Music in the Black church: ‘Different, but never deficient’

Jacksonville pastors explain how the music has changed over decades

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Uplifting, strengthening, calming: All three are words to describe music in the Black church.

Duval Schools Superintendent Dr. Diana Greene says singing in the choir was part of feeling safe and accepted after moving to Northeast Florida from living abroad. Jaguars offensive lineman Jawaan Taylor, who started playing drums in his church at age 6, calls the music one of the warmest feelings you can feel. (Their stories are at the end of the article.)

While it’s known for its contagious beat and soulful sounds, what many don’t know is how the music came to be what we hear today.

Right in the heart of the city of Jacksonville sits The Bethel Church -- the oldest existing Baptist church in the entire state of Florida, recognized by a court at the end of the Civil War. The leadership and membership has changed over the years and so has the music.

UNCUT: Full interview with Rudolph McKissick Sr., Rudolph McKissick Jr.


With an extensive background in opera and sacred music, Bishop Rudolph McKissick Jr., the lead pastor of The Bethel Church in the heart of downtown Jacksonville, explained that the early, soulful sounds of the Black church in America came from the African ring shout -- sorrow songs that slaves brought with them to America.

“The more sorrow songs were about God bringing us out, more practical, more God delivering us, more us affirming that this situation that we’re in, slavery is not going to be the end of us,” McKissick Jr. said. “When slavery was over, those songs kept the meaning but just became about life.”

Bishop Rudolph McKissick Sr. served as lead pastor of The Bethel Church for 48 years. He pointed out that from that time he was growing up in the church to now -- the music has changed.

As Blacks migrated throughout America, McKissick Sr. said that as Blacks migrated throughout America, the worship music The Bethel Church had adopted had a classic, more subdued tone.


With his father at the helm, McKissick Jr. visited other Black churches in northern American cities and found what would become a new style of music for Bethel.

“In many of your Black churches you had call and response, what is called Dr. Watts in the Black church, where the deacon would sing a line and then you’d repeat it,” McKissick Jr. said.

With the hiring of different types of musicians, bringing with them different experiences, Bethel kept its signature styles -- the pipe organ -- but the music morphed into the foot stomping, hand clapping sounds we recognize today.

“Our music is birthed out of our experience. So it’s not just a matter of faith, it’s experience,” said McKissick Jr. “So as we sings our songs, we think of our experience of being Black in America, and it gives the music a different energy, passion and conviction. Not better, but better for us. Different, but never deficient.”


In their own words

Dr. Diana Greene, the Duval County school superintendent, sang in her church choir as a child; the one place she felt accepted and most comfortable after moving to Ocala from living overseas.

Dr. Albert Chester is a local pharmacist, founder of pharmacy tech school The Capstone Institute and nearby New Town Pharmacy in Jacksonville. He describes his extended family as “a big time church family,” and references his own upbringing in The Bethel Church.

Bishop Rudolph McKissick Sr., 93, was the lead pastor at The Bethel Church for 48 years, and describes the music he heard during a trip to South Africa.

Jaguars starting offensive lineman Jawaan Taylor started playing the drums at age 6 and talks about plays drums for his church in Palm Bay. See the video of him playing!

Local community advocate Marsha Oliver grew up in The Bethel Church, singing in the choir as a child and shares how she was able to detect her father’s mood based on the church songs he sang.


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