Why Is Every Black Church Pastor Also Good At Singing? A Black History Month Mystery


Recently, the Wife Person and I have started attending a new church. Actually, "started attending" is a misnomer. We've been there exactly twice — once because of an invitation from friends, and once a couple of weeks after that — which is exactly twice more than we've been to our home church in the last six months. Our attendance there started lagging because we moved six months ago, and it's just too far away now. And every Sunday we were finding more excuses not to go. (I think one week I convinced her the car had engine gout.)


Anyway, this new church is a nice church. With both a younger congregation and a younger pastor than our home church. The last time we attended, however, he had some family obligation he had to attend, so a guest pastor pastored. And when this guest pastor was about to begin his sermon, he took a dramatic pause, and then he started to sing. Acapella. The choir joined him after maybe 15 seconds, and then the rest of the congregation did. This lasted for maybe a minute and a half. And then he (finally) began the sermon.

Now, if you've been to a Black Baptist church before, you know this is not that uncommon. Pastors will sometimes lead the choir in song. Sometimes they'll begin their sermons with songs. Sometimes they'll break out in song while preaching. It's an accepted and even anticipated part of the Black church experience; one of the many factors contributing to the rhythm of the church's collective zeitgeist. Again, as a person who's been in dozens of different churches and has seen dozens of pastors pastor, this happening is not uncommon.

But what is uncommon, statistically at least, is that every single Black church pastor I've heard sing — which is every single Black pastor I've heard preach — can sing. That guest pastor could have auditioned for American Idol. As could that church's regular pastor. As could the pastor at my home church. And all the guest pastors they've had. Are they all great singers? No. They can't all saaang sing. It's not like there's a conglomeration of preaching-ass Peabo Brysons in Pittsburgh. But they all sing well enough to be, like, the fifth member in a six member band. Basically, they can all be Otis. Or Latavia Roberson.

And although my evidence is 100% anecdotal, completely limited to the greater Pittsburgh area, and supported by absolutely no research of any kind, I'm led to believe every Black church pastor in the country is also good at singing. Which, again, makes no statistical sense. Because only (an estimated) 17% of the population can sing. And only (an estimated) 0.00017% of the population happens to be pastors at Black churches. Which is like, I don't know, all the taco truck owners in the country also being unusually great at Connect Four.

The only question left is why. Why does every Black church pastor know how to sing? Why is there a 100% chance that if you're in a Black church and the pastor decides to lead the singing of a song, he'll have a voice that'll make you think "This dude can definitely do some commercial jingles for a furniture company or something"?

I don't have any answers. But I have some theories.

1. Knowing how to sing is an unspoken but concrete requirement of pastoring

This is my favorite theory. It's also the least likely theory. Which makes it my favorite. Because it's just more fun to imagine some clandestine council of hooded and solemn-faced voice judges deciding whether to allow prospective pastors to enter seminary school.


2. Pastors spend so much time in church — and so much time singing church songs around other people who can actually sing — that they eventually learn how to carry a note by osmosis

This is one of the least fun theories. Because it makes the most sense. And because doesn't involve a bunch of Black Simon Cowells dressed like Mace Windu. I really, really, really want the clandestine council thing to be true.


3. Pastors speak in front of large crowds for a living. People who speak in front of large crowds for a living often take measures to take care of their voices. Vocal coaches, massage treatments, teas with lemons and couscous and shit in them, etc. Perhaps this also helps with their singing voices.

Another unfun theory. Let's just move on.

4. I'm terrible at singing. So terrible at it that I grant anyone who is not a vocal train wreck with "Oh, he/she can sing" status. Basically, for me "he can sing" just means "his singing isn't abject assjuice."


This, unfortunately, is also a likely theory. When I sing, I sound like a dog barking at a dog barking on a fire engine. And not an American fire engine, but one of those European fire engines from the Bourne movies.  And maybe I'm so bad that I assume anyone who is not terrible can actually sing. When, in reality, they're just "not terrible."

(Interestingly enough, a recurring theme through my adult life has been people — teachers, relatives, and even the occasional cashier — asking if I can sing, and recruiting me to their church choirs. Because apparently my voice makes people assume I can. And I always tell them "no" with a smile. But I'm crying on the inside.)

Damon Young is the editor-in-chief of VSB, a contributing opinion writer for The New York Times, and the author of What Doesn't Kill You Makes You Blacker (Ecco/HarperCollins)


You Know I'm Sawcy

Well, the good thing about having a voice that makes people assume you can sing is, you'd probably be good for voice over work, if you ever wanted to try. And that's good money, plus kinda swaggy. No one ever hears me and goes, "Oh yeah, that nasaly, deep-voiced girl can sing," but I can. I'm crying on the inside (in harmony) with you.