The graphic video montage of violence against people of color that accompanies Isaac Cates & Ordained’s sobering neo-spiritual “Hold On” brought the hosts of the 2020 online music festival Vox Virtual nearly to tears. Lydia Salett Dudley commissioned a clip with similarly vivid imagery for “Whatcha Gonna Say?,” a funky song released this summer that commands listeners to speak out about inequality or face the consequences of inaction today and in the afterlife.

These recent developments in gospel music are striking: Although singing spirituals and hymns has energized generations of protesters to stand up against oppression, few of the genre’s songs recorded over the past 30 years have explicitly condemned injustice. This gap is due in part to a trend toward praise and worship songs that celebrate God and give thanks for personal blessings. And like the anonymous composers of the spirituals, Black gospel singers learned early that survival sometimes meant veiling their anger in biblical imagery that only those in the know could decode.

However, the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery and the protests they sparked have prompted gospel singers to begin lifting the veil and making their outrage more public. The roots for this moment can be traced back to an album celebrating its 50th anniversary — “Right On Be Free,” the debut by an African-American youth choir called the Voices of East Harlem. Released by Elektra in late 1970, the record tied protest messages to an appealingly groovy soundtrack that mixed the soul-cleansing power of gospel with R&B, funk and rock. It was as if Sly and the Family Stone and gospel’s Edwin Hawkins Singers had linked arms in solidarity.

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