The racially diverse choir’s rich, energetic sound could be heard over the audience’s synchronized hand claps. The vibrant red and black robes of Indiana University’s African American Choral Ensemble (AACE) swayed back and forth during their performance at Second Baptist Church in Bloomington, a performance that would be recorded and nationally broadcasted.
The documentary “Amen! Music of the Black Church,” produced by WTIU, explains the history and culture behind Black church music, while demonstrating these traditions through the choir’s live harmonic performance. The ensemble was led by AACE director Dr. Raymond Wise, and since the documentary premiered April 2020, it has won three awards.
• A silver Telly Award in the Religious/Spiritual category.
• First place in the Society of Professional Journalists Documentary/Special category.
• A Regional Emmy Award in the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences Lower Great Lakes Chapter’s for Best Historical/Cultural Content.
“It’s come a long way, and this has been my dream for over 40 years,” Wise said. “Now there is a documented artifact that can live on forever.”
The roots of gospel music derive from a blend of African and European cultures that enslaved Africans used to not only create a common understanding between each other, but to create a sense of hope within their community. Since slavery was a tumultuous time for Black enslaved people, being able to generate a sense of hope became a powerful tool to use to persevere through their day-to-day labor.
Today, through the prevalence of the Black church and the use of gospel music as a form of worship, Black church music has become an academic topic of choice for Wise.
As a fourth-generation gospel singer, Wise’s background with gospel music began at age 3 when he and his siblings sang in “The Wise Singers.” Since then, he has dedicated over 40 years of his life to teaching and creating gospel music as well as assisting in academia’s embracing of gospel as a musical genre.
Through the audience’s reaction, the documentary created an authentic Black church experience, and for Gabriele Rasdall, that authenticity makes the documentary, performance and song selection powerful.
“The undeniable thing about the Black church is the power,” she said. “You can literally feel God’s presence in the song.”
Rasdall has been a part of AACE since her sophomore year of college, and the now rising senior performed a solo in the concert film.
As a young child Rasdall was involved in the Black church, but not everyone who joins AACE has to be. What sets AACE apart is that anyone can learn the history behind the music and in turn, learn how to sing the music as if they’ve been singing gospel since childhood, according to Wise.
As a biracial child living with her single white mother in a majority white area, Briana Lander felt disconnected to her Black culture. Through AACE and the documentary, she learned more about her cultural background, something that she sought to understand for a while. By attending college and joining AACE she was able to learn more about Black culture and reconnect with her Black heritage. Through her contribution to the documentary, she can teach others the historical significance of gospel music, she said.
“I had no idea how enslaved persons took that [gospel music] and made it into their own,” she said.
Originally, the documentary was shown locally in Bloomington, but through a four-year contract with PBS, audiences nationwide now can view the film. The ability to teach people the historical and cultural significance of gospel music nationally is why Dr. Marcus Simmons said the Black church music documentary is powerful.
“I think it has power because it gives a really accessible entry point, a lens into the culture,” said Simmons, a singer and narrator for the documentary.
Contact staff writer Abriana Herron at 317-924-5243. Follow her on Twitter @Abri_onyai.