Developing Cultural Competence Through Cultural Consciousness (Part 1)

by Nia Imani Williams, Music Therapy Intern

As I progressed throughout my music therapy study at Sam Houston State University prior to the start of my internship here at Heart and Harmony, I was driven to examine my own assumptions within my culture. One assumption that I did not realize I held involved generational preferences of African-American church music – specifically, traditional hymns versus modern gospel. For clarity, traditional hymns are also sometimes referred to as ‘black gospel hymns’ and ‘old school gospel.’

Here are some examples of traditional black hymns and modern gospel:

Traditional Hymns:
https://youtube.com/playlist?list=PLJkEGWusTVHQj-dE1hajoGnx4rneGdVJE 

Modern Gospel:
https://youtube.com/playlist?list=PLJkEGWusTVHST_K8x2Uctr8S6ml12ZgrI 

I had always assumed preferences between these distinct styles of black church music to be polarized based on age. In my limited view, older generations preferred the more traditional, call-and-response hymns while the younger generations preferred the upbeat, get-you-on-your-feet modern gospel. 

So, I decided to actively challenge my assumptions and uncover different generations’ opinions, thoughts, and feelings toward both traditional hymns and modern gospel within the black church.

But why is this important? / Relationship to music therapy 

Developing cultural competence in a world that is ever-diversifying is one of the best things we can do as people and a society. This is even more of a crucial skill within our role as music therapists. As stated in a journal article by Kim and Whitehead-Pleaux (2015),

Music therapists must: commit themselves to learning about the [client’s] various cultural needs and musical preferences; examine their own personal cultural values [emphasis added] and how they may be in conflict with those of the [client]; and develop authentic skills in multicultural empathy. (p. 55)

Committing to constant cultural education and being culturally-informed is a requirement for us to effectively impact our clients and give them the highest quality of care. This is why I decided to truly examine my assumption of generational church music preferences. Having the best therapeutic relationship with future clients required that I assess my own culture and beliefs as a necessary step toward cultural competence.

Awareness through Self-Assessment

One of the primary steps toward cultural competence is cultivating consciousness (awareness) through self-assessment. 

By critically examining our personal history, beliefs, values, assumptions, and biases, we are able to “develop the skills necessary to effectively interact and engage with individuals whose cultural background is different than our own” (de Guzman et al., 2016). 

Unpacking Assumptions 

Through a small-scale, academic research project for a Survey of World Music Cultures class, I interviewed five African-American individuals of different denominational backgrounds and four different generations. Of these participants, two were from the Silent Generation, one from Generation X, one Millennial, and one from Generation Z – unfortunately, no Baby Boomers elected to be interviewed for this project. The goal of this project was to educate myself and gain a more accurate understanding of others’ thoughts. Additionally, I was curious to get their opinions on the shift from hymns to modern gospel in the church.

The Interviews

For each interview, I asked the following questions: 

  • What is your denominational background?
  • What type of music have you been exposed to in church?
  • Have you ever heard or sung traitional hymns in your church?
  • What element of church music gets your attetion? (i.e. lyrics, instrumentation, rhythm, etc).
  • What is your opinion/feeling toward traditional hymns? Toward modernized gospel?

Note: Names of all individuals have been changed to maintain confidentiality.

Stay tuned for Part 2 where I will dive into the first two interviews.

Nia Imani Williams

Music Therapy Intern