Is God Funky or What?

Black Biblical Culture and Contemporary Popular Music

by Theodore W. Burgh (Author)
©2019 Textbook XIV, 250 Pages


Black music is a powerful art form. Artists’ creations often go where words cannot. The music is special—sacred. However, it’s still frequently shoehorned into the ambiguous categories of secular and sacred. Is God Funky or What?: Black Biblical Culture and Contemporary Popular Music complicates the traditional categories of sacred and secular by exposing religious rhetoric and contexts of contemporary popular black music and by revealing the religious-based biblical references and spirituality that form the true cultural context from which these genres emerge. The personal beliefs of black music artists often include, if not revolve around, the heavens. How come we are bombarded by the "thank Gods" in televised award shows, liner notes, or interviews for songs by musicians that some millennials might call "ratchet?" Is God Funky or What? shares anecdotes probing connections between specific forms of popular black music and religion. The qualifications of sacred and secular typically depend on context, lyrics, location, and audience (age, race, religion). Through a woven narrative of lyrics, godly acknowledgments, recorded and original interviews, biographies, and recordings from various genres of black music, this book explores how artists have intertwined views of God, perspectives regarding a higher power, spirituality, and religion in creating their music. Their creations make up an organic corpus called the Artistic Black Canon (ABC). Using the ABC, this book shares and explores its remarkable interpretations and ideas about life, music, spirituality, and religion. Is God Funky or What? also shares how we can better make use of this music in the classroom, as well as better understand how essential it is to the lives of many.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • Advance Praise for Is God Funky or What?
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Table of Contents
  • Acknowledgements
  • Chapter One: Introduction
  • Chapter Two: Blues
  • Blues—Sacred, Secular?
  • The Overlooked Relevance of the Blues
  • Supernatural Power in the Blues
  • Chapter Three: Jazz
  • What’s So Sacred About Jazz?
  • Jazz Improvisation and the Brain
  • There’s Spirit in the Sacred Improvisation
  • The Church of Saint John Coltrane
  • Exploration of Jazz Perspectives on Sacred and Secular
  • Interviews With Living Jazz Musicians
  • Interview With Jazz Legend Joe Chambers
  • Interview With Vocalist Lori Williams
  • Interview With Pastor Brian Hamilton
  • Interview With Composer and Arranger Derrick Gardner
  • Interview With Arranger and Composer Jerald Shynett
  • Interview With Jazz Artist Marc Cary
  • Summary
  • Chapter Four: R&B/Soul
  • Why R&B/Soul?
  • R&B/Soul Soundtracks and Life Lessons
  • The Cassidy Clark Interviews
  • Jerry Butler
  • Booker T and the MGs
  • Gladys Knight
  • The O’Jays
  • Little Richard
  • Wilson Pickett
  • The Staple Singers and David Ruffin
  • Al Green
  • Eddie Kendricks
  • Patti LaBelle
  • Sly Stone
  • Curtis Mayfield
  • Bill Withers
  • Stevie Wonder
  • The Wonder of Religious Experience
  • Marvin Gaye
  • More R&B/Soul Artists
  • Aretha Franklin
  • The Jackson 5
  • Michael Jackson
  • Beyoncé
  • Neo-Soul
  • Jill Scott
  • India.Arie
  • Lauryn Hill
  • Erykah Badu
  • D’Angelo
  • Summary
  • Chapter Five: Funk
  • Artists, Funk, and the Sacred
  • Rufus and Chaka Khan
  • Larry Graham
  • Prince
  • Chuck Brown—Father of Go-Go
  • Tom Browne
  • Earth, Wind, and Fire
  • Me’Shell Ndegeocello
  • Summary
  • Chapter Six: Hip Hop
  • Prophets, Psalmists, and Rappers
  • Influential Rap Artists From the ABC
  • Tupac Shakur
  • Public Enemy
  • NWA
  • Nas
  • Jay Z
  • Kool Moe Dee
  • What About Bitch, Ho, Nigga, and Stuff Like That?
  • Hip Hop, Rap, and a Catastrophic Disaster
  • Dollar Day/Katrina Klap
  • Summary
  • Chapter Seven: Gospel
  • Rosetta Tharpe
  • John P. Kee
  • Kirk Franklin
  • The Extensions
  • Lyrics
  • Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On?
  • Epilogue
  • Index
  • Series Index

← x | xi →


Writing a book takes a tremendous amount of time, energy, and support. There are many to whom I am grateful for their encouragement and motivation. I thank my wife Ann, who tirelessly supports all of my endeavors, no matter absurd they may be. I also wish to express my gratitude:

To all of my family and friends for their constant support.

To Dr. Janet Sturman, who gave me feedback on my initial idea for this work and encouraged me to go with it.

To Sarah Bode. The best editor ever and one of the most upbeat and positive people I know.

To Dr. Hugh Page. Our in-depth conversations about Prince and other artists and their connections with religious activities were inspiring.

To Randall Bailey, Cheryl Kirk-Duggan, Sam Murrell, and Rodney Sadler for their unique insight, suggestions, and ideas.

To Dr. Rickey Vincent, Professor Derrick Gardiner, Marc Cary, Joe Chambers, Professor Jerald Shynett, Lori Williams, Tom Browne, and Pastor Brian Hamilton. Thank you so much for sharing your time to be interviewed for this project.

To the Center for Black Music Research and UNCW Cahill for your resources and financial support in this endeavor. ← xi | xii →

To the Society of Biblical Literature—members of African-American Biblical Hermeneutics Section and the American Academy of Religion for providing an opportunity to present my initial ideas on this topic.

If I have forgotten anyone, please charge it to my head and not my heart.

← xii | 1 →

· 1 ·


It’s strange. I don’t have a memory of my life that’s not wrapped in music. I could write the funkiest, most soulful, bluesiest, gut-wrenching soundtrack to my life with the music I’ve heard and experienced. My mother’s humming of church hymns and top 40 hits and my father’s respectable imitation of Nat King Cole, the Mills Brothers, and Billy Eckstein, weave through many of my early memories.

My formal introduction to music came my first day of middle school, and we’ve been together ever since. The band director held an outdoor concert, and eighth graders along with some high school students performed. After they played a few songs, select students introduced and demonstrated their instruments. I could hardly contain myself. The drums’ hypnotic rhythms beckoned me, but the seductive tone of the flute was mesmerizing. I had to have her. And the love affair with the silver woodwind began. My parents couldn’t afford formal lessons to solidify our courtship, but we still became inseparable. My flute let me know that with her, I could play along with the Doobie Brothers; Earth, Wind, and Fire; Chaka Khan; Elton John; and almost anyone whose songs came through my radio. She introduced me to different sounds and new ways to express myself. There were also days she and music made me cry from frustration when trying to learn a technical exercise, but also buzz with joy, especially when I figured out a complex melody or lick. I ← 1 | 2 → was, and still am, falling in love with her and music, and there was nothing I could or want to do about it. We’re still intimately entangled, and our relationship continues to flourish.

Music constantly plays in mind. Unheard melodies from deep inside, along with songs I’ve heard before—Aaron Copeland’s “Appalachian Spring” to Salt n’ Pepa’s “Push It!” It’s like the music is on some kind of random rotation. The tunes make their way through my inner ear, challenging me to hear them in different ways, forcing me to listen to how they’re put together, and at times, making me ponder the complexities of how music affects lyrics, as well as what the crafted words and notes mean to me and others. Some of my dreams even have soundtracks. I’ve woken many times from a dream in which I’ve heard complete songs with orchestral and vocal arrangements. Talented, insightful artists use this art form to create priceless musical creations, but, because of matters such as preconceived ideas, misunderstandings, and at times misinformation or blind ignorance, we sometimes overlook the unlimited specific effects music can have on our lives.

Music is powerful. It can make us react physically—tapping feet, bobbing heads, and ecstatic dancing. It invokes emotions—tears of heartbreak and joy, smiles, and laughter. Music has the uncanny ability to communicate where words stop. It takes us places we need to go, as well as through spaces and areas we don’t completely understand. Music is a major part of the worlds we’ve labeled sacred and secular. It helps people to express how they interpret and express aspects of each. Much has been written on the subject of sacred and secular in music. However, I saw this as a challenge to share something new and different. I bring unique perspectives as a performer, composer, scholar, and teacher. I also realize the power this music holds.

I’m going to challenge us to dig deeper in understanding and interpreting what many musical prophets, psalmists, and artists—past and present—have to say. Through discussion of examples from blues, jazz, R&B, funk, and other forms of what is often called black music, as well as artists’ biographies, interviews—previously recorded, some original, and liner notes, I will offer different ways of interpreting music that is often labeled sacred and secular. I will do through this by looking at artists’ creations and exploring what they have to say, and why and how they say it. I’ll also give suggestions regarding how we can use these invaluable, intriguing, unique creations as artistic lenses to our advantage. Artists are often sharing how they understand, interpret, and encounter the world in which they live, and many people identify, connect to, and search for messages and meanings in their performance. Music has scores ← 2 | 3 → of hermeneutics waiting to be extracted. I didn’t realize it at the time, but as a kid, I witnessed everyday folks do this very well. Their exegesis was intelligent and inspiring. As a matter of fact, it’s one of my favorite musical memories from the ’70s.

I can still see my father relaxing in his black recliner, feet suspended in the air a top the chair’s extended ottoman, beer in hand, while extolling profusely about the blues. If I pushed him long and hard enough, he’d drop a few sagacious notes about the music. Typically on a Sunday afternoon, he and his friends would sit in the dimly lit living room sipping beer or other alcoholic libations skillfully combined with sodas and juices. I know this because my sisters and I often had to make and bring them their drink orders. A floor-model stereo blared, filling the room with nearly visible waves of emotion packed music. The men sat comfortably, eyes closed, intoxicated—by the music. Their heads bounced and nodded, and sometimes they leaned forward hard as if to intercept any notes that might try to slip away. As they intensely ingested the sounds, each spontaneously shared what they were experiencing.

“Man, did you hear that?”
“Good Lord! That boy can play some blues!”
“Listen to ’em pick that thing!”
“I hear what you talkin’ bout son! Tell ’em bout it!”
“He can make that thing talk!”
“I swear that woman is talkin’ to me!”
“Sing about it, honey!”

These men were having a sacred experience. They were listening, hearing, and engaging the music and lyrics through their experiences. Through their reverence for and relationship with the blues, they transformed our living room into a sacred space. The music created a bond between them. The blues transcended these sacred moments and even helped them prepare “to meet the Man” and deal with other situations that lay waiting for them Monday morning. Here were these men, folks some might label “Average Joes,” sitting in their created sacred space, sharing special libations, communing with each other on a level I didn’t understand, pulling and reaching to glean what these blues prophets and prophetesses were sharing—profound, high-level exegesis. I watched and listened as they explained candidly to each other the artistry and pontification of B. B. King, John Lee Hooker, or Albert King, or the raspy, bewitching moaning of Koko Taylor. They would diagram what these artists offered and how it made them feel. Their reactions and interactions were much like the ones I’d seen from folk at church. But in this space, they openly ← 3 | 4 → described the places the music took them and the lessons the artists shared. It was truly a sacred moment produced by what many ignorantly dismissed as secular or even worse, the devil’s music.

When my father spun these and other artists’ records at home, or we heard them on the radio, I remember liking some of the songs—especially those with a fast shuffle or told funny stories. One of my favorite verses was, and still is, comes from B. B. King’s version of “How Blue Can You Get?” King complains about the troubles he’s had with a woman since the beginning of their relationship because she refuses to be satisfied.

I let you live in my penthouseyou said it was a shack
I gave you seven children, and now you wanna give’em back

This man loved this woman, but he couldn’t do enough to mollify her. I remember seeing some of the men in my father’s group jumping and slapping hands after hearing Mr. King sing this line. He affirmed what they saw as part of their truth. I wasn’t old enough to understand marriage or what having a significant other meant, but I still understood enough of the story to know why he wasn’t happy with this woman.

Although that song and a few others were amusing and entertaining, the music was “old fashioned” to me. Some of the stories were over my head. I couldn’t comprehend them the way my father and his friends did. The same thing happened to me in church—dated music with confusing lyrics and messages. Later however, through talking with my father, other blues aficionados, and experiencing life a little more—I began to learn how to listen to the music. I started to understand what they were hearing. I developed a great respect for some of the stories and messages. The ways in which the artists delivered them began to make a little sense. I found that the groans, moans, and grunts were just as revealing as the actual lyrics. I began to realize to some degree why my father and his friends reacted the way they did to what they heard. One of the things that kept them interested, and me to a certain degree, was the artists sang about life. They crooned to folks that chose to listen to what was happening to them or someone they knew, how they understood it, and how they dealt with it.

Although my father and his buddies hadn’t necessarily lived the lives or encountered every experience many of their favorite blues singers sang about, or even if the songs contained an ounce of truth, they still related to the messages. They co-signed and affirmed many of the blues prophets’ sermonic lines about living life. My father and the rest of the group had an understanding about how to get at the blues artists’ hermeneutics, and at times applied ← 4 | 5 → them to their own life philosophies. They related to what the performers had to say and how they said it, and the music helped them see the world through different, yet unique lenses.

For some time and a myriad of reasons, many types of writing, visual art, and music like the blues received the enigmatic labels of sacred or secular. The labeling criteria varied from style, lyrical content, who the creators were, as well as the performance context. With that in mind, I’ve often wondered, which songs are sacred or secular, and who gets to say so? For the most part, sacred is defined as dedicated to a deity or religious purpose; consider with respect and reverence; secular is understood as things that have no religious or spiritual basis; pertaining to worldly things. Some dictionaries also mention phrases such as “opposed to sacred” or “contrast with regular.” While I appreciate these descriptions, the categories and definitions of sacred and secular are social and cultural constructs. Societies, cultures, and communities develop their own ideas and a criterion regarding defining these terms and what falls into these groups.

Scholar Teresa Reed explains that the idea of the sacred-secular dichotomy was a foreign concept to the first Africans arriving in North America.

1These people came from a world where a “non-religious” or “non-sacred” category did not exist. Western cultural influence introduced the categories of sacred and secular, and Black people have generated unique perspectives and interpretations for these groupings.

Even when we consider the Bible, the literary centerpiece for much of sacred music, the divisions are ones that have been established and created by a select few. The biblical book of Esther for instance does not mention God or any other deity, the Book of Ecclesiastes reads like a blues song, and check out this passage from the Song of Solomon:

How beautiful you are my love, how very beautiful!
Your eyes are doves behind your veil.
Your hair is like a flock of goats,
Moving down the slopes of Gilead.
Your teeth are like a flock of shorn ewes
That have come up from washing,
All of which bear twins,
And not one among them is bereaved.
Your lips are like a crimson thread,
And your mouth is lovely.
Your cheeks are like halves of pomegranate
Behind your veil. ← 5 | 6 →
Your neck is like the tower of David,
Built in courses; on it hang a thousand bucklers,
Your two breasts are like two fawns,
Twins of a gazelle,
That feed among the lilies.

(“Song of Solomon” from the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament, 1:12–14)

Yet, this bit of erotica and the other books are all considered sacred. Like West Africa, the same goes for the ancient Near East, the place from which many argue the Bible comes. The ancient Israelites and other cultures of Africa and the Near East did not compartmentalize their lives, traditions, or rituals. It was all a part of life. Everything was sacred.2

Are there truly differences between sacred and secular music? Are they completely separate entities, or are the perceived disparities based on personal perceptions of the subject matter, language or “appropriateness,” or the place and time the music is performed? In my experience as a musical artist, scholar, and listener—when it comes to music, considering the present definitions of both terms, I view all music as sacred. That doesn’t mean that all music can or should be played or sung at any time or any place, but with any genre or type of black music, regardless of the performance context, there is often someone who is moved emotionally, provoked to critical thought, entertained, or inspired. Thankfully, the question regarding what is sacred and secular in music has been discussed and debated thoroughly in scholarship, and most agree that all music is sacred. It’s special. But if all music is sacred, then what do we do with it? How else can it benefit us? Sure, it’s entertaining, but as my father and his buddies showed me, there’s so much more it can offer.

I spent the ’60s and ’70s, those formative adolescent years, in a little country town in the middle of North Carolina, where my family and I attended a small United Church of Christ (UCC) church. There was a short period when we lived only 30 yards from the church—packed into a tiny, white make shift parsonage—even though my parents were far from being clergy. This gave us no excuse for not being at the church all the time. We’d escape the confines of the house, skipping across the yard and the church driveway, tumbling right into the church. In our youth, my four sisters and I were often at church two to three times a week for our mother’s choir rehearsals or some mandatory auxiliary meeting—preparing for holiday plays and programs, or participating in of some kind of “young peoples” activity. I’d even spend many Sunday mornings helping my dad clean the sanctuary and shovel coal for the furnace. If we started before 6 a.m., he’d let me make noise on the organ while ← 6 | 7 → he cleaned trash from the pews. Those early Sunday hours also allowed for explorations of the nooks and crannies of the building few people saw.

My parents insured we attended church regularly, in order to better our spiritual selves. But it was my grandmother, MaMa, who was my gateway to religion and spirituality. This beautiful, fair-skinned, bow-legged (her legs looked like a set of parentheses), quick tongued, incredibly strong woman introduced me to her world of spirituality through uniquely creative versions and interpretations of biblical stories. She also taught me cleverly, entertaining mnemonic scriptural sayings I had to perform for her preacher friends and other family members when they came to visit. One of the famous acts from our little vaudeville show was a Q&A skit:

MaMa: “Where was Moses when the lights went out?”

Me: “Standing in the dark with his shirttail out!”

At four, I was killing my audience with my delivery.

When I reflect upon how my grandmother introduced me to this world, a lot of lessons, many of which I am still learning from, were found in her actions and attitude. She was what I would call a “spiritual” woman. She read the Bible—or parts of the Bible regularly, but she wasn’t rigid or judgmental—about most things. She let a couple of four-letter words fly out, precisely punctuated, when she stubbed her toe or got angry. She enjoyed church services for the most part, but didn’t stand for the drama, nor did she let it step too far into her home. Looking back, I can say that she was one who seemed to have a sensible perspective and tempered interpretation about church and its function in one’s life, at least regarding what it meant to her. She loved her God, but neither the church nor the people in it ran her life. She didn’t even go to church every Sunday or feel the need to stampede through the doors every time they opened.

When I was a child and stayed with her for any length of time, she often took me with her to church. This was the same church my family attended, but my grandmother went when she wanted to, and even had an unofficial reserved seat on the fourth pew from the front.

I have vivid memories of sitting next her and quietly being transfixed by what I call “the show.” It was fascinating to me and still is. There I was, a wide-eyed little boy, trying to absorb and interpret all of what was happening around and to me. The big attraction however was the music. I thought some of it was really hip. When my cousin cranked out Edwin Hawkins’ tunes on the organ for the young adult choir to sing, it was a great time. He had ← 7 | 8 → impeccable skills at making that Hammond B3 organ groove and rock the church. The Hawkins’ 1969 crossover hit “Oh Happy Day” was a congregation favorite. The best part to me was when my cousin jammed on the vamp at the end of the song. He would, as church members said, “Do his thang!” He’d improvise all over the organ for a while—feet and hands flying, eyes closed, head bobbing back and forth, whipping everyone into a lather. He’d eventually bring the choir back in to end the song. As far as I was concerned they could have sung the intro and jumped straight to the groove at the end. That was the good part!

When I think of music and “the show,” I’m reminded of a clip from the movie, Wattstax, a 1973 documentary about a concert given by artists from Stax Records in Los Angeles to commemorate the 1965 Watts riots. In the scene, Ted Lange, a black actor noted for his work as “Isaac” on the ’70s television show, “The Love Boat,” shared his youthful experience in the black church.

We used to go to a movie house. It wasn’t a church. It was a movie house. It used to bug me, man. It was like everywhere, everyplace else you went to, it looked like a church. But in the black neighborhood, man you had to go to a movie house. But when you got in the movie house, man, it was bad! I mean—people got down. Like I remember join’ in there man, and I used to go to a Catholic church, went to a Methodist church, went to all them other churches man, but then I went to this black church in Oakland, man. And we went up—and I went up, and I saw tambourines, and trombones, and drums. And I said, ‘this is church’? I don’t understand this, man. And the preacher got up and start talking’ bout God, and I was listening, and I said, I ain’t never heard nobody like this before. This cat start talking about God and what God did. And he got this band join’ behind him, man. The band started getting’ into it, and cats was plain’ [sic] and shit, and I said, ‘Goddamn!’ And I start feelin’ good!3

Lange and I shared a love of certain church music from “the show.” But, like some of the blues songs my father and his friends listened to, some of the older hymns and anthems didn’t do much for me. Actually, the problem may have been with how some of the songs were rendered and me being a child who didn’t comprehend the lyrics. For the longest time when the choir would sing any song with the phrase “God knows,” I would picture this large Caucasian nose in the sky. Believe me. I have no idea either. It scratches the surface of some deep indoctrination and propaganda. Also, when the choir would sing the hymn, “When Jesus Came into my Heart,” there’s a line that says, “Floods of joy o’er my soul like the sea billows roll.” I was an adult before I knew what a billows was and how one rolled. Back then for some reason I used to imagine someone feverishly and pointlessly squeezing a large black bellows. ← 8 | 9 →

Nevertheless, no matter what music was being sung or played in the service, I noticed that it always elicited some kind of response from the congregation—folks swayed to the beat, hummed, nodded their heads, closed their eyes in prayer and meditation, shouted, danced, or fainted. Even when they passed around the grape juice and saltine crackers, there was music. The music for the show was powerful. It was exceptional. It was magic.

Now what was completely baffling to me was that the church wasn’t the only place I saw similar actions and the special, yet almost identical effects of musical magic. My parents would sometimes throw house parties in that little make shift parsonage on the weekend, and many of the same people I saw sitting and rocking in the church pews or swaying in the choir, would come over to our house for some celebrating. Like the church services, the parties were shows as well. During these late night get-togethers my sisters and I usually were safely confined to a bedroom just off the living room where the party took place. We could see what was happening by taking turns peeping through the keyhole or carefully peering through a strategically manipulated crack in the door.

Someone was in charge of the music. This person, at their discretion or per the direction of the participants, would play 45s, selections from albums, or bands from 8-track tapes. The music regulated the flow and level of energy and the timbre of the party. Certain songs produced some of the same expressions and exclamations I heard in church:

“Sing it!”
“That’s what I’m talking about!”
“Tell yo’ story!”
“That’s right!”


XIV, 250
ISBN (Softcover)
ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2019 (January)
New York, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Oxford, Wien, 2019. XIV, 250 pp.

Biographical notes

Theodore W. Burgh (Author)

Theodore W. Burgh is a professor at the University of North Carolina Wilmington. He has a BA in music from Hampton University, MA in religious studies from Howard University, and MA and PhD in Near Eastern studies from the University of Arizona. His first book, Listening to the Artifacts, received the Klaus P. Wachsmann Prize from the Society for Ethnomusicology.


Title: Is God Funky or What?