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Why Asian Americans Can’t Sing Gospel

There is a fascination among Asian American (going back to Asian) youth for hip-hop culture, music, and style. If you were to stop and listen to Asians here or across the pond in terms of contemporary music, there is definitely something that we are strongly drawn to in terms of song and expression that draws from R&B and soul.

Some time ago, in preparation for an Easter praise service, a worship leader friend of mine had picked a few songs to stretch the praise team and selected a gospel song, one that really required that signature "black gospel choir" sound. From what I understand, they were having problems really getting that energy, that timbre, that certain something. Apparently, it got to the point that one of the singers evidently was frustrated enough to say, "You know why we can't sing these songs? We're not black!"

Of course, while there are few things more funny than screaming the obvious facts in exasperation, I think there is more to this scenario. There has to be — I mean, not being black didn't stop Asians from trying to dance hip-hop, or incorporate R&B style into our pop music, or even in our dress. There is some element that we haven't yet uncovered to sing gospel. You see, it begs the question, how did African-Americans begin singing like that to begin with? Answer – collective suffering, collective worship, collective identity.

This is, I believe, a dimension that is very hard for us to grasp as Asian American Christians. In terms of finding unique cultural expressions of worship, African-Americans definitely have their form of praise, worship, and teaching that contributes directly toward their sense of identity. Asians, on the other hand, lack that commonality. Now, I'm not discounting things like Korean passion for prayer or zeal for missions or notions of Han or the like, but we simply do not have those collectively at any level. Our experience remains comparatively tame, with each culture having their own tragedies, and each culture's churches responding in isolated ways. We cannot sing gospel for more than the reason we're not black, it's also for the reason that our faith has only begun to contribute to our culture in ways that allow us to express ourselves in Asian and Christian ways.

That's why we can't sing gospel. We've never had to. Oh yeah, and we're not black.

About David Park

Christian 2nd-generation Korean American; Atlanta Georgia; more details to come.

18 responses to “Why Asian Americans Can’t Sing Gospel

  1. hi from a friend of dj’s… well, i’m chinese-american and i sing in a gospel choir… it just takes empathy and passion, that’s all… and a BIG voice 😉

  2. djchuang

    Asians can’t sing Gospel, generally speaking, b/c that’s not our song! Yes, technically and mechanically, we’re capable of learning how to do it, like many Asians do during the triennial Urbana student missions conference, where a multiethnic choir does a couple of Gospel numbers.

    I don’t think a strong resonance of what an Asian (or Asian American) heart & soul worship songs has really been explored and expressed yet. Korean choir anthems are one genre, arguably, but I think there’s room for more development of deeply indigenous music that is yet to be written and sung.

    I think if anything, Asians do share with each other a common theme of pain and suffering. Koreans might call it Han, Chinese call it “Koo” (swallowing bitterness). Asians have suffered throughout history under oppressors and invaders, and many Asians suffer in their family dynamics. We know pain, we know suffering. I believe we shall one day sing out of that. I think it’ll happen as Asians demonstrably show grace, forgiveness, and reconciliation in how they relate to one another, less hierarchially, but more honesty & transparently as fallen creatures at the foot of the cross; then, that will be our song, to the praise and worship of God

  3. Robert Shh ⋅

    Ok…this…comes across as offensive to me for some reason. Considering that I’m an exception to whatever rule you seem to have set out for us in such a blanket fashion statement, I find this line of thinking absolutely ludicrous. So not only do we have to deal with bigotry from those that aren’t Asian American, we have do deal with our own shortsighted boundaries? I’m sorry, does this mean that I’m somehow not Asian American for being able to sing Gospel with the best of them, even though my parents are both 100% Chinese?

    I’m speaking only as a former Christian of course, as I subscribe to Deist philosophy now. However, that doesn’t discount my ability to sing gospel on a technical level, which I can certainly prove is the genuine article even to those you consider to be the poster-ethnicity for Gospel music. Regardless of my present lack of faith, there was a time when I could sing Gospel with the benefit of having the conviction of faith as well. Even now I am able to sing Sam Cooke classics well enough to have African Americans note that I’m singing Gospel, even though many times it’s actually Soul. In sum, being able to sing “black” is not limited to being black. I grew up in African American and Hispanic ghettos and perhaps it affords me the experiences necessary to assimilate into their culture, but I refuse to see that as the case. If I can sing that way, I don’t see how other Asian Americans can not do the same.

  4. Robert, sorry to offend… I concede that Asians can technically sing Gospel music. I think my larger point is that we, Asian Americans, don’t really “get” the depth of it because of where Gospel came from — that is from an extended collective experience of slavery. You are right to point out though that even Gospel music has become more resonant with Soul, which is closer to our sensibilities and easier for us to mimic. I don’t disagree with you that Asian Americans are indeed soulful, creative, and capable people. And certainly feel like we can sing like anyone. I guess my question is: what is our art form? If Gospel is the African American Christian gift to the American culture and art forms, what would be our gift? Everything else we do seems to be just mimicry or variations on a theme.

    I know it sounds foolish, because I can’t even propose what ours would be, but to me, as someone who believes it is vital for Asian Americans to discover our distinctiveness particularly in our faith and worship, I feel this is a huge void in our churches and lives. At some point, although the Christian faith was foreign at some point to African slaves, they “indigenized” it, they made it their own, and it gave birth to something beautiful, something new — Negro spirituals and gospel music. What has the Christian faith done for our communities?

  5. Robert Shh ⋅

    Don’t take this as an anti-Christian statement by the way: “What has Christianity done for anyone?” Now usually this would be directed in the normal fashion by me but since we’re talking within this scope you can be assured that this time the nitpicking out the institutions of religion is not in play.

    Ask yourself, what does Christianity do across the board for any human being, regardless of race? You COULD say that for African Americans that their faith allows them to continue striving through the hardships that life throws at them. However, despite their conditions and history as a race, one can note that this sentiment that faith being a driving force and a rock should ring out to any true believer. It is knowing that your God is wonderful and gracious and has a plan. It is knowing that your future on this earth will matter naught as long as your future in a better place is secured in Jesus Christ.

    Perhaps you don’t have to worry about poor living conditions, drug dealers, police harassment and neglect, or the same racial discriminations that they have to deal with, but problems are problems. The human experience is a shared one. To try and cheapen it by saying that somehow one entire group of people can’t understand another simply by virtue of their genetic coding is an insult to Creation. Saying that somehow our physical ethnicity somehow bounds our spirits to a way of thinking would be unconsciously invalidating the statement that God made humans in his image.

    Perhaps we might all look different, but even if that’s to be taken symbolically and that evolution is in play, our spirits are made in his image and thus this similarity should be enough to drive our spirituality – not as ethnicity is concerned, but as far as we are all God’s children and the Holy Spirit lives in us all.

    Maybe my being a Deist has rusted over my formerly Christian ideals, but my current self tells me that I’m right and unless you can explain with Scripture to the contrary, I’m sticking with this little soap box sermon that I’ll conclude now.

  6. wow, we’re not just talking about gospel music anymore, are we? 🙂

    if i’m understanding you correctly, you are right to point out that Christianity does a great deal for all who believe regardless of race. faith transcends race and in your words “genetic coding”. i certainly don’t mean to insinuate that the issue of race minimizes our shared experience in faith. understanding one another and reconciling with another is made possible because of this common faith.

    our misunderstanding of one another is certainly an insult to the Creator, particularly when we do not acknowledge the variety and diversity in creation. We are made in God’s image to be sure, but do not the ethnicities and nations offer different facets of that image? Rev. 21:26 talks about the “glory and honor of the nations” which would indicate that something is redemptive and worthy of preserving those distinctions. I think that the early church in Acts reflects the power of unity in diversity.

    It is not to say that our ethnicity prohibits us from understanding one another, rather my hope is that Asian Americans would be able to express ourselves out of our ethnicity rather than copying others. In other words, the fact that we are dissimilar in race and ethnicity should compel us to bring our different gifts to the table, but many times Asians don’t. From my point of view, that is an insult to our Creator as well.

    Our ethnicity doesn’t bind us to a way of thinking, it offers us a lens in which to view the world, and express ourselves. While we partake and share in general human experience, and in common worship as Christ lives in us, this is just an exploration of the question of how and why God created us to be who we are in the first place. We were created with particularities for the good of the whole, shouldn’t we learn to exercise those as well?

  7. Robert Shih ⋅

    Our ethnicity doesn’t always define ourselves as individuals. We are who we are on a singular basis, if some of us feel best suited to express ourselves through Gospel music then so be it. Who are you or anyone to say that we as some kind of blanket generalization are not suited to express ourselves through one method or another? Ethnicity plays a factor but it doesn’t set our livelihoods in stone. Our experiences as individuals may bring us to coincide something other than our racial norm. It is not for you to say that somehow Gospel somehow does not become us. The beauty of the human experience is that we choose who was are in the face of our experiences, adversities, and upbringing. We have the power to be want to be and discern for ourselves the experiences and influences that define us. The more we allow race to dictate how we worship and live in general, the more we allow those to become divisions between us and the world around us. The more we cling to this notion of being Asian American somehow gives us boundaries the less we can accomplish.

    And what of those who are of mixed ethnicities who can’t easily define themselves within these convenient groupings? And then there’s myself who was the lone Asian American in a largely Hispanic Catholic elementary school? Or living in the back of my father’s carry out restaurant in the middle of a black ghetto? We are products of more than just our race. It is simply a factor we can choose to ignore or embrace or everything in between and to the other extreme. As such, these labels are nothing more than an attempt to fit ourselves into some comfortable box. I for one am not a fan of being defined. I’m more than just Asian American or Chinese. I’m a singer, a game designer, a Deist, a writer, a poet, a philosopher. Those are the labels, I will gladly bear. A label of race? Not so much.

  8. Robert Shih ⋅

    Side note: I just realized that up until earlier I typo-ed my own name…amongst other grammatical imperfections. Ahh well.

  9. robert, no worries…about your typo, i’m really enjoying your thoughts.

    if you’re worried that i’m saying race is THE defining factor for the individual, of course, i wouldn’t say that. but it is a part of our identity, and having a similar experience growing up as you did as the only Asian in elementary school in Broken Arrow, Oklahoma and going to a magnet school in the projects of Ft. Pierce, FL, it was wonderful for me to find community among Koreans in church. It was the one day of the week I wasn’t made fun of and could eat my own foods with a group bigger than my family. i would agree with you, that my ethnicity is not the sum of me, but it has a unique voice in my life and while does not determine my life, to say it does not play any determining factor would be difficult. who you are is not as simple as what you do. i would go so far as to say, who you are influences how you do.

    race is not a limitation, nor is it a “comfortable box” at least not for me. it is a very real ingredient to who i am. sometimes i don’t like it about myself, but i think to disregard my massive past consciously cannot explain all the things i assume unconsciously.

    despite the poor title of the post, i’m not saying that we “can’t” sing gospel, nor am i saying that we shouldn’t. i have zero authority to dictate what asian american should do anyhow. but what i am saying is that perhaps there is something that we have to offer as well, but only if we take the time to discover and form that voice. as an artist, i’m sure you can appreciate that. most asians in america have thought of themselves only in pragmatic, measurable markers of success without much encouragement of artistic expression. my hope is that it asian americans of our generation would not merely take on other styles or words without further development and creativity. take into account that most asian americans are performers and not composers, writers of reports and not poetry, unlike yourself.

    of course, we may be talking two different things here. art for the sake of art is different in my opinion than art for the sake of worship. gospel music was intended to be African-American worship, not just music. and here’s where your thoughts and mine may really be divergent. we can sing it, but if worship is to be authentic, then the question i’m asking is, is it really ours to sing?

  10. Robert Shih ⋅

    Whether or not Gospel is ours to sing depends solely on the individual. For myself, I’d have an easier time with Gospel. It’s what I’m more comfortable with because of the culture I got assimilated into over time. I fell less comfortable singing those…arguably cheesy Christian worship songs that the youth and young adults sang. So it’s all a matter of the individual. Using a blanket statement to categorize all Asian Americans into a cadence of let’s find our own worship that isn’t anyone else’s is a bit overbearing. If they can sing Gospel and feel comfortable doing it then so be it. Of course they’ll have to worry about approval from the inventors, but if I can get away with it then I’m sure at least of few more can.

    For a more Christianized summary of what I just said: God gives us freedom so that we may each worship in our own way regardless of whether they fit some kind of stereotype or break it.

  11. Mac Burns ⋅

    Simply put, Asians cannot sing Gospel and have it sound authentic. It is not their music. It would be like an African-American singing Chinese opera. You do not see great Asian Gospel singers and you do not see great African-American Chinese opera stars. Can it happen? Of course there are probably a few exceptions, but the overwhelming body of experience shows that our upbringing and immersion in our own culture guides our outlets of artistic expression. While cultural cross-over does occur such as with the birth of modern rock n’ roll from the blues, this is over long periods of time. Rap has had a similar path, albeit in a shorter time frame. It may also happen with Gospel, but most likely not in our lifetime.

    Gospel is heavily influenced by the African-American experience. It is not the Asian-American experience. This has nothing to do with comparable levels of collective misery, as the cultural experiences were uniquely different. The many peoples of Asia have experienced significant tragedies, but the context is completely different to what blacks faced during much of US history.

    All that being said, anyone should feel free to lift up whatever they wish in worship. It is not about performing a concert, it is about reaching divinity and being in a place where one can come before God fearfully and in joy with a spirit of reverence offering yourself to Him. If singing Gospel gets you there, so be it, regardless of whether it sounds awesome to the critical ears of people. Who are we trying to please with our worship? That is the question that really needs to be asked.

  12. Well said, Mac. To this I just want to add that monoethnic churches (which most Asian churches are) encourage worshipful expression within the Asian American experience rather than buying into whatever expressions of the dominant majority. You and Robert are right to say that individuals should feel free to worship in whatever ways releases them to reverence to God, but in a corporate setting, I think churches should seek to inform and re-member the ways in which God has delivered a people to himself, not every church has to make it an ethnic thing, but based on whatever factors create solidarity within the community should be a point of celebration/exploration as to how they understand and approach worship. But you are absolutely right…all of this is not for us, but for God. Thanks for the reminder. 🙂

  13. I know this is topic is almost 2 months old, but I just found it today. I must say I was impressed by all that I read above – if I may…

    Although I am African American I have experienced a ‘good life’ here in the US (for the most part – there have been some challenging experiences – related to racism that I will not burden you with) *BUT* I have a great family, wonderful education (including college), health care, etc… I have never spent anytime in a ghetto (except for visiting friends, or for missionary work and evangelism). However I sing Gospel every Sunday and Wednesday in my very diverse non-denominational church. So do the 15 members of my music team – only 3 are Black. The worship/gospel/music is from the depths of my soul, sent heavenward, to and for God. The Gospel I sing is painted with culture-yes, that is true, but I also sing contemporary Christian, Gospel jazz, and Spanish gospel too. Gospel is a merely a style of singing, its the WORSHIP behind the music that makes it special. This is available to all, regardless of experience or culture. It can be learned and does truly become YOUR music, if you want it…

    P.s. If you don’t already know him, you really should listen to this wonderful Chinese Gospel artist “Delon”:

    P.s.s. I’m at too…

  14. Thanks for sharing Steffannie. You’re quite talented and I appreciate the insight.

    As I’ve mentioned before in one of these comments…the title of this post may be misleading. In fact, since writing it 2 years ago, I probably should think of it as more of Asian Americans not having the inspiration to create Gospel music to begin with. Sure, we can sing it now that others have made it, but we didn’t come up with it. My contention is not that we can’t sing it, but that we should search for what is it that we could contribute that perhaps could not. Can you imagine if African Americans did not sing the spiritual? The world would be at a loss. What if they merely adopted the musical norms of the dominant majority? Well, it’s a simplified example…but Asian Americans tend to do this with a great number of things. We rarely “create,” and only choose to “perform” or “imitate”.

    Don’t get me wrong. We perform well, and as you point out, we can own it to some extent. It can be learned and it does become ours. But nothing originated from us. All I’m asking is for us to be creative and listen to ourselves and collective experiences. Perhaps there is something for us to contribute to the world…a fresh and new Gospel.

  15. elderj

    Wow David , you’ve been spanked about quite a bit on this post and yet held your own. Certainly Robert and Steph seem to view your commentary (in the main) as offensive and limiting. I do not. Your statements are hyperbolic but intentional so. You are writing about culture and group and they are responding as individuals. There is always an inherent tension in such descriptions.

    Asian Americans are no more monolithic than African Americans and yet if we are unable to talk in some way in generalities we eliminate the possibility of meaningful discussion of your larger point; that Asian Americans seem all to ready to trade what they bring to the table as an authentic expression of culture in worship for the sake of imitating a dominant group in contrast to the very distinctive modes of African American expression in worship that are simultaneouly empowering and subversive

  16. Jake ⋅

    @ Mac Burns

    > Simply put, Asians cannot sing Gospel and have it sound authentic.
    > It is not their music. It would be like an African-American singing Chinese opera.
    > You do not see great Asian Gospel singers and you do not see great
    > African-American Chinese opera stars.

    And yet if a Nigerian immigrant sang gospel it would “look” ok. And likewise if a Korean native was singing Chinese opera it would “look” ok.

  17. Lucas ⋅

    guess you dumbys never saw this

  18. Cal ⋅

    i’m not sure what church you go to, but come to the ghettos- you will find asians here, and we definitely can sing gospel. it’s not about race or ethnic origin- it’s about adapting to a culture. to sing gospel requires soul and that comes from the slave days. you can never sing with soul unless you can empathize with that form of suffering. and just because our skin is yellow doesn’t mean we can’t empathize- the best poppers hip hop dancers, rappers, and singers of asian decent come from the streets. you can’t learn that form of expression from a studio.

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