An Approach to Music
in Community Rhetoric of Identity and Belonging:
Church Music and Church Identity
Abbie M. Anderson
Paradigms of Ethnomusicology (Dr. Ruth Stone)
Fall Semester, 1991
Awarded the Richard Dorson Memorial Prize for Outstanding Student Paper in Folklore: Spring, 1992
I wrote this paper in the Fall of 1991, after our two-month summer stay in Nigeria studying the
Hausa language. While we lived in the city of Kano I had the great good fortune to be invited to
the Evangelical Church of West Africa Hausa-language services, and joined their Women's
Fellowship Choir (Mawakar Zumuntar Mata) as a temporary member. I hoped to return there to
perform my dissertation research on church music and cultural identity for Christians in
northern Nigeria (where the dominant culture is Muslim).
Unfortunately, political upheavals in Nigeria and the sensitivity of my topic (friction between Christians and
Muslims in northern Nigeria has a sad history of violence) prevented me from returning. After passing my Ph.D. Qualifying Exams in 1994, I turned
instead to a comparative local project on church music and worship style that I could perform in
Bloomington while working full-time. I gradually ran out of steam while discovering other goals
for myself and also moving some distance from my own church identity, and finally withdrew from my Ph.D. program in February of 1999. And then I became a librarian, which makes me very happy indeed!
But I digress. Let's go back to 1991, when I was beginning my third year of Graduate study, and
hear the thoughts of a fledgling scholar who had not yet burned out on the life of Academe, or even turned thirty.
The theoretical orientation of a scholar should always reflect her own interests and
perspectives, which in turn reflect her background and training--the factors in her identity which
indicate her connections to other people, her roles among them, and her attitudes toward those
roles, as well as the factors which come from her own personal history of responses to her
situation and experiences. This statement indicates my own preoccupations with the dynamics
of selfhood and membership in groups, preoccupations which shape my academic work and my
personal life, and which also direct this paper. I am interested in connections between people in
groups, how individuals make themselves meaningful in groups and how groups are made
meaningful by individuals in relationship with one another. In all of this interconnections are
essential: interconnections of people, and interconnections of factors involved in their dealings
with each other and their understandings of themselves. Equally essential is the recognition that
those things and people which are interconnected also interpenetrate one another and affect each
other on many levels --which is what makes life interesting, complicated, and inspiring of
My general object, then, is how music works and is used in the working out of what it
means to be a person in relationship with other people within a particular community.
Secondarily I am concerned with how the sub-culture of the group is related to its external social
context, and how the identities which its members hold outside the group return again to affect
its internal configurations. My specific means of focussing on these interactive identity issues
is to examine the Christian church in its many varieties, where music is almost invariably central
to expression of values, and where values are established which are fundamental to living.
The church presents itself as an excellent context in which to explore my interests, not
only because I have been a member of several and am personally involved in church dynamics of
membership, identity, and faith, but sheerly on its own merits as a discrete subgroup. The
church provides the researcher with set, regular and frequent times for meeting, a specific ritual
pattern to perform in which music plays a prominent if variable part, and its own rules for
defining membership and for getting things done. One finds churches of every description
across the globe, each with its specific sociocultural situation and its set of values and concerns.
Every church has distinct if not always overtly expressed interests in defining itself, maintaining
and often expanding its membership, making clear the roles of different members, and working
out its relationship to the outside world. The dynamics of identity, and the role of music in
them, can of course be seen in many different kinds of groups of people, from skate-boarding
pre-teens to academicians to the "Big Chill" generation, and can be explored as well on the level
of national identity --a critical issue which brings me back to the church, where ideas of nation
interact with ideas of God's Kingdom and of Christian community. Finally, in choosing Church
as topic I choose a "home base" which is truly home for me, and which is virtually "made to
order" for this kind of study.
II. Definitive issues
Every musical tradition exists in relationship with the cultural background of worldview,
customs, traditions, and values of the people who perform it and are informed by it, as well as by
their history and by their present circumstances. Music also plays a major part in the rhetorical
(persuasive) process of making identity and belonging meaningful for the group as a whole and
for the individuals within it. Membership in a community of faith such as the church is often
central to the formation and maintenance of worldview, values, and of a sense of self. Music
and faith therefore play significant roles in the self-definition and self-conception of the group
and its members --that is, how the group speaks to itself about itself: how it considers itself to
be constituted, what it means to be a member of the group, and what place the group has in the
larger world. This idea of music as vehicle for expression of values, identity, and membership is
equally applicable to the songs of the Civil Rights movement (many of which came out of the
African American church), Kaluli gisalo songs in a New Guinea longhouse, Sibelius' symphonic
settings of tales from the Kalevala, and rap as an (increasingly commercialized) emblem of hip-hop street culture, as it is to music in the church.
Music is not the only means for a group to address issues of identity, nor for an
individual to respond to his or her personal identity in connection with the group. Nor are
language and verbal art the only nor even the primary avenues for "how the group speaks to itself
about itself" or for how the individual responds, in my application of the idea of rhetoric.
Foodways, hairstyles, clothing, body language and use of space can be just as emblematic and
formative of self-hood and group-ness (two inter-related aspects of identity) as a musical
performance, a dance, a proverb, a mask, or a house. The Euro-American concept of "music" as
an isolated activity is an extremely rare one in the rest of the world, and with good reason, since
music mingles with other forms of cultural expression in the larger aesthetic and social motivations of its performers. These motivations themselves emerge from and in turn affect the
complexes of culture and identity which provide an interpretive substrate for expressive forms.
Everything is connected, each element relying for its full definition on the other parts of the
formation, and yet remaining distinct in its own character and orientation --just as the human
beings who both produce and are shaped by culture are unique individuals grounded by
relationships with others and by memberships in different groups.
As communications scholar George Cheney has put it in his interpretations of Kenneth
Burke, "we are able to express our uniqueness (our individuality) principally by aligning
ourselves with other individuals, collectivities, or social categories." [Cheney 1991: 13] Further
complicating the issue of personal identity is the fact that, if a person is defined to a great degree
by membership in groups, she is also simultaneously a member of many different groups of
varying magnitude and significance, from the family (down to birth order) to numbered global
division (on to Class Mammalia). Management of these multiple, overlapping, & sometimes
conflicting identities quickly becomes complicated. Religious and ethnic background often
under- or over-cut additional identification layers of profession, class, gender, entertainment
preferences, political orientation, and circles of friends (to name a few). Conversely, the nature
of any particular group is affected by the welter of other memberships which its people carry.
Thus the subgroup culture of a church is affected by factors of ethnicity, language, gender roles,
history both past and contemporary, aesthetic standards and musical styles, which exist within
the church but which the members also bring with them from their other affiliations. These
factors in turn are often altered by passing through the church with the people who use them and
are in part defined by them.
If music is located on the aesthetic/social continuum within culture, religion can be said
to lie on the cosmological/social continuum. It is difficult to place religion immovably within
such a scheme, however; its claim is usually to all of life, as it defines origins, purposes and
often destinies for most if not all of the universe (including human beings and their societies),
and orders relations between its various constituents. Religion is thus defined as the conscious
context of culture: that which individuals, informed by community performances, take to order
their evaluations of and responses to the world in which they find themselves and the manner in
which they find themselves defined (a definition in part achieved via religious tenets).
Yet, with this in mind, religion like music still has its role within the larger constructs. It
plays an often weighty part in the formation and negotiation of identity and community, and in
the expressions of and responses to the group and individual identities thus formed, overtly or
covertly challenged, and affirmed, reformed, or replaced. Faith, then, is the subjective experience of or claim to religion and its ordering of life: "I/we believe," the declaration of faith. And
the expression or enactment of faith, musically and otherwise, is necessarily affected by the
ethnic/cultural identity of the people who perform it, an identity which it both speaks to and is a
Just as religion can play a distinct role in forming, defining, and reinforcing groups,
musical expression can be a particularly powerful means of working out, communicating, and
responding to religious belief and belonging. Habits of music-making can carry messages in
themselves about how people are to work together, respond to one another, participate in group
values, and express emotional or aesthetic responses, long before a verbal text is considered.
Perhaps this is why new movements within the church tend to develop their own musical
repertoires as one of the first orders of business, whether Lutheran chorales, Wesleyan hymns,
camp meeting tunes, African masses, or the Vineyard songbooks and recordings in America of
recent years. With the rhetorically powerful combination of music and text (as well as ranges of
movement allowed in response), singing in the church becomes an obvious and exciting avenue
for discussion of how people in groups work with different meanings of identity and belonging.
Every church, as a Christian community of faith, has its own culture (albeit often part of
a larger denominational culture), forming its sense of community and habits of doing things
against the backdrop of the larger "outside" societal context. Certain traditions which are held as
distinguishing features will often have their roots in the "everyday" of the past (as in the robes
that ministers wear or the use of "King James" English "ye" and "Thou") which have been
retained within the church after their disappearance from the larger scene. A specific church
culture can continue to exist as an outgrowth of the norms of the larger culture, deriving many of
its customs and conventions from the more general environment. It can also develop in distinction to or as refuge from the majority, however, sometimes even outside of that majority's
approval, as in the cases of the African American church and of the Hausa-speaking church in
primarily Muslim northern Nigeria (my two primary areas of research interest).
One frequently finds the two dynamics of accommodation and isolation simultaneously
at work in the church's tacit or explicit responses to the world around it. The role of music as a
cultural feature both of and outside of the church, therefore, has often been contested in the
history of Christianity. Debate has centered on the role of music in the church, the priorities
between text and music, how much music in the church can be like music in "the world", and
how (if it is deemed necessary) to find a balance between the power of music to uplift and the
sometimes distracting physicality of response to and involvement in it.
The very interconnectedness of human nature (body, mind, emotion, spirit) and human
culture (behavior, experience, judgment, relationship) make the connection of musical and
religious expression potentially both a powerful and an unpredictable tool for the church in its
messages to itself and its responses to its God, especially as that expression reflects and enacts
both the subculture of the church and features of the larger culture or ethnicity of its members.
Church music, from liturgy to hymns to choral presentations to guitar songs, always comes at
some point from somebody's music culture, whether or not that culture is still current, and
whether or not that music came from the same larger cultural or ethnic background of the church
which now uses the music (as when a "white" American church choir sings an arrangement of a
spiritual, or when African Christians sing "Amazing Grace"). Church music can also go outward
from the Sunday mornings of its members into other musical expression, such as the influence of
African American gospel vocal stylings on secular "soul" music and thus on "mainstream" (i.e.,
European American) pop. The characteristics of a church's music, as well as its decisions about
how to use music, will then be influenced by the larger trends and controversies of the day and
of the past (historical context) as well as by the habits of musicality developed culturally both
outside (ethnic, socio-political context) and inside (sub-culture context) the church.
III. Theoretical Problems
In approaching my interests in music, community, identity, and communication I find
that I share very little in terms of perspective and concerns with those who have covered the
same ground before me, whether in ethnomusicology, folklore, anthropology, sociology,
sociolinguistics, communications theory, philosophy, or semiotics. The individual/community
issue has been central to Folklore studies from Herder onwards, and I have certainly not sprung
to these ideas like Aphrodite from the sea; but the dynamic of creative inter-connection which so
intrigues me is usually applied on too individual or too general a level to quite get at the things I
am inclined to explore. Ideas of rhetoric (persuasive communication), discourse
(communication of social/cultural meanings), and signification (shared referential meaning)
which are instrumental to my thinking are in scholarly literature usually employed in too
restricted or too elaborate a fashion to meet my aims. Rhetoric and discourse are usually applied
strictly to the textual or verbal, while the semiotic approach often intensifies the focus on
language into a terminology fetish which I have no desire to encourage in myself. I want to
examine how people use and respond to performative/expressive culture in forming, communicating, and often revising persuasive, meaningful definitions of membership and identity. This
is a process that is enacted on many levels, from clothing to food to music to language or dialect,
before one even gets to specific speech acts or texts. An attempt to schematize the process into
symbol, sign, signifier and signified would shift attention away from the people who make and
use the signs, while evaporating the issue of relationships which holds the center of my interests.
Although few scholars now can accept all of the implications of functionalist thinking,
we are still influenced by aspects of the model. We still tend to think in terms of what
something "does" in culture, or what something is "for", even if we no longer assume that
everything people do is on some Freudian level "designed" to maintain unity and equilibrium
(and stasis). I of course am no exception, in my decision to focus on music in terms of what it
"does" in "systems" of identity and community. My "systems", however, are decidedly
processual and not, I hope, the abstract entities or forces to which the functionalists tended to
attribute much of human behavior. Although I share the functionalist idea of interdependencies
within culture, as a child of my times and training I do not look for interdependent "parts" or
"systems" of culture as if it were some organic thing of its own, but for the people who are at the
heart of making meaning, and for the relationships that define them. Every "system" feeds into
and is fed by every other, until it all becomes one huge dynamic process of inter-related human
experience, eternally turning in on itself and back outward for renewal.
My interest in individuals in relationship is thwarted from two directions: from "the top",
where focus is on the group or performance genre or even humanity as a whole and the search
for universals (e.g., Levi-Straussian structuralism); and from "the bottom", where individual
perception, experience, or identity begins and usually ends with the individual (e.g., Kenneth
Burke's philosophy of rhetoric and identity, Peter Berger's phenomenology) or with individuals
in contact (e.g., symbolic interactionism). While Burke, Berger, and the symbolic interactionists
have provided me with some stimulating and fruitful ideas, I find I must cut my own path when I
turn to what I think is the natural subject: individuals in relationship with each other --not the
structures which are the sum of the individuals, nor the individuals alone or even one-on-one.
Phenomenology presents me with a very satisfying base from which to set out, but I do not share
all of its apparent aims.
I owe a debt to Kenneth Burke for elucidating rhetorical ideas related to identity and
religion [Burke 1961, 1966], and to George Cheney for refining those ideas and applying them to
the management of multiple identities from the perspective of the church [Cheney 1991]. And
one cannot speak of frames and metamessages without acknowledging the work of Erving
Goffman and Gregory Bateson. However, as I have emphasized, representation, communication,
and the use of symbols are not exclusively verbal domains; my use of the phrase "community
rhetoric" has to do with persuasions accomplished not only by words, but also communicated by
a myriad messages ingrained in habit and ways of doing things as well as in explicitly expressive
performances. The thickets of linguistic philosophy and semiotics are not my desired
destination, nor a Geertzian thick description of culture as symbol-bearing text to distill and
reconstruct. How does a community persuade its members that it exists, and what its (and
therefore their) characteristics are? How does an individual express membership in that
community? How do forms, styles, and habits of musical expression figure in the persuasions of
identity and belonging? These are some of the questions I find intriguing.
When I add to these questions my interests in culture and faith in Christian communities
(i.e., churches) I find I have even less ground on which to stand than I had thought, in terms of
previous scholarship. Theologians certainly discuss language and message, and sometimes
music; students of missions certainly discuss culture and communication, and sometimes music;
scholars of religion certainly discuss identity/ethnicity and faith as well as the rhetoric of faith;
scholars of church music certainly discuss the role of music and performance in worship and the
origins of church music in styles prevailing in the secular world; but few discuss how people
experience and express belonging within the church, or how the ideas of church identity and
belonging are communicated, or how a church's sense of self relates to outside issues of identity,
much less how music works in the whole process of persuasion or community rhetoric in the
Ethnicity, and its connections with religion and language, tends to be discussed in its
aspect as a problem for modern life and government, especially in cities, whether in the West or
in "developing" nations. Ethnic diversity causes problems of public policy (e.g., what language
should be used in public schools, and how linguistic minorities should be fitted into the system)
[Kalantzis et al 1989]; and the links between ethnicity and religion can change as the meaning of
one or the other (or both) is revised in changing times [Hammond 1988]. While the perspectives
and principles of theorists dealing with these problems can be useful to me, their practical focus
on a specific kind of "postindustrial" or bureaucratic environment does not address my interests
in how a community speaks to itself about itself.
Virtually the only place where music, message, religion, rhetoric and ethnicity are
discussed together is in scholarship surrounding African American sacred music [e.g., Burnim
1980, 1985; Alexander 1980], and different Jewish liturgical traditions [e.g., Shelemay 1986;
Slobin 1989]. In these works, however, the aim is for an ethnic and sociohistorical understanding of a powerful tradition of music and faith, and its significance for a beleaguered minority.
Celebrating the strength, faith, and creativity inherent to these traditions has logically entailed an
emphasis on a specific ethnic experience and discussion of aesthetics and values for the group
more or less as a whole. While such a comprehension of the situation of a faith community in
its larger world is definitely key to what I want to do, my concern remains with the more general
idea of how that complex understanding of self is represented and communicated within the
congregation, within a community of people, in addition to the ethnic group which surrounds it.
I have begun to pursue these interests in music and identity dynamics within the church
through a fieldwork project involving my local, home church of Bethel A.M.E., Bloomington (of
which Dr. Mellonee Burnim is the Music Director and Dr. Portia Maultsby is the Organist). I
have also had the privilege of traveling to Kano, Nigeria as a student of the 1991 Intensive
Advanced Hausa Insitute; for the two months of the program I attended the Evangelical Church
of West Africa, Hausa Section No. 1 (a.k.a. ECWA Hausa No. 1), and had the joy of singing
with their Women's Fellowship Choir. The ECWA situation is particularly precarious because
of the increasing strife between Muslims and Christians in northern Nigeria. For further
complication of the ethnic situation, most ECWA Hausa No. 1 members are not culturally Hausa
but come from minority groups to the east and south of Kano, speaking Hausa as a common
second language. In many ways they conform to the external appearances and customs of the
Muslim majority, but their music is decidedly their own, bearing more similarity to the church
music of southeastern Nigeria than to any Hausa music, and reflecting influences both of
traditional music and of Western missionary hymn styles. I plan to return to Nigeria for
dissertation research, travelling from Kano south to the Jos area where ECWA has its
headquarters, to explore these issues further and learn more from these people about their music
and their handling of identity, community, and faith.
IV. In Sum
My tendency and intention is to examine how people express relationship to their
communities, and how being in community gives a person meaning or identity. This is how I
view and judge my own life, placing value on groups of people to care about and be interested in
and involved with. It is therefore also the way I want to approach ideas of culture, community,
role, self, and value. For me the individual makes most sense in terms of the group, and the way
a group of people are interwoven is more interesting to me than an individual person per se, a
product or performance per se, or even the group per se. Conversely, the group is primarily
interesting in terms of the people and relationships that make it up and give it life and meaning,
and I am more interested in how people express what it means to belong to the group than in
group rules or performance rules that can be discerned in individual or collective behavior.
Because of this fascination with human connectedness, then, to find that few scholars
have approached or are approaching these issues of community, identity, meaning and
communication in quite the ways I like to do can be rather disconcerting. Rather than
exclaiming, "Ah, how original I am!" I tend to worry, "Oh dear, I am not in community."
Sociolinguist Deborah Tannen would describe both my interests and my subsequent anxieties as
being related to women's tendency to focus on connectedness and symmetry as a value in
relationships and in speech styles --as opposed to the (equally legitimate) concerns with status
and conflict which tend in her formula to predominate in men's conception of the same issues
[Tannen 1990]. Her paradigm is interesting as a further comment on my predicament, since the
formation of intellectual paradigms has traditionally been a masculine pursuit, and even as
women have become more active in Academe they have tended to work within the established
(European male) frameworks which focus on individuality, overall generality, hierarchy, conflict
management, and competition or power. While issues of power and control (and their abuse) are
factors in social life which must be reckoned with on a personal as well as on an academic level,
I do not consider them to be the controlling ones, so to speak, or at least not the most interesting
ones nor the most gratifying to explore as primary loci of attention and explanation. A universe
constructed solely of binary oppositions leaves little room for the multiplicities of meaning and
perspective which complicate and enrich the lives of people in connection with one another, and
which make the diversities of human culture, belief and experience possible. While it is
troubling to find that few have seemed to share my interests in quite the form I wish to pursue
them, perhaps my membership in the academic community will be made meaningful in the
expression of my individual responses to what is available to me within the group.
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Post-script: I never received any official letter or certificate informing me that my paper had
been chosen for the Dorson prize. I would not have known that my paper had been honored if I had not attended
the year-end Folklore Institute party (until the $50 check came with "Richard Dorson Award"
on the stub). I just found this amusing.