Henry Louis Gates Jr. hosts and executive produces PBS' Gospel
Legendary gospel singer Mahalia Jackson gets the spotlight in Gospel
Gospel and Gospel Live! air this month
Gospel singer Mahalia Jackson is revered for her heavenly contralto and civil rights activism. Yet, early in her career, she was considered to be somewhat of an outcast.
"A minister told her that the way she performed was scandalous — that the way she moved her body was too tempting," says Henry Louis Gates Jr., executive producer and host of PBS' Gospel, a four-part documentary that chronicles the story of gospel music from its inception to being a billion dollar industry. "When you see Mahalia in those long robes," Gates Jr. explains, "that's why she adopted that style. She was criticized for gyrating too much."
Premiering February 12, Gospel explains how the musical form is intrinsically linked to Black history as a whole, and how for both performer and audience, the song is the sermon and the sermon is the song. Gospel hums along with fascinating insights, like how such inventions as the radio and the Hammond organ led to big breakthroughs for gospel artists, as well as how those artists' business and marketing savvy helped them thrive despite discrimination. Yet one of Gospel's most surprising revelations is how, since the music's early days, pioneers faced scorn for sounding (or in Jackson's case, looking) not holy enough.
"There were many examples of Black people being kicked out of the church because they were too worldly," says Gates Jr., who was nominated for an Emmy in 2022 for his work on Max's Frederick Douglass: In Five Speeches. "The church [said] we don't want 'Saturday night' showing up on Sunday. But some of the biggest innovations are happening because 'Saturday night' styles sneak their way into Sunday services."
Case in point: "father of gospel" musician and composer Thomas A. Dorsey. As Gospel's premiere episode, "The Gospel Train," reveals, Dorsey was one of millions who sojourned out of the South as part of the Great Migration in the early 20th century. After a spiritual awakening in his new hometown of Chicago, Dorsey had, by 1930, begun melding the musical stylings of blues and jazz with lyrics praising God. It caught on, but not without pushback from the pulpit — condemnation that, subsequent Gospel episodes reveal, happened to some of the greats to come, like Kirk Franklin, whose hip-hop sensibility irked traditionalists. "Preachers," Gates Jr. says, "had to follow the people. And the people followed innovators like Dorsey, like Mahalia Jackson, like Kirk Franklin."
Gospel Live!, an exuberant concert filmed at Oasis Church in Los Angeles, serves as a companion piece to the documentary series. Singers including John Legend, Anthony Hamilton and Lena Byrd Miles appear in the concert and illustrate gospel's array of styles and influences on music as a whole, from soul to R&B and rock and roll.
"Our series focuses on the evolution of Black sacred music through gospel," says Gates, Jr. "From blues to hip-hop, African Americans have been the driving force of sonic innovation in America for over 100 years. Musical styles come and go, but the one sound that has remained a constant for our people is gospel."
Gospel airs Feb. 12 and 13 on PBS, with Gospel Live! airing Feb. 9.