How Gospel Music Redeemed 2020 (For One Man, Anyway)

Photo by Derek Truninger on Unsplash

One of the best things I did early on in this year of wild, unmitigated chaos was to change my listening habits. I couldn’t have known in January just how important that simple act was going to be. And I couldn’t have known the scope of the impact it’d have, either. In this abnormally tumultuous year, it’s the move that’s shaped my experience in 2020.

Simply put, Jonathan McReynolds has the voice of 13,000 angels. Now, given my typical audience – middle-aged white men – it’s possible you may not know who Jonathan McReynolds is. But that’s going to change right now.

Jonathan McReynolds’ vocal chords make the sound that I imagine would occur if you amplified the microvibrations resulting from pulling a sash of the finest Egyptian silk across the face on a newborn baby. Imagine a sound as rich as a chocolate fudge torte, but with the viscosity of melted coconut oil. That is to say, the friction present as he transitions from note to note is imperceptible to the human ear (I mean, if any friction exists at all). When Jonathan McReynolds sings, it’s like if you had taste buds inside your ears and someone was dripping sweet, sweet honey directly onto your eardrum.

In summary, dude can sing.

Okay, so I’ve spent a couple paragraphs detailing how Jonathan McReynolds’ voice is like hearing the smell of a $2,000 bottle of Bordeaux, but he’s just one small part of my larger point. There are a number of other artists I’ve become familiar with over this past year who have had an unexpected impact on me and my family.

Here’s how it started. A couple years ago, I decided I needed to cut out some of the music I was listening to. While I really enjoy rap and hip hop for the actual music, I was finding the lyrics to a lot of these songs were getting grittier and dirtier each new album. I could sense it was influencing my language, if not my attitude in general. And with a young toddler and a newborn, I knew I needed to clean up my listening habits to some degree.

I’ve never been a huge fan of “Christian” music. It sounds hokey to me. Worship music is one thing, I can dig worship music, but that’s a completely different mood. What I’m talking about is the sing-a-long pop-style Christian music that you hear on stations like K Love. Now look – I’m not trying to throw shade at K Love. They do great stuff over there and I’m thankful they’re around. I just have a hard time listening to it as my main music source. But for a year or so, I did.

And it worked. I could tell the music I was listening to most often was influencing me for the better. However, around the third time K Love did their pledge drive to keep their broadcasts going strong, I couldn’t take it anymore. I get why they have to do it. They are not corporately supported (through ad sales, I mean) so they rely heavily on listener support to not only keep their stations going, but also to provide other services to their communities. Again, not throwing shade at their vision. It’s a beautiful thing they do. But I got to the point that if I heard one more heartstring-tugging story about a woman who heard a Chris Tomlin song while driving down the interstate and it just absolutely changed her life and now she wants to donate an easy gift of just $40 every month until the day she dies, I was going to lose it.

So anyway, as their fundraising campaign settled in once again, I started seeking out other radio stations to listen to. I still wanted to listen to some sort of Christian music, but I needed a new avenue to do that. And look, 99 percent of you are screaming internally about Pandora or Spotify. But if you’ve read The Muggo for ANY amount of time, you’ll know I’m an old-fashioned dude. There’s something sacred to me about listening to the radio.

Finally, one foggy morning as I was driving to work about 18 months ago (remember when commuting was a thing?), I found The Light.

The Light, which is to say, the gospel channel – The Light, 103.9FM here in Raleigh-Durham. Growing up in Indiana, we didn’t have a gospel channel within our selection of radio stations. It was light rock, smooth jazz, alternative rock, 18 different country stations, America’s Top 40, one rap station, and a couple student-run stations where they played music from garage bands in the area. According to the 2000 census data for Indiana, in a state called home by over six million people only about 12% were non-white. In my county, it was waaaaay less than that. So the audience for gospel music wasn’t there.

So I’m driving to work listening to gospel music really for the first time in my life. And it’s awesome. At first I found myself sort of goofing off listening to the upbeat, uptempo, rich sounds coming from my speakers. But the rest of my day felt more energetic. More joyful. Maybe there was something to listening to gospel music with heavy base, good beats, and overly joyous choirs.

A few weeks later, I decided to listen to the gospel channel on the way home from work – a time I usually dedicate to podcasts that I want to catch up on. If you couldn’t tell, I’m a bit particular about my listening habits, which you should be sensing as a theme throughout this piece. The afternoon drive-time selection on the gospel channel is a little different than what you hear in the mornings. They play the same songs for the most part, but in the afternoon, after everyone’s had their coffee, worked a full day, and are commuting back to their houses for an evening with family, they can be a little more free with what they play. It’s the first time I’d ever heard of Lecrae.

Mind you, my idea of Christian hip hop was DC Talk, which is about the most vanilla hip hop group in the history of hip hop groups. I don’t mean to make a joke of this fact, but it’s going to sound like a joke, and I don’t mean it that way: DC Talk was formed in the late 80s by three students at Liberty University.

Stop laughing.

Okay, fine, you can laugh a little.

Anyway, when I was in middle school, I had a DC Talk album on a thing called a compact disc, or CD for short. You may have heard of those before. I was pretty, pretty cool back then.

But Lecrae…is not DC Talk. To hear a guy rapping lyrics about God and salvation and loving his neighbors and fighting temptation all while sounding like Meek Mill or J. Cole was truly shocking to me. It didn’t sound like Christian music, but it was. And I was hooked. From that point on, The Light had the #5 spot on my presets on the car radio.

Toward the end of last year, I started to put the gospel channel on at home. The kids have gravitated toward a few favorites, some all-time great dance party songs like this, and this, and this, and this. Before long, 103.9 was the default station and we started to fall in love with artists like Tasha Cobbs Leonard, James Fortune, Anthony Brown, Charles Jenkins, every last member of the Winans family, Koryn Hawthorne, and of course, Jonathan McReynolds.

As we listened more and more, we became familiar with the hosts of the various radio shows throughout the day as well. Wake Up with Erica Campbell in the morning. The Willie Moore, Jr. Show in the afternoon. The Nightly Spirit with Darlene McCoy in the evenings. We listened to the friendly banter with their cohosts and producers. We listened to the prayers they prayed at the end of their shows, and the always-relevant 3-minute devotionals they’d give throughout their shows offering encouragement, hope, warning, or maybe a different way of looking at things.

Then 2020 happened. In March, when the COVID-19 pandemic started changing life as we knew it in the United States, I listened to these show hosts and their friends talk about it from a perspective wildly different from that of my own – that of the Black community. They talked about the economy, the social impact, the polititians’ involvement, the doctors, and the chaos of it all and how it was affecting their communities.

A couple months later in May, George Floyd was murdered by a police officer in Minneapolis. My new friends on The Light talked about it. They talked a lot about it. I wrote a piece on it in June, but I was only just beginning to learn a new perspective. As the protests and riots and civil unrest unfolded across the nation, I listened as these show hosts and their friends talked about, debated about, fought about all the issues the nation was dealing with from their perspective. A perspective I knew existed, but never could fully articulate or even understand to a large degree. And even in the midst of the raw emotion and fear, they focused their devotionals on leaning into God, trusting God, and loving one another, no matter what.

As the summer wore on and the rhetoric about the pandemic and social injustice gave way to politics, I once again listened more intently than ever to a group of radio hosts talking about the election, the candidates, and the issues that mattered most to them. All the while, the artists I’d fallen in love with were writing songs about the pain and anguish and the fear they were feeling. Yet again, I was struck by how little I understood about a huge population in this country.

Frankly, it made me sad. It made me think and reflect and battle my own perspective. I don’t like being ignorant. Eventually, I realized something significant.

I’m not the target audience for The Light, 103.9FM. A quick Google search shows that WNNL – the radio station’s call sign – is owned and operated by Urban One, Inc., a company that primarily operates media properties targeting African Americans, per it’s website. Obviously, I’m not African American.

This is going to sound simple, but I think it’s significant. By listening to something to which I’m not the target audience, I’m actually learning tangible things about topics I know nothing about. I mentioned earlier a piece I’d written in June after George Floyd was killed. In that piece, I wrote this:

There’s so much that needs to be discussed, that needs to change, so many people have to step back and consider a perspective different from their own. It’s overwhelming. I don’t know where to start.

from “ABOUT RACE, PRIVILEGE, AND CHANGE”, published June 17, 2020

As it turns out, by listening to the radio station I was listening to, I had found my place “to start” without yet realizing it. That’s a simple act, but the impact it’s had on me has been profound. Most of the things I hear and see and read are meant for me to hear and see and read. That’s why there are billions of dollars spent annually within the advertising and marketing industries. By bucking against that, I’m able to actually learn something different. How about that?

Reflecting on the matter, it’s a blessing to be learning about the perspective of The Light’s show hosts who are part of an organization that has been serving the African American community for over 40 years. Perspectives regarding the pandemic, the social unrest across the country, and the elections in November. Note that I said “to be learning”. I’m just scratching the surface of understanding these new-to-me perspectives. But it’s a tangible start.

Now look, I won’t say I agree with every opinion or talking point that I’ve heard discussed on this radio station. I will say, however, that I’ve been surprised by how often I do agree with what they say and believe. Maybe the most beautiful point that’s been reiterated to me throughout this year, due in large part to the hopeful and inspirational messages perpetuated by The Light, is this: we are ALL God’s people, regardless of race, creed, religion, sect, socioeconomic status, food cravings, workout regimens, or radio station preferences.

It’s important to entertain ideas and opinions outside our own. But how often do we put ourselves in a position to actually hear them, much less heed them? If we’re being honest, I don’t think many of us can claim we do that sort of thing ever. In the age of social media, it’s far too easy to get trapped in our own echo chambers. We hear what we want to hear, we see what we want to see, and we follow people who hear and see and perpetuate the same ideas we do. But I think we’re smarter than that. We have to be smarter than that.

Now I say we have to be smarter, but I’m fully aware that I sort of lucked into this situation. In a year highlighted by widespread disease, social unrest caused by racial injustice, and certainly the most bizarre election cycle of my lifetime, a coincidental stroke of dumb luck put me in position to learn from people who are wildly different from me. From the incredible wisdom of Erica Campbell, Willie Moore Jr., and Darlene McCoy to the epic memory-making dance parties with my children, this year has been redeemed by The Light. And for that, I’m incredibly grateful.

So, go seek out something you are not the target audience for, and start listening. And then keep listening. And when you hear something you disagree with or can’t understand, fight the urge to instantly disregard it and keep listening until you learn something valuable.

In conclusion…Jonathan McReynolds.

May your struggles keep you near the cross.
May your troubles show that you need God.
And may your battles end the way they should.
And may your bad days prove that God is good.
May your whole life prove that God is good.

4 comments

  1. Excellent Muggo.com article. I also like Lecrae when I first heard them a few years back. Keep up the great work you do, Sam (Callahan). I appreciate what you do.

    Liked by 1 person

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