How Mahalia Jackson’s legacy lives on by means of Gospel music and the combat for Civil Rights

Above photo: Danielle Brooks Stars as gospel icon Mahalia Jackson in the new biography “Mahalia”.

By J’na Jefferson

Who of us was not touched by Mahalia Jackson’s music? Though you may not realize it, the self-taught Queen of Gospel and civil rights activist inspired some of the most popular musical genres in the United States, such as R&B, soul, and rock and roll. Legendary musicians such as Little Richard, Aretha Franklin and Ray Charles have cited her as outstanding influences on her work, while Mavis Staples called her “the greatest gospel singer who ever lived”.

Despite requests from music managers to record secular music, especially blues, Jackson stayed true to her roots and became a sensation with her moving interpretations of gospel songs.

Robert F. Darden, a professor of journalism, public relations and new media at Baylor University and former gospel music editor for Billboard magazine, told that the singer believed her vocal gifts came from God’s service. “

“This unshakable belief formed the moral foundation that enabled her to resist calls to sing in nightclubs or even arenas and openly record pop, jazz or blues,” he says.

Darden, who also directs Baylor’s Black Gospel Music Restoration Project, says that while Jackson’s music was rooted in the Baptist Pentecostal music she was exposed to during her upbringing, her slightly rebellious New Orleans childhood introduced her to blues and jazz styling . “She has often acknowledged the influence of the 78 Bessie Smith who smuggled her into her home,” he says.

Even so, Jackson’s most legendary performances and songs are bonafide gospel songs. She is most admired for the muted yet powerful “Take My Hand, Precious Lord” and “Move On Up A Little Higher,” which were inducted into the 2012 Grammy Hall of Fame.

By staying true to her traditional ecclesiastical roots, Jackson broke through artistic barriers. She is the first female gospel singer to perform at Carnegie Hall in 1960 and was inducted posthumously into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 1997. Her passionate approach to her craft awakened the hearts and spirits of saints and sinners alike, and sparked international interest in the gospel.

“There are certain women who are talented enough to sing ‘Happy Birthday’ every day and people still love it,” actress and singer Danielle Brooks told Brooks, best known for her role as Taystee on the Emmy-winning show “Orange Is The New Black,” portrays the gospel icon in Lifetime’s Robin Roberts Presents: Mahalia, which airs on Saturday, April 3rd at 8/7 Watch is broadcast.

The 31-year-old Juilliard-trained artist received a Tony Award nomination for her role as Sofia in the 2015 Broadway revival of The Color Purple and a 2017 Grammy for Best Musical Show Album for the same production. But Brooks believes Jackson is the person she was “meant to be” based on the strong parallels of her life as southern ecclesiastical black women.

And while portraying an inimitable character like Mahalia Jackson is no small feat, Brooks says she has risen to the challenge and awe of the legendary singer is at the forefront of her portrayal, especially when it comes to Jackson’s prowess.

Brooks says she wanted to connect with the message behind the gospel songs to feel what Jackson was feeling. On stage, Jackson was often overwhelmed by intense emotions, and her tendency to tremble, cry, and fall to the ground while she sang became a trademark.

“Mahalia was so much braver and bolder than ever before on stage,” says Brooks. “She is very much in spirit. How deep in spirit is she? Where does it come from? Why does someone feel the need to get on their knees? Why does someone feel the need to pull their head back? What brings you to the point where your wig is about to fall off? I never want to imitate anyone just because they did. [I want to find] the details of that person through the inner workings that must be there. I’m trying to get to the same place for my wig to come off! “

“Then and now, Jackson [has] Come to embody the look, sound, ethos and passion of Black Gospel music, ”Darden says of Jackson’s widely acclaimed stage performances.

“What strikes me – beyond this unique voice – is the passion. She sang every song like only God was listening … that anything but her best was a mortal sin. You can see that love on her face as she sings even if you can hear the emotions in her voice. “

In addition to her clear vocal talents, civil rights and activism are two main components that drive the icon’s life and biography.

The premiere date of the film marks the 53rd anniversary of the murder of Jackson’s friend, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. She performed in Washington in March 1963, where Dr. King gave his famous “I Have A Dream Speech” and also held a service to commemorate his life after his murder in 1968. Brooks explains that Jackson’s civil rights experiences are not only an integral part of their history, but also important to American history – especially today.

“I once heard someone say that music is the second strongest thing after prayer,” she says. “In my opinion [Jackson] have tried to bring a lot of joy to the civil rights movement because so many people have been hurt … With music it penetrates to the core of the people in their hearts and they can open their minds to the possibility of change. ”
“The late MP John Lewis once told me, ‘Without music, the civil rights movement would have been a bird without wings …'” says Darden, who has written books on the intersection of music and civil rights.

“With music it penetrates the core of people, into their hearts, and they can open their minds to the possibility of change.” – Danielle Brooks

“Activism and black music – sacred or secular – are forever inextricably linked … this music, these songs continue today, not only in the Black Lives Matter and #MeToo movements, but also in the songs and actions of the oppressed on the all over the world who keep doing this sing it. “

Spreading the importance of gospel music was one of Brooks’ primary goals in filming.

As America today continues to experience social, racial, and medical problems, she believes that gospel music is helpful for those of us who are “in dire need of healing” in our daily lives. “[Jackson] said, “Gospel is the cure for the blues,” and I think what gospel music offers is joy and hope, “says Brooks.

“Gospel music is one of the few genres that is more lyrically than musically defined,” explains Darden. “For someone who believed and tried to live their faith as passionately as Mahalia Jackson, it is as good as it gets to sing songs that reflect that very belief. The great gospel singers were a combination of evangelist, preacher and entertainer … this light always shone on Mahalia’s face, even in her painful later years. “(Jackson was plagued by health problems and died of heart disease at age 60.)

Brooks says her coronation at work on Robin Roberts Presents: Mahalia is privileged to lift the spirit of Mahalia Jackson. She hopes viewers will learn about Jackson, but the film is “really for her” and keeps her light and legacy intact.

“It has left us so much, and we still feel it in every civil rights movement that we continue to go through,” says Brooks. “I just want her to be proud, that’s what I prayed for.”

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