“I Love to Praise His Name”: Shouting as Feminine Disruption, Public Ecstasy, and Audio-Visual Pleasure
Well, if you don’t believe in shouting,
That’s alright with me
Some folk don’t believe in shouting,
That’s alright with me…
Doubt and ignore it,
But I belong to the Lord’s crew.
David said rejoice in the Lord,
And that’s the way we Christians do.
If you don’t believe in shouting,
That’s alright with me.
–Dorothy Love Coates & the Gospel Harmonettes, “That’s Alright with Me”
A handy catch-all term, “shouting” is actually a euphemism encompassing a range of ecstatic worship behaviors. These can include clapping, dancing, pacing, running, rocking, fainting, as well as using the voice in speaking, singing, laughing, weeping, yelling, and moaning. Certainly, there were men who shouted in the days of my childhood in church; there are men who shout today. The only shouts I can recall and even imitate to this day, however, are those of the women.
There is, in fact, a longstanding association between women and shouting. Perhaps because of the pronounced emotionality involved in the practice, the shouting sphere tends to be prefigured as feminine and in this bears great relevance to women. I am interested in the significances of shouting among black Christian women of struggling populations. In my view, shouting is not only a religious practice for these women, but is also a binary-breaking performance which confounds—if only fleetingly—the divisions which have so often oppressed, menaced, and harmed them. I argue that shouting has worked to codify the disruption of male-dominated services by women who have so often faced sharp sanctions by black church patriarchy. I also contend that shouting places its female practitioners and their observers within a sphere of public ecstasy and visual and auditory pleasure, which makes mischief for notions of what is proper for Christian women and for the entire church community.
The Shout, the Sound, and the Shriek: Black Feminine Disruption
In a 2011 post for Sounding Out! entitled “Pentecostal Song, Sound, and Authentic Voices,” Ashon Crawley posits the existence of a black church “public zone,” which serves as the conceptual, holy ground upon which “sound, song, and subject [function] as conduits for the exchange of ecstasy and ecstatics.” I’d like to track Crawley’s public zone into the shouting sphere, the very heart of ecstasy within the black worship experience.
Although culturally codified—even expected and welcomed—within the church community, the shout functions primarily as a disruption. The faces, bodies, and voices of shouting black women disrupt the flow of the service. A shout takes time and has the power to alter the program. Regarding such moments, worshippers—most often women and gay men—often proclaim in retrospect, “Baby, there was no more order!” This disruption of order through the use of the body and the voice has a distinct place within the Christian black feminine tradition of resistance to oppression.
In the essay, “The Restorative Power of Sound,” womanist Roxanne Reed has examined the function of gendered sound within black Christianity. For Reed, the feminine “wordless cry, holler, moan, or wail” achieves “primacy over the written text,” “suggests a historical time with relying on a defined chronology,” and is legitimated by an African “ancestral heritage” which presages black musical forms (2). This distinctly feminine worship sound claims space from “patriarchal privilege,” which has often extended to black folk preaching, a tradition which excluded most black women for decades after slavery.
The sound of the black feminine in worship is thus a symbol for black women’s triumph over historically masculine arenas of writing, history, and form. The shout and the gendered worship sound can be placed in critical triangulation with Fred Moten’s “shriek,” as theorized in In the Break (2003) An expression of the distinct suffering of the black female, the shriek is a primal “phono-photo-porno-graphic disruption” of spirit and matter, and other binaries (14). The shout, the feminine worship sound, and the shriek all take center stage as black female performances which disrupt oppressive categories and assert the black woman’s voice as triumphant.
Shouting as Public Ecstasy, Scopophilia, and Sonophilia
Many observers have noted the shout’s resemblance to sexual ecstasy. The shout is often expressed through the sounds, movements, and facial expressions commonly associated with sex. Some shouters close their eyes and moan. Some hug themselves around the waist or bend over the pew in front of them, rubbing their own shoulders, bellies, or thighs. Some roll about the floor, hollering or speaking in tongues. Some whisper His Name, as in closest intimacy to a lover. Some dance with abandon before the altar or in the aisles before collapsing, spent and panting. Some quiver quietly in deepest distraction.
Shouters in the throes of their ecstasy are closely observed by all within the church community. Members of church communities often mark shared remembrances by who shouted, when, and how. Even young children can be called upon to reproduce the shouts of various church members. The conspicuousness of the shout provides reason to consider it as spectacle containing pleasure for both the shouter and those who gaze upon her.
Laura Mulvey’s “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” discusses “scopophilia” as a phenomenon occurring in “circumstances in which looking itself is a source of pleasure, just as, in the reverse formation, there is pleasure in being looked at” (587). In the moment in which a shout goes forth, those shouters who are aware of being watched—not all are—and their gazers may be said to enter into mutual pleasure from being watched and from watching. For the observer, the pleasure arising from the sight-based stimulation is often compounded by the narcissism of the ego which seeks to identify with its source. This may explain why in highly charged church moments, shouts become highly communicable—“thriving in concert,” as Zora Neale Hurston once phrased it. Looking upon another in worship ecstasy can be understood to reinforce one’s own relation to the Holy and to stir desire to engage that relation through shouting.
There is sufficient cause to assign what I call a “sonophilic”aspect to shouting as well, as shouting never fails to take place but within a context of sound. This sonophilic component should be understood as the means by which the sounds of ecstasy coming from a shouter provide stimulation and identification in the listener, who may in turn become a shouter. It must be noted, however, that the sonophilia can emanate from sources other than the shouter. Shouts are often roused by a complex network of sounds. Within a service, preaching and verbal exhortations, prayers, congregational chants and songs, and instrumental music designed to buoy sermonic delivery or to capitalize on swells of emotion often work in tandem to provide the sound-based pleasure essential to shouting.
A Final Shout-Out to Shouting
From West Africa to North America, from slavery to emancipation, from the eighteenth century into the present day, the black ecstatic in the form of shouting has served several important purposes for black women. Black women’s general and persistent preoccupation with the relationship between the spiritual and the sensual, the cornerstone of black female intellectualism in my view, was first and foremost expressed in the practice of shouting. The shout can be understood as the primary site upon which black women made the spiritual physical and rendered the sensual holy.
Furthermore, in eras in which black women were customarily denied the right to preach and were granted but limited authority within church communities, the shout communicated a woman’s ability to engage the Holy. This proven ability undoubtedly helped to open doors for the thousands of black women who now preach and pastor all over the country. Shouting has also provided much needed relief for the unique pressures of the black female in North America, absorbing and transforming her hurts and frustrations and replacing them, down through the centuries, with the hope and strength vital to her survival.
Featured Image Credit: Flickr User Steve Schwartz
Shakira Holt is a thirteen-year classroom veteran and currently teaches high school English in Los Angeles County. She earned a doctorate degree in English from the University of Southern California, and works primarily in the area of black women’s literature and culture. She is deeply concerned about the intersections of race, religion, gender, sexuality, class, and politics in the public sphere. She is a lazy poet, a latent novelist, an intermittent blogger, a retired songwriter, and a reluctant karaoke singer. A licensed Baptist minister, she is but slowly working her way back to the pulpit. “I Love to Praise His Name” is her first published piece.
In 2006, I ventured into Hoosier Country. I found myself in the middle of…nowhere. And I was depressed. No, not because I decided to move to Indiana all by my lonesome on a huge leap of faith to pursue a graduate degree – I was too smooth for that – but because I found myself in a town where I couldn’t watch Outkast’s debut film Idlewild. Where they do that at? I am a Southern-bred, Southern-fed kinda girl. And Outkast was my muse. Hell, as a certified Down South Georgia Girl, all things Georgian were my muse. I planted my feet in red clay. My soundtrack was Organized Noise, the production team and heavy hitters that worked with OutKast, Goodie Mob, and a slew of other folks out of a rinky dink house basement that would later become known as the Dungeon (Family). I took pride in being from the Dungeon. And here I was, hundreds of miles away, frantically trying to find a theatre that would, if only for a brief 90 minutes, thrust me back into that familiarity of Southern life.
Of course, OutKast (comprised of members Andre Benjamin and Antwan “Big Boi” Patton) is hardly considered strictly Southern today. However, their 1994 release Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik shattered perceptions that Southern Rap was an oxymoron. In fact, OutKast’s initial sound updated tropes of southern black resistance and retaliation, fusing a lethal mastery of lyricism and flecks of a contemporary Southern culture too easily dismissed by non-Southerners. Calling upon and subverting the stereotypical traits of the Southern black voice – drawn out, slow, and heavy – OutKast sets up shop in hip hop by showcasing a rich history of Southern flair and homegrown sounds. The album made this intervention at the precise moment when hip hop became much more accessible to a mainstream white American market and the idea of being “post-Civil Rights” gained cultural traction. Combining narratives of being young, black, and frustrated with a sonic backdrop that includes an instrumental arsenal of horns, harmonicas, organs, drums, and bass, OutKast challenged and reconfigured how Southernness, Americanness, and contemporary black experience sounded at the turn of the millenium. Their initial releases seem to pick up the question of what it means to be displaced, Southern, and black after the South settled from its liberatory movements, pulling from the voices, images, and music of Southern protest like the Freedom Singers or Sweet Honey in the Rock and fusing these sounds with hip hop.
In order to discuss how they challenge and reconfigure notions of Southerness, Americanness, and contemporary black experiences, we should look at their musical nods to the black church. OutKast draws heavily on the Southern black church through sermon-esque flow, call and response, and snatches of “chuch” (lose the ‘r’) music. The black church is a staple in OutKast’s sound, reflecting what Guthrie Ramsey refers to in Race Music as community theatre, a site where “cultural, communal, and family memories associated with forms like music often become standards against which many explore and create alternative and highly personal identities for themselves” (33). The Southern black church provides such a site for communal and collective memory not only in Outkast’s music, but in African American history. Celebrated and upheld as a site of refuge from an abrasive and openly racist white supremacist environment, the black church provided a safe haven for freedom of cultural expression and social commentary unavailable in Southern white public space and discourse. OutKast challenges this older, static definition by updating its purpose to reflect the shifting social climate of the late-20th century American South. While they continue the resistance narrative tradition by bringing their marginalized experience to the forefront, they also sonically reorient mainstream views of contemporary Southern black life.
Instantly recognizable across OutKast’s recordings, their funky blend of sacred and secular musics–the blues, gospel, and hip hop–give sonic texture to something quiet-as-its-kept in black churches, how the so-called “bad” folks still come to church on Sunday, even if they were unholy on Saturday night. OutKast plays upon this unspoken understanding in songs like “Jazzybelle” from 1997’s ATLiens, “B.O.B. (Bombs Over Baghdad)” from their 2000 release Stankonia, and the straightforward “Church” from SpeakerboXXX/The Love Below (2003).
A particularly striking instance is heard on “B.O.B.,” a song which brazenly discusses issues that are often reserved for closet prayer and silent suffering. As Andre weaves a lyrical assault on the poor conditions of living in the black working class:
One-Nine-Nine-Nine, Ano Domini, anything goes, be whatchu wanna be
Long as you know consequences are given for livin – the fence is
too high to jump in jail
Too low to dig, I might just touch hell – HOT!
Get a life, now they gon’ sell
Then I might cast you a spell, look at what came in the mail
A scale and some Arm and Hammer, slow grow grid and a baby mama
Black Cadillac and a pack of pampers
Stack of question with no answers
Cure for cancer, cure for AIDS
Make a nigga wanna stay on tour for days
Get back home, things are wrong
Well not really, it was bad all along
Andre rhymes across an instrumental blend of bass and the church organ, inundating his listener’s ear with agency and anger. The church organ is as angry and explosive as his flow, with riffs and keys banged out loudly, quite different from the soft accompaniment often heard in a church setting. By heavily utilizing the organ and church choir at the end of the track, chanting “Bible music electric revival” OutKast subverts and updates the celebrated Black Church Revival, a gathering of church folk and the lost, swinging church music to give a voice to the marginalized black working class. The hybrid, urban sound of “B.O.B.” provides a space for the reclamation of a disenfranchised southern African American narrative that blends the suffering trope mandating much of African American religion with current trends in cultural expression reflected in Hip Hop. In Idlewild (which I FINALLY saw a year later, by the way), Andre and Big Boi visually annotate their secularized black church by creating an imagined community in rural Georgia that revolved around the jukejoint Church. OutKast’s audio-visual syncretism paved the way for later acts like Pastor Troy, who secularizes tropes of black masculinity and leadership in the black church, likening them to the struggles of being at war with those who don’t understand the struggles of a young black south.
The black church provides OutKast with a blueprint for reconciling displacement and authenticity by creating a sound that maneuvered a Post-Civil Rights landscape of shifting markers of social-economic identities and race. By connecting the historical context of the Southern black church with Hip Hop, OutKast’s sound reflects not only the historical residue of a pre-Civil Rights Movement South but also the constant search for a space of expression in an era where a stagnant or nonexistent “modern South” is a popularly comfortable disbelief. Perhaps this is why I was so desperate to find a theatre showing Idlewild; I found myself a geographically displaced Southern black youth searching to situate and sustain a new layer of my own post-Civil Rights narrative.