Radio·Audio

Struggle and Spirit: the history of Black gospel music in Canada

"When slaves were taken across the ocean and ripped apart from their families and everything that they knew, it was the music that they came with. That music came with them and stood with them and helped them to survive."

Unpacking the power of Black gospel music

In this Nov. 21, 1957, file photo, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, guitar-playing American gospel singer, gives an inpromptu performance in a lounge at London Airport, following her arrival from New York. (Associated Press)
Karen Burke is the co-founder and artistic director of Toronto Mass Choir and an associate professor in York University's music department. (Submitted by Karen Burke)

There's a power and intensity to Black gospel music that has a rich tradition in Canada. Euphoric, rhythmic and spiritual, its roots can be traced all the way back to slavery. 

Some of the oldest Black communities across Canada have their heart and soul rooted in the church, a place of belonging for people who were excluded or outcast. However the rich heritage developed into so much more while keeping the authenticity of the stories alive.

In July 2020, Quebec AM began exploring the history of Black gospel music in Canada and its evolution over the decades.

Here is the three-part series, Struggle and Spirit, from Quebec AM:

Part 1: Spirituals

Quebec AM is exploring the rich and varied history of Black music this summer. Guest host Peter Tardif begins with Karen Burke. She is the co-founder and artistic director of Toronto Mass Choir and an associate professor in York University's music department. They begin with the story of spirituals and how they emerged in the slavery era as a tool and a call for freedom.

Part 2: The origins of Gospel

Quebec AM continues their series looking at the history of Black music and this time they look at Gospel as it evolved in the '40s, '50s and '60s. Quebec AM guest host Peter Tardif speaks with Karen Burke, the co-founder and artistic director of Toronto Mass Choir, about pioneers such as Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Mahalia Jackson and Edwin Hawkins.

Part 3: Modern Gospel

Quebec AM continues their summer series on the history of Black music in conversation with Karen Burke, the co-founder and artistic director of the Toronto Mass Choir. She's also an associate professor in York University's music department. Speaking with guest host Peter Tardif, Burke provides insights into contemporary Gospel, and not just south of the border.

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