Growing up playing music in the Church of God in Christ isn’t the only thing Clinton, Mississippi-bred bluesmen Eddie Cotton Jr. and Jarekus Singleton have in common, but it might be the most significant.
“When other churches were conservative, not letting people bring in drums, not letting people bring in guitars, at the COGIC church the lid has always been off,” says Cotton, whose father was a preacher at Christ Chapel Church of God in Clinton.
The weekly free-form church services were a training camp for both musicians — Singleton’s grandfather led the True Gospel Church of God in Christ in Jackson — challenging them to keep up with all manner of instrumentation and tempos while honing their improvisational chops.
“Anybody could get up and start to singing,” he says. “If people wanted to shout, they shouted. And being a musician, you had to put music behind what they were doing. If you couldn’t catch them, you were accused of not being able to play.”
After church services, though, Cotton turned his attention to the blues in the historic Sarah Dickey neighborhood where he grew up. That was the music he heard on 90.1 FM while riding around in his uncle’s car, from old schoolers like Howlin’ Wolf, B.B. King and Albert King to “southern soul” blues artists Tyrone Davis, Elmore James and Little Milton, who recorded for Jackson’s Malaco Records.
“Blues was played all the time around the neighborhoods, and the music fascinated me,” says Cotton. “It had a certain feel to it that I just loved even as a youngster.”
Cotton understood how the music of his church related to the music on the block. Even though the songs played in the Church of God in Christ were gospel, he says, they still used blues-based chord progressions and scales, which gave him a feel for the blues. At Jackson State University, he expanded his knowledge base and began experimenting with other kinds of music, but blues was always his foundation, and he sought out likeminded artists.
“King Edward was the first that I ever saw, that I could put my hand on, that was playing the blues like I’d never seen it before,” he recalls. “That encouraged me more than anything, because it was like I found a new home.”
Cotton struck up a friendship with Edward and began sitting in with him on guitar at live performances. “Hearing blues on a radio is one thing,” he says, “but to see somebody play it live is another. I’ve heard guitar players all my life, but they didn’t play with the mastery of lead that I saw King Edward play with. And he was doing it for a living.”
Despite being born half a generation apart, the lives of 50-year-old Cotton and 35-year-old Singleton intertwined through church, music and familial bonds.
As leaders of neighboring churches of the same faith, Eddie Cotton Sr. and Jimmy Lee Shearry, Singleton’s grandfather, preached and led revivals together. That’s how Honey Emmett Shearry, Jimmy’s brother, came to teach Cotton how to play guitar. Later, as Cotton’s popularity grew, he paid that mentorship forward by teaching Singleton’s uncle, Tony Shearry, who then opened his world to the blues.
“We all looked up to Eddie coming up,” says Singleton, who remembers seeing Cotton perform at the Alamo in Jackson while in high school. His uncle Tony would bring him to hear music at the old 930 Blue Café on North Congress Street, too, even though he was underage. “I couldn’t get in, but I’d sit outside and listen to the bands.”
Cotton and Singleton share an independent streak, and not just in their commitment to the blues. Both artists put in the work to have it their way, building their audiences and running their own businesses while continually investing back into it and becoming savvy marketers.
Although they’ve both recorded for prominent record labels, they currently maintain control over their own recording and performing careers, while others choose to work within the traditional network of booking agents, managers and publicists. Their method is becoming more common in the age of streaming, where consumers listen to music through platforms like Spotify and Apple Music instead of owning physical CDs distributed by a label.
“I wanted to do it a certain way,” Cotton explains. “I wanted to make a certain amount [of money].
And you’ve got these people, the movers and the shakers so they think, and if you don’t do it they way, they try to make it hard on you. So, I always was, ‘If you can’t get in the niche, you have to create your own.’”
As Cotton and Singleton have established themselves as popular blues musicians on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean through touring clubs and the European and U.S. festival circuit, their friendship and mutual respect endures.
“I go to his house every now and then,” Singleton says. “He’ll just grab a guitar, he’ll tell me to pick one up. He’s a phenomenal musician. He plays organ, drums — and he might can play more instruments than that.”
The artists were scheduled to perform together at the city of Clinton’s 31st July 4th Family Fireworks Extravaganza until the continued spread of COVID-19 led the city to cancel the event. Instead, Singleton has been working on his fourth album at Brudog Studios in Pelahatchie.
“The pandemic is holding us up for sure, as far as playing live,” Singleton says. But considering more recent events, he has heavier things on his mind these days.
“This racial issue we really have to address, and it’s getting out of hand. I’m just thinking about how we have to speak to this racism and this police brutality, and this unwarranted behavior toward blacks and other minorities,” he says.
The killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery at the hands of policemen or private citizens acting in that capacity this spring have made those issues a global conversation once again.
“A policeman should be a friend of the people,” says Cotton. “He should be someone who I can trust to uphold the law. If you check history, that kind of authority is always being abused. What I think is going on now is with social media, you can’t get away with stuff you used to get away with.”
As statues and symbols honoring the Confederacy began to come down around the United States, Mississippi legislators voted to remove the state flag, which flew for 126 years with the Confederate battle emblem in the upper left corner. Gov. Tate Reeves signed the legislation to retire the flag on June 30.
“[The flag] shouldn’t even be an issue,” Cotton says. “I hear people talk about their heritage. I can understand that, but on my side, being an African American, it didn’t work for me. I don’t need to be reminded that this is what it’s about — white supremacy. That part I don’t agree with. That’s what it means.”
The virtual choir of Grace Baptist Church performs ‘I Am Thine,’ which was included in the April 19, 2020, online service from the Mount Vernon, New York, church. Video screengrab
Top officials of seven black Christian denominations have joined civil rights leaders in calling for people to stay home until it is safe in states whose governors are lifting shelter-in-place orders.
“We regard this pandemic as a grave threat to the health and life of our people, and as a threat to the integrity and vitality of the communities we are privileged to serve,” they wrote in a statement released Friday (April 24). “For these reasons, we encourage all Black churches and businesses to remain closed during this critical period.”
The signatories include leaders of the African Methodist Episcopal Church; African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church; Christian Methodist Episcopal Church; Church of God in Christ; National Baptist Convention of America, International, Inc.; National Baptist Convention, U.S.A. Inc.; and Progressive National Baptist Convention Inc.
Some of those denominations have tallied or been the subject of reports of COVID-19 deaths among their clergy and members.
“The denominations and independent churches represented in this statement, which comprise a combined membership of more than 25 million people and more than 30,000 congregations, intend to remain closed and to continue to worship virtually, with the same dedication and love that we brought to the church,” they added.
The denominational officials and faith leaders, including the Rev. W. Franklyn Richardson of the Conference of National Black Churches and the Rev. Al Sharpton of the National Action Network, joined presidents of the NAACP, the National Urban League and other groups as signatories.
They noted that an April 21 report by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention stated that 20% of the COVID-19 deaths in the United States were of African Americans. In comparison, blacks constitute 13% of the U.S. population.
“Across the country, we see the same disproportionate impact,” they said. “Our families need us. Our communities need us. We must continue to telework wherever possible, and to tele-worship for however long it is necessary to do so.”
The letter comes in the same week the conservative law firm Liberty Counsel has organized a “ReOpen Church Sunday” initiative, encouraging clergy to begin in-person worship again on the weekend of May 3. That Sunday falls in the same week as the annual observance of the National Day of Prayer.
According to The Hill, some governors have never issued stay-at-home orders, others’ mandates are expiring within days, and still, others stated no end date.
Likewise, states have varied widely in their decision to have or not have religious exemptions in their orders about staying at home.
The black church officials and civil rights advocates said they understand some people may believe they need to be involved in public life. The leaders urged those who do to follow precautions about physical distancing and wearing masks.
“We do not take it lightly to encourage members of our communities to defy the orders of state governors,” they added. “But we are compelled by our faith, by our obligation as servants of God, and by our commitment as civil rights leaders, to speak life into our communities. Our sacred duty is to support and advance the life and health of Black people, families, and communities in our country.”
Dr. Estrelda Y. Alexander grew up in the Pentecostal movement, but didn’t know much about the black roots of that movement until she was a seminary student. In her groundbreaking new book, Black Fire: 100 Years of African American Pentecostalism, the Regent University visiting professor traces those roots back to the Azusa Street Revival and beyond. Alexander was so influenced by what she learned that she’s spearheading the launch of William Seymour College in Washington, D.C., to continue the progressive Pentecostal legacy of one of the movement’s most important founders. Our interview with Alexander has been edited for length and clarity.
URBAN FAITH: I was introduced to Rev. William Seymour through your book. What was his significance in Pentecostal history and why was it ignored for so long?
ESTRELDA Y. ALEXANDER: I grew up Pentecostal but don’t remember hearing about Seymour until I went to seminary. In my church history class, as they began to talk about the history of Pentecostalism, they mentioned this person who led this major revival, and I’m sitting in class going, “I’ve never heard of him.” I would say part of it was the broad definition of Pentecostalism, which is this emphasis on speaking in tongues, and that wasn’t Seymour’s emphasis. So, even though he’s at the forefront of this revival, he’s out of step with a lot of the people who are around him. Then again, he’s black in a culture that was racist. For him to be the leader would have been problematic, and so he gets overshadowed. I think his demeanor was rather humble, so he gets overshadowed by a lot of more forceful personalities. He doesn’t try to make a name for himself and so no name is made for him. He gets shuffled off to the back of the story for 70 years, then there’s this push to reclaim him with the Civil Rights Movement. As African American scholars start to write, he’s part of the uncovering of the story of early black history in the country.
What was his role specifically in the Azusa Street Revival?
He was the pastor of the church where the revival was held, so these were his people and he stood at the forefront of that congregation. The revival unfolds under his leadership.
The revival initially began with breaking barriers of race, class, and gender, but quickly reverted to societal norms. Why?
They began as this multi-racial congregation, though I think it still was largely black. Certainly there were people there of every race and from all over the world, and women had prominent roles. That was unheard of in the early twentieth century. They were derided not only for their racial mixing, but also for the fact that women did play prominent roles. But within 10 years, much of that had been erased. As the denominations started to form, which they did within 10 years of the revival, they started to form along racial lines. Sociologist Max Weber talks about the routinizing of charisma, that all new religious movements start with this freedom and openness to new ways of being, but as movements crystallize, they begin to form the customary patterns of other religious movements. You see that happen over and over again. That’s not just Azusa Street; that’s a process that is pretty well documented.
Is there still more racial integration in Pentecostal churches than in the wider of body of churches?
There has been an attempt to recapture the racial openness with certain movements. There’s what we call the Memphis Miracle, an episode where the divided denominations came together and consciously made an effort to tear down some of those barriers. It’s been more or less successful. There’s still quite a bit of division. It’s not on paper. On paper, there’s this idea that we’ve all come together, but the practicality of it doesn’t always get worked out.
Some of the division was about doctrine, in particular in regard to the nature of the Trinity. Was that interconnected with the racial issues, or are those two separate things?
They’re not interconnected. There are certainly some racial overtones in the discussion, but that doctrine gets permeated throughout black and white Pentecostal bodies. One of the interesting things, though, is that one of the longest-running experiments in racial unity was within the Oneness movement, which reformulated the doctrine of the Godhead. The Pentecostal Assemblies of the World has tried very hard to remain inter-racial, and adopted specific steps making sure that when there was elections that the leadership reflected both races. If, for instance, the top person elected was white, then the second person in place would be black. It would go back and forth. It’s now predominantly a black denomination, though.
Does Pentecostal theology make it more hospitable to alternative views of the Trinity?
Oh no. In Pentecostalism there is a major divide over the nature of the Godhead, and so the break over that issue wasn’t hospitable. I was a member of a Oneness denomination for a while, but I’m a theologian, so I’ve come to a more nuanced understanding of the Godhead. But in conversations with others, the language that gets used when they talk about each other’s camps is very strong. They are quick to call each other heretics. Among scholars, we tend to be more accepting of other ways of seeing things, but within the local churches, especially among pastors, that is a real intense issue.
In the book, you say Rev. T.D. Jakes views the Godhead as “manifestations” of three personalities and that he successfully straddles theological fences. How has he been able to do that?
For a lot of the people in the pews, what they see is Jakes’ success, so they don’t even pay attention to or understand that there is a difference. You’ll see people who, if they understood what Jakes was saying, they would not accept it. I’m not saying what Jakes is saying is wrong. I think the Godhead is a mystery and anybody that says they can explain it is not telling the truth.
Anyone who knows what the initials KKK and COGIC stand for understands that there’s no way those two entities should have anything in common. But according to Charisma magazine, a former imperial wizard of the Ku Klux Klan is now an ordained minister in the Church of God in Christ, one of the nation’s largest African American denominations.