When I look at the young people in our church, my heart sometimes hurts for them, mainly because they are stuck between two worlds, neither of which they fully understand. They are young, so they want to conform to the activities of their age cohorts, but, so often, the adult Christians in their lives expect them to hate the music, clothes, and entertainment that is part of their youth culture. And, to refuse to conform to either culture can lead to social ostracism. I remember how the people around me had expectations of the kind of music I liked.
As a young black girl, I listened to the soulful sounds of Motown, as that was the only music that I heard playing from the countless numbers of radios in my community. I was not about to listen to country music, classical music, or even folk music, because it just was not done. So, you can imagine people’s surprise today when I tell them how much I love country music. I remember one semester when my students asked me who was my favorite singer, and they were stunned when I said, “Garth Brooks!”
Black and white students asked me how that could be considering that I was a “mature” black woman. I simply told them that in life, you have to decide for yourself what pleases you. I told them that they must not allow the people around them to dictate what they can and cannot like. I wanted them to understand that we must all listen to our own inner drummer, and not be conformed to the world just to please other people. As usual, I gave them an example in the form of a story, as, for me, teachers should be wonderful storytellers.
I told them that as you walked down the streets of my childhood, you would only hear the sound of black music emanating from nearly every radio in our neighborhood. The Temptations, Smoky Robinson and the Miracles, Aretha Franklin, Marvin Gaye, Martha Reeves and the Vandellas, and so many others crooned and we danced to their music, oblivious often to the political climate in which we lived.
Every radio seemed to be on the same station, one that played black music. And on Sundays, those same stations would play black gospel music to remind us of all that God had done for us, but only up until about 1:00 in the afternoon, when it was back to those “sinful” tunes. What was expected was that everyone liked the same music, and no one was expected to like anything else, much less get caught listening to it.
One day, as I was outside playing with some of the other kids in my neighborhood, we heard a discordant tune, music that made everyone stop and ask, “What is that music?” and “Where is it coming from?” We looked, and to my amazement and embarrassment, that caterwauling was coming from my house!
My mother was listening to, horror of horrors, country music, which was simply not allowed in our community because it was “white folks’ music.” I ran home and told Mama to turn that mess off, as she was embarrassing us in front of the whole neighborhood.
But, Mama, who was never one to conform to people’s expectations, told me to go back outside and leave her alone to listen to her favorite music, country music. Mama was raised in rural Georgia where country music was king, and she loved it, especially the music of Waylon Jennings, who was singing when she turned the music all the way up and disturbed the peace of the neighborhood kids.
I didn’t bother going back out and being teased and taunted about Mama’s choice of music. I did ask her to turn it down so that no one else would know of her transgression, but Mama just kept listening and enjoying herself. I couldn’t help but listen with her, because I knew that if I tried to change the channel, I would be getting up off the floor in seconds flat. So, I just sat in the bedroom and listened, and, you know what, I came to really like country music, too.
I liked the down-home feel of lives being lived. But more than anything, I loved listening to the duets of Dolly Parton and Kenny Rogers as well as Loretta Lynn and Conway Twitty. So, on Saturdays, I would hide away in our home, turn on the television, and with the sound down low, listen to my heart’s content. I looked at “Hee Haw” and “The Dukes of Hazzard” on television, and I never told a soul outside my house.
It was a shame that I could not talk about my songs and shows to people, but it was a time of tremendous racial segregation, and you were expected to choose what you watched and listened to according to race, which made no sense to me. But, I knew to play the expectation game, sneaking to enjoy what I liked all by myself.
I was much older when I first heard Garth Brooks singing his hit song, “Friends in Low Places”, and I did not know who he was. But, eventually, I found out and I bought one of his CD’s. I loved every song, playing them over and over again. I would play them loud in my house where no one could hear the music but me. One day, my oldest daughter came to my house and heard Garth singing, and when she came in, it was deja vu, as she told me to turn it down so my neighbors would not hear me playing “that” music. I just laughed at how life can repeat itself.
My students liked the story, and let me tell you what they did. At the end of the semester, they presented me with a box set of every Garth Brooks song. It was the greatest gift they could have given me, for it meant that they had listened and understood that we have to let people be free to choose what they like.
Yes, we have to give some direction on some of the music that seems a little extreme, but now I hear on stations playing religious music songs that would have never been acceptable as God’s music when I was a teenager. Music like gospel rap, hip hop gospel, and heavy metal gospel, which sounds like a bunch of oxymorons, are the music that young Christians listen to today.
When I enter some of the newer churches that cater to young people, I have to ask for earplugs, as the music is just so loud. I don’t try to tell those young people that they are wrong and that God’s music should be one certain sound, mainly because I realize that I am of a different generation, so what I grew up listening to in church may not touch the heart of a young teenager in the same ways as the music that they love.
Let’s allow young people to be who they are, not insisting that they conform to the old ways of doing church, but allow them freedom to find God’s path in their lives. We have all sinned and fallen short of God’s glory (Romans 3:23), so let’s stop making them feel like the biggest sinners ever just because they like different music or dress differently when they attend church. If we push them to conform to our ways of thinking, we will continue to see membership rolls fall and churches fold when the last elderly members die.
My love of the music of Garth Brooks taught me that when we force people into boxes and do not allow them freedom to choose for themselves, they miss out on so much joy. I am so glad that my mother was unconventional in her taste in music, for listening to Garth Brooks has brought me hours of pure pleasure, time that I could let go of my troubles and simply enjoy the music. For me, this music has been like a gift from God.