American Culture Studies Ph.D. Dissertations

The Impact of Race on Perceptions of Authenticity in the Delivery and Reception of African American Gospel Music

Date of Award


Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.)


American Culture Studies

First Advisor

Radhika Gajjala

Second Advisor

Lisa Hanasono (Committee Member)

Third Advisor

Angela Nelson (Committee Member)

Fourth Advisor

Laura Lengel (Committee Member)


Can a gospel choir made up of more White singers than Black create authentic gospel music? This project examines how racial perceptions, a persistent factor in American society, impact the delivery and reception of Black gospel music. This ethnographic study describes the lived experiences of the Ohio Northern University Gospel Ensemble, which began as an exclusively African American student organization and over the course of its twenty-six year existence experienced a shift in racial composition resulting in a membership that is currently majority White.

Interviews with key gospel music figures who have interacted with the Ensemble reveal insights about the industry, the spiritual significance of gospel music and the effect of race on the delivery of the music. Foundational gospel music figure, Bishop Rance Allen, recalls experiences that illustrate the influence race has had on opportunities to advance within the gospel music industry. Gospel recording artist and music innovator, Minister Chris Byrd, discusses his attraction to praise and worship music and his desire to create music that appeals to people of all races. Gospel music author and church pastor, Bishop Terence M. Sykes, describes changes in the sound of the gospel music performed by the Ensemble as the cultural configuration of the group shifted. This project also includes observations from Ensemble members past and present and from church congregation members for whom the group has performed.

The overall approach to this project is feminist and ethnographic, having been influenced by the work of D. Soyini Madison, bell hooks, Patricia Hill Collins and Audre Lorde. It also includes a performance studies lens, while incorporating textual analyses, and in-depth interviews as methods. The work of Dwight Conquergood on coperformance, Victor Turner on cultural performances and T.V. Reed on textual analysis of direct action movements provided inspiration and direction. In addition, the project draws heavily from work done by E. Patrick Johnson with a White, mostly atheist, Australian gospel choir. The study concludes that perceptions of authenticity are influenced greatly by the ability of those delivering and those receiving the music to make an emotional connection to it.