The publication of Flaming?: The Peculiar Theopolitics of Fire and Desire in Black Male Gospel Performance instigates a new level of scholarly engagement in a complicated web of intersecting spaces with exemplary methodology, superb clarity, and a rare ethic that is more pastoral than most scholars can achieve. A self-described “church girl,” Alisha Lola Jones offers a courageous, informative and captivating intervention “into the crisis of black male participation by examining the striking aural-visual performances of gender expression and sexuality as the Spirit moves upon vocalists’ bodies” (8). Grounded in her unique training as a musician, ethnomusicologist and ordained minister and guided by her expansive knowledge of Gospel music and Black popular culture, Jones’s scholarly offering is complicated and perhaps even disruptive. Yet the beauty of the work is the hope that it serves as a catalyst for others to join the conversation. In many ways she asks and definitively answers the question: can Gospel singing be understood as worshipful, erotic, and sensual activity for both performers and listeners, in which fire and desire are ignited through the process of encountering God? Inspired by the posthumous “outing” of Washington, D.C., legend Eric Torrain and stirred by the public ministry/personal life of Rev. Anthony C. Williams II, a.k.a. Tonéx, a.k.a. B.Slade, Jones’s monograph is a “must read” not just for scholars of Gospel music and popular music studies, but also for practitioners and fans alike. Beyond Torrain and B.Slade, we meet phenomenal Black countertenors, a pole-dancing Jungle Cat, grimy Gospel Go Go and so much more. Jones’s treatment of deliverance narratives in general, and her specific attention the narratives of Rev. Daryl Coley and Rev. Donnie McClurkin are intriguing, informative, and jaw-dropping.
Jones is trilingual in God-talk, Black Church speak and academic lingo. Her ability to engage the Black Church and the academy simultaneously as an insider with enough arms-length to be objective and honest avails an ethnographic approach that is multidimensional, cross-disciplinary, and precise. Organized with a clear homage to liturgical order, Flaming? takes on the hypocrisy of the Black Church towards effeminate Black men whose gifts are appreciated while their embodiment is disrespected by tropes, memes and homoantagonistic sermons and statements. Jones’s study is approached with wisdom, grace, integrity, and savvy. Her textual analysis leverages Biblical exegesis. Her musicological analysis expands into commentary on homomusicoenchantment, homomusicoenrapture, homosonoenchantment and homosonoenrapture, all terms I was unfamiliar with before reading Flaming?.
Measured at every potential landmine, Jones takes great care to define every term to make sure there are no implicit distractions or unintended biases extracted from her critical engagement. The nine-page glossary at the back of the book is indicative of this exceptional commitment to her scholarship. Her ocular acuteness to detail offers the reader a firm foundation, with guard rails, in order to engage the peculiar nuances of the subject matter. Her fluid and captivating writing is addictive. Jones asks and answers the questions that most folks want to know about, and she goes into great detail, with receipts. Her prowess in navigating the fear-soaked waters of intersectional spaces is worth the read alone as this monograph will serve as a methodological case study on exemplary ethnographic research.
Jones’s explication on Muscular Christianity and heteropatriarchy had me marking the margins of my book with my own characteristic Black Baptist shorthand, “T3&STD” (as in: “Tell the truth and shame the devil”). She leaves no stone unturned in revealing her challenges in interrogating her own Pentecostal formation and the biases, assumptions, and curiosities embedded within the faith communities that nurtured and discipled her. This level of vulnerability and transparency is inspiring and avails an intimate relationship of trust with both the fascinating people we meet throughout the book and her readers.
The affectionate grace shown to each of her subjects speaks as highly of her integrity as a researcher as it does about her compassionate care as a scholar, a forgotten posture in contemporary conversations around these “peculiar” topics. This work takes on the perceptions of “high singing” men and how they are received both within Black Church and beyond in Black popular culture. In many ways this text opens up so much that has remained unspoken and under-analyzed and simultaneously presents an interesting challenge to other scholars courageous enough to either clap back or lean in. Jones’s work awakens a new cultural theoretical platform that engages the “theopolitics of knowledge” and expands beyond to engage masculinity studies, queer studies, ethical studies and a host of other cross-disciplinary combinations not previously seen with such density in Gospel music studies and by extension, popular music studies.
Without contextual background on the Rick James and Teena Marie reference in the title, one may perceive a sensationalist approach towards click bait, but the underlying narratives that flow throughout the book demonstrate the sheer brilliance of the title. Flaming? is yet another example of what well-resourced research looks like in print. Kudos to the various institutions, national centers, and fellowships who supported this scholar and her work.