I don’t know a huge amount about gospel, but Kelefa Sanneh’s New Yorker profile of gospel singer Tonéx is well worth buying last week’s issue of the magazine to read (and you’ll have to, since only an abstract is available online). For those not in the know, as I wasn’t, Tonéx was a major new voice in gospel, someone who managed to push the form closer to pop and hip-hop, before he finally decided to acknowledge that he’s sexually attracted to men, and that he doesn’t feel like that’s something that needed to be fixed. That revelation, and the gospel community’s reaction to it, has exposed a central contradiction of the form: gospel has historically relied on gay men to be some of its greatest innovators, but it doesn’t tolerate their open presence. Sanneh’s piece is a fantastic look at the impact of social change on an artistic form. As he writes:
It’s clear that the old arrangement can’t last forever. Gospel music has offered generations of same-gender-loving singers a place to call home, in exchange for their obedience, or their silence. This tricky and somethings hard bargain shaped the genre, guiding its transfigured love songs, its expressions of praise and sorrow, its twinning of the orthodox and the outrageous. And there’s no telling what gospel will sound like when that tacit arrangement no longer holds.
Read it, and then check out some of Tonéx’s music. “Personal Jesus” is a pretty great place to start: