Photo by Lenworth McIntosh/ @shutterbugs87. Photo illustration by Kaushik Kalidindi for Okayplayer.
Hymns To Hip-Hop: How Gospel Music Influences Modern Music
We sat down with C.S. Armstrong to discuss how his experience with gospel music shaped his approach to hip-hop and all aspects of his creativity.
Looking back at the painful and difficult history of being Black in America, religion has always been an important cultural and spiritual backbone — constantly sustaining and replenishing the collective soul of the Black community. Similarly, gospel songs have played a vital role, serving as the accompanying theme music for the ever-evolving Black experience.
Our enslaved ancestors used hymns and soulful spirituals to preserve their hopes and dreams for freedom and equality. Following emancipation, gospel music became a pillar of the Black church and eventually lent its components to the development of other genres. Jazz, rock and roll, and R&B have all flourished as a result of various elements borrowed from gospel.
In recent years, artists have paid homage to their religious roots in mainstream music, by implementing key elements of gospel into their sound. Artists like Jay-Z, Chance the Rapper, and Kanye West have all put out songs that showcase their church roots and appreciation for gospel music as a whole. For many fans, these songs create an instant connection with the artist because of shared religious experiences, often dating back to deeply-textured childhood memories. To further explore this complex dynamic between traditional gospel sounds and contemporary artists, we sat down with the talented vocalist, C.S. Armstrong. His soulful music is filled with distinct gospel influences from his amazing life journey.
A proud Houston native, Armstrong prides himself on showcasing his authenticity through his music. His lyrics are thought-provoking and reflective, pairing perfectly with his gospel-inspired melodies and chords.
The early years in gospel
Those familiar with gospel music are aware of its unique flows and sonic movements. Complex chord progressions and unmistakable dirging organs form the building blocks of many Black spiritual songs and hymns. For Armstrong, growing up in church during his formative years had a huge impact on his relationship with God and his initial foray into music. As the grandson of a pastor, Armstrong was always in church and learned to play the piano and organ from one of the members. When asked about the impact of hearing these chords on his creative process, Armstrong said, “Those chords resonate with me the most because as soon as I hear them I think ‘Oh man, that reminds me of church.’” Additionally, because of his domestic ties to the church, Armstrong was often given the chance to preach, mainly receiving guidance for his sermons from his grandmother.
“I started preaching when I was ten years old," he said. "So my perspective on church is a very serious one because when kids were just going to bible study and Sunday school, I was in church from Sunday to Sunday.” His grandmother also took a more structured, educational approach to his teachings, and he instills those same ideals into his music. “That work ethic I learned every week studying cross-references, concordances, Hebrew meanings, and Egyptian meanings made me take a very detailed approach to my music,” he shares. These unique experiences allowed him to create music that challenges the boundaries of music and his own creativity.
Complex chords and notes aside, the root of gospel music lies within vulnerability. Even the oldest traditional hymns have lyrics exploring themes of pain, suffering, and hopelessness. While many of us are well aware of the harsh living conditions of the period these lyrics were written, we can easily lose their true meaning if we’re not careful. Armstrong uses his music to display his own vulnerability, and he also incorporates elements of blues, and jazz to broaden his reach. Three of his songs in particular, “Ride On,” “GODDIDDAT,” and “Never Leave God Behind,” feature lyrics that showcase his insecurities in a form of reflection and thankfulness.
Ride On - C.S. Armstrongwww.youtube.com
C.S. Armstrong - GODDIDDAT (Official Music Video)www.youtube.com
NEVER LEAVE GOD BEHINDwww.youtube.com
When asked about the turning point that led him to make his music more personal, Armstrong gives a lot of the credit to his family. Before publicly going by C.S. Armstrong, he went by the stage name, Rocky Evans. However, the passing of his grandmother in 2014 led him to come to terms with his grief in a way that he channeled into his image. “When my great-grandmother passed, I looked at my birth certificate and realized that I can't be anybody but me. If there's one thing that I want to keep in my music, it’s my last name”.
Armstrong also shared his past gang affiliation, and how that experience served as a catalyst for his life progressing in the way that it did. “I was a crip when I was 17 and that's what “GODDIDDAT” is about. I went to the army when I was 18, that next year after being jumped in. God just took me on a whirlwind of different things,” Armstrong notes. When listening to his lyrics, it’s impossible to miss his sincerity and reverence for his upbringing and his experiences, good or bad. Armstrong’s music is a reflection of him and his life story, and he isn’t afraid to tell it.
Channeling his influences
Every noteworthy artist has musical influences, and C.S. Armstrong has a wide array of people who inspire him and his music. “Ornette Colemen, Kenny Garrett, Max Roach, and Duke Ellington are great, but Charlie Bird is really my favorite. I call him Bird like I knew him, but Charlie Parker is my ultimate, that’s the one. For the women, Billie Holliday, Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan. Man, there’s so many that I feel like I don’t know everybody. I’m still learning and discovering people continually within that genre. The Clark Sisters and Aretha Franklin are also big influences of mine in gospel. Their music is so powerful to me.”
Armstrong also drew inspiration from several preachers and acknowledged names like C.L. Franklin, Noel Jones, Jasper Williams, and a host of other southern preachers.
The next chapter
Gospel music as we know it today is the product of hundreds of years of hardship and turmoil that have been channeled into timeless music. It’s heartening to see that Armstrong and other contemporary Black musicians are continuing the tradition and using this powerful medium to tell their own personal and complicated stories. With Armstrong specifically, he has deftly used elements of gospel music as a powerful canvas to share his deepest emotions and express his endearing gratitude for love and family.
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