“harlem is…the GOSPEL tradition,” a new documentary from Oscar-nominated filmmaker Jamal Joseph, is the latest component that was unveiled in the award-winning Community Works series “harlem is….which chronicles Harlem’s evolution over the past 100-plus years.
The half-hour film, which explores the history of the Harlem gospel tradition and its current forms of expression, is the centerpiece of the ongoing Community Works public art exhibition, “harlem is…the GOSPEL tradition.” The overall exhibit, which runs through September, focuses on the central role of four Harlem churches – Abyssinian Baptist Church, Mother AME Zion Church, Mt. Olivet Baptist Church and St. Phillips Episcopal Church — and the social involvement and musical traditions that put them at the forefront of the African-American migration from Downtown to Harlem.
The Dwyer Cultural Center is located at 258 Saint Nicholas Ave. For more information, call (212) 222-3060 or visit the website at www.dwyercc.org.
Morningsider caught up with Grace Aneiza Ali, The Dwyer Cultural Center’s Associate Director of Programs, to talk about the documentary, the exhibit and gospel.
MORNINGSIDER: Over time, Harlem has had a lot of different soundtracks behind it. Where do you think gospel fits in?
GRACE ANEIZA ALI: Clearly this community has been one rooted in social activism and social change. Nobody will argue with that. And I think gospel music has been the soundtrack for that. Harlem is a community that has some important challenges socio-economically. We all know that. And the churches have really played a prominent role in meeting the needs of the community. Gospel music, being this sort of quintessential part of the church, has inspired and motivated and soothed and comforted people in this community. So I think when the film says, and the exhibition says, “Harlem is…the GOSPEL tradition,” we’re not just talking about gospel the music tradition. We’re also honoring the church and the important role that the church has played in this community.
MORNINGSIDER: Is gospel the true musical soul of Harlem?
GRACE ANEIZA ALI: I think a lot of people will agree with that.
MORNINGSIDER: How powerful an influence or important a role do you think gospel music plays in Harlem today as opposed to the past?
GRACE ANEIZA ALI: If we look at the global reach of the music, it’s really been fascinating. On Sunday morning and even on weekday nights you have masses of people from all over the world coming to Harlem specifically for the gospel music. That’s notable in terms of what gospel music means to Harlem and what Harlem means to gospel music. I think it’s always been powerful, but what we’re seeing now that’s different is other artists sampling or marrying gospel with hip-hop or jazz. That’s the shift we’re seeing. But it’s always been pretty powerful.
MORNINGSIDER: What do you think people will take away after watching this film?
GRACE ANEIZA ALI: What I would hope for the film — and the exhibition also – is pride in this community and how multi-dimensional Harlem is and that its gospel tradition is art.
MORNINGSIDER: What kind of response have you gotten?
GRACE ANEIZA ALI: We sent out invitations to the film’s premiere (on March 22) and in less than 24 hours we had more than 300 people RSVP. That immediate response is a real testament to how people embrace the tradition of gospel and how appreciative they are that a cultural center is honoring that tradition. We’re especially proud to say that this is a gift to Harlem. Everything that we touch and everything we do is in that spirit.