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Can I Get an Amen?

April 29, 2010

Michael Jackson and James Brown at the 3rd annual BET awards.

The spoken word, be it through song, story, proverbs, or verbal interplay has been critical to the black community. It is through the spoken word that tradition is communicated and passed from generation to generation. The black church has played a pivotal role in the oral tradition of African Americans, since as Geneva Smitherman reminds us,

“The traditional black church is the oldest and perhaps still the most powerful and influential black institution.”

It is the place where much of the black community goes to exchange information, to find support, refuge, opportunity, and it is the place where African American tradition is shared and maintained.   So, it should not be surprising to see the sacred seeping into the secular world and vice versa. Check out James Brown in 1956 and Michael Jackson, 30+ years later (1988), to see the intersection of the secular world with the sacred world, which cannot be denied in African American expression. Here, we see patterns of expression that are reminiscent of worshipping patterns found in the church including spontaneous call and responses, hollers and shouts, intensely emotional singing, spiritual possession (“catching the spirit”), and extemporaneous testimonials to the power of the Holy Spirit.

James Brown (starts at roughly 0:50)

Michael Jackson (starts at roughly 4:00)

10 Comments leave one →
  1. April 29, 2010 4:14 pm

    Good piece…so true!

  2. April 30, 2010 8:27 am

    Thats a very insightful post. Call and response is big time in the Black oral tradition. Lots of times at my grandmother’s church, folks would catch “the Holy Ghost”, which is characterized by intense emotion and sudden, seemingly involuntary shouts. James Brown’s performances really encapsulated that. Check out this legendary SNL skit with a young Eddie Murphy nailing James Brown’s performance style:

  3. Daniel Ezra permalink
    April 30, 2010 9:59 am

    They call it “soul” for a reason, right? Thanks for these sublime videos.

  4. Larry permalink
    April 30, 2010 3:17 pm


    A well researched and written piece…and I would like to note that sometimes delivering the spoken word (which can be communicated in various arenas outside of church and music) is sometimes as uplifting to those on the receiving end as it is to the performer. Might there be a reciprocal relationship? As a “performer” of sorts myself, I do believe so, and know that the personal energy one emits is often infectious. Nice work on the website and a pleasure to read. I look forward to more entries!

  5. Tara permalink
    May 1, 2010 8:17 pm

    This was an awesome piece. I’m in the process of writing a paper myself about the topic and you guys highlighted on some point that I wish to bring up in my paper and presentation. This is one of the first articles that I’ve read that wasn’t so focused on identifying the dialect in effort to change it. I ran across this youtube clip in my research and this article made me think of it. Eisa Ulen talks about the rhythm and the musical part of AAE. I really appreciated it considering my background, I’m quite familiar, haha. Kep doing good things:)

  6. shipra permalink
    May 3, 2010 7:11 pm

    Wow… this is really interesting. I had always noticed these kind of expressions in certain performers, but I never really knew that it could be tied to the church and its influence. Now that I think about it, some of the most influential African Americans artists have used such expressions in their performances and what’s more amazing is that it works wonders in capturing the audience’s attention.

  7. Francesca Himelman permalink
    May 4, 2010 12:45 pm

    Both of these clips are amazingly powerful. It’s like they’re being possessed by the music or the microphone. I think it’s really important to recognize these aspects (call and response, spiritual possession, testimonials, etc.) of the African American oral tradition. African American culture would lose so much without these patterns of expression that are deeply entrenched in the language-African American English. Hopefully these patterns can be appreciated and used to show the cultural importance of AAE.

  8. Ayeska permalink*
    May 4, 2010 9:55 pm

    I’m not sure James Brown would be as amazing and well-known as he was without the religious influences in AAE. The way he sings and shouts just draws me further into his performance. It’s amazing.

  9. Amy permalink
    May 7, 2010 1:05 pm

    I think part of what gave Brown’s and Jackson’s music so much popularity was the fact that they did use AAE expression. You can see them really getting into their music and being carried away by it. Who knows if their music would have been nearly as good if they did not use AAE modes of expression?

  10. Aida permalink
    May 30, 2010 10:57 am

    This is very interesting post. Thx for publication. I knew more information about black music. And joined those videos, their music is really emotional. I like James Brown very much and i’m fan of Michael Jackson.

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