Break Every Chain: The Music I Hear on the Radio

Early on in life, when I was only a young teen, I learned a very valuable lesson that would carry into my adulthood: Christian radio stations will not play gospel music. I learned this lesson when I made the decision to swear off all secular music (I have since reneged on that) and promised God that I would only listen to music that glorified His name.

I searched Milwaukee’s radio stations, longing to hear my gospel favorites at the time: Fred Hammond, CeCe Winans, John P. Kee, Hezekiah Walker, Kirk Franklin, Commissioned, Sounds of Blackness, Men of Standard. I soon learned that I wouldn’t find these artists on any other station but V100, a station that typically played R&B, on Sunday morning. And so I settled for the contemporary Christian station and learned to embrace artists like Stacie Orrico, Crystal Lewis, Jars of Clay, Phillips Craig and Dean, and Jaci Velasquez (who is Latina so at least there were some people of color) none who spoke to the experiences of my culture but who I identified with because of my faith. I quickly learned to make clear distinctions between the two seemingly contradictory pieces of my identity.

Fast forward to present day 2014, not much has changed besides the relevancy of some of these artists. I now live in Minnesota, a completely different state, but once again, there is only one station who commits to playing Gospel music for a few hours on Sunday morning (while most folks are at church – I just don’t get that but anyway). All of the Christian radio stations stay away from any gospel sound, and sometimes, most times, black artists outright regardless of their sound. It would seem to me that folks like Mandisa and Israel would have a better chance here, but nope, these stations exclude all things black.

And that’s really too bad. I mean besides the obvious reason of discrimination, these stations and the people that listen to them, are missing out on some of the best musicians that Gospel has to offer. They never get to hear Tamela Mann, Brian Courtney Wilson, William McDowell, Tye Tribbett, or Donnie McClurkin, people who are not only good at their craft but who, in my opinion, are gifted worshippers.

One of my favorite Gospel artists right now is Tasha Cobbs. Oh, this woman can sing. She has the type of voice that makes somebody want to tarry at the altar all day long! Made popular by the song, Break Every Chain, she is just it.

But contemporary Christian radio would never know that. They will never hear her voice, never get to appreciate what she has to offer. But they will allow another artist, who sings the same song, with the same exact words, to play all day long. They don’t want Tasha but they want to reap the benefits of a song that she made famous. So this tells me that it is not about the words, but the face of the person singing them.

And it sucks. Because the message that they keep sending is that the Christian experience doesn’t belong to someone who looks like me. It reinforces the sad reality that black artists, preachers, teachers, pastors, etc, will hardly ever be able to use their voice in the ‘mainstream’ Christian arena in the U.S. without being silenced, marginalized or exploited.

So then, what makes what we are doing any different than what the rest of society is doing? The rest of society outside of the Christian community, has already done a good job silencing black people, exploiting our labor, and minimizing our worth. Hello Cliven Bundy and Donald Sterling! If Christians, including Christian radio, are serious about the message we preach, we just have to be about something different. Otherwise, we will be branded hypocrites.

Too late.


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11 thoughts on “Break Every Chain: The Music I Hear on the Radio

  1. Barbara Fadirepo

    Thank you Ebony for writing the truth that many don’t want to acknowledge, think about, talk about or change! It is unfortunate that we and the greater Christian community miss out on the blessing of hearing such Spirt-filled music rendered by Christian African-American artists on MN Christian radio stations. Another reason I love visiting my children in the MD/DC area!

    Sent from my iPhone


    1. ebonyjohanna

      Thanks Mrs. Fadirepo! You are right, this is a subject that we never talk about. We have just long accepted that this is just the way it is. Thanks for reading 🙂

  2. That is so true that songs sung by black artists are retooled and popularize by white artists and then played on the radio! Music is powerful. I have no choice but to learn music by white artists but white communities can choose not to listen to the marginalized groups, and that is frustrating.

    1. ebonyjohanna

      It is frustrating! And the thing is I really do appreciate what white artists offer. I love Hillsongs, the David Crowder Band, Kari Jobe, and so many others. Its a shame that white audiences who listen to these artists will likely never have the chance to appreciate the faith expression in gospel music of their black brothers and sisters.

  3. MarciaFS

    I agree with this wholeheartedly – the Christian music stations here in the NW are entirely commercial CCM, even during weekend fringe time. Playlists are extraordinarily tight and Black artists are few and far between (yes, Mandisa’s big hits make the cut but they are musically well within the CCM genre, not really gospel). I have spoken to people in the business about this and get mostly quizzical responses, as if they aren’t even aware there are other types of Christian music out there.

    1. ebonyjohanna

      I think they are aware. If you are in the music business, I would have to believe that you know who else is out there even if it isn’t the genre that you are most familiar with. So its not a matter of being aware, but being willing to listen and appreciate other sounds. And to also understand that the Christian experience isn’t summed up in the culture of whitefolks. I mean, it’s a part of it. But the Christian experience encompasses all cultures because Christ died for all!

  4. Chris

    I found your post via a link from Rachel Held Evans. I agree with the point you make regarding most Christian stations not playing Gospel music (although I did hear Kirk’s “I Smile” recently, much to my surprise!). I wish more stations were willing to cross over, because the depth of passion and heart in much of Gospel music is profound, and audience-worthy.
    However, I’m disappointed that one of the main points of your post refers to “Break Every Chain” as Tasha Cobbs’ song. As minimal research on the Web would’ve revealed, “Break Every Chain” was written by Will Reagan and recorded by he and United Pursuit Band way back in 2009 on the album “In the Night Season.” (It’s a great album – you should get it!) the song has since been recorded by Jesus Culture, Cobbs, and The Digital Age. I’m not sure which version your station was playing, and I’m sorry you felt it was soulless. But it certainly is not Cobbs’ song.
    Will Reagan is an amazing worship leader from Knoxville, Tenn. Please give credit where credit is due.

    1. ebonyjohanna

      Hi Chris, thanks for commenting. Yes, I understand that Tasha was not the first person to sing this song. I’ve actually heard other singers perform the song as well, which makes my point even more valid – if an artist singing the exact same lyrics with the same message is ignored by mainstream Christian radio stations simply because their style/ race is different than what is traditionally considered ‘Christian’ this is nothing short of intentional exclusion. I have to be honest though, I have bever heard of Will Reagan so thanks for bringing him to my attention as well.

  5. Brenden

    Like Chris I found your post from RHE. I fully appreciate your frustration with the lack of airplay the radio stations give to your favorite genre. There may be a touch of racism involved, but I see no evidence of it and I feel you are reaching for this conclusion. The fact is that there are several genres of music that get zero radio time. Up until a few years ago there was no radio station where I live (Madison, WI) that played Christian Rock which is my genre of choice. There is a great radio station now run by a local church, but I lose it if I go just a few miles out of the city or just head to the west side. There is no radio station like it in the rest of the state including Milwaukee. What’s keeping other cities from having radio stations like that? Certainly not racism. At the same time christian radio stations can make me feel the same way you do as though worship isn’t meant to be done through the music I listen to. That said this is a ton of great secular music that isn’t played on the radio either. Services like Pandora and Spotify can be great for filling that gap, but still have left me dissatisfied. I think this issue has a lot more to do with simple economics of running a listener supported Christian radio station than with silencing, marginalizing, and exploiting. Of course secular stations are a different beast as they are essentially marketing wings of the recording industry and are all owned by Clear Channel.

    1. ebonyjohanna

      Hello Brenden,
      I think you make some really excellent points. Allow me to address a few of them:
      I agree with you that many genres of Christian music get very little radio time. In addition to gospel, Christian rock and Christian rap also do not make it on to the air waves very often. I grew up in a church that considered both of these genres (rock and rap) too similar to secular music with satanic influence. I listened to so many sermons condemning both because of the beats and sounds that were borrowed from secular artists. But what you have here is a subculture that ‘mainstream’ Christian artists could not appreciate. I can imagine that people who listened to these genres did not feel like their faith expression was welcomed and felt marginalized and unheard, similarly to how I feel. So I think you are right, sort of. Maybe it is not racism, it’s bigger than that. But it is definitely ethnocentrism – whose cultural (subcultural) experience is considered a valid expression of Christianity?
      And you are right, there is a ton of secular music that is not played on the radio or at least on the same radio station. Different secular radio stations cater to different genres. One station will play rock. Another R&B, another country, another everything in between. In the Twin Cities, we have at least three Christian stations but all of them are dedicated to the same genre. There is no segmenting, meaning that there is not at least an hour dedicated to a different genre outside of Contemporary Christian. So this tells me that Christian radio stations are not even doing what secular ones are willing to do.
      That aside, I don’t think what secular stations are doing should be our standard. We as believers should be making our own standard. Yes, the Christian music industry is a business, but many radio stations will tell you that it is also a ministry and I believe them. One of my favorites – Praise FM – is very ministry oriented, and emphasizes prayer, worship, and features preaching in its programming. So if this is ministry, we should be ministering to everyone and cutting across race and culture to bring everyone in.
      Let me tell you – last year I tuned into a popular secular station in the Twin Cities. It was a pop station that played artists like Miley Cyrus, Maroon 5, and Bruno Mars. But they also played John Legend, Rihanna and Usher, which was surprising to me. I felt appreciated that a secular station that was dedicated to pop featured all pop music and included R&B, and did not exclude anyone based on race or culture. If Christian music stations can’t even do this – what are we doing then? What is so different about the Christian experience if we are unwilling to include the voices of everyone in them?

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