoken a life of promise over me. I never would have made it thus far without him and I have many more steps to go, and He'll be walking by my side for the rest of my life until the end of time.
- Author Unknown. "Why Is gospel Music So Hot?" Jet. February 5, 2001. High Beam Encyclopedia. December 2, 2007.
- Darden, Robert. People Get Ready! A New History of Black gospel Music. New York: Continuum International Publishing Group, 2004.
- Robinson-English, Tracy. "The Healing Power of gospel Music." Ebony. December 2005. BNET Research Center. December 2, 2007.
- Williams, Rene. "Marvin Sapp." gospel City. December 2, 2007.