As the Chicago Humanities Festival made its way to the University of Illinois at Chicago ( UIC ), Professor Johari Jabir took on the task of telling the legacy of the Rev. James Cleveland in a multi-dimensional talkexploring themes of music, religion, class, masculinity and eroticism in which gospel music emerged. Jabir's talk, "Rev. James Cleveland's Peace Be Still: The Paradox of Peace in the Modern Civil Rights Era," in a sense, exposed Cleveland and gospel music through an often ignored narrative.
The late Cleveland was known as the king of gospel and the primary force behind the creation of modern gospel sound. As a highly influential figure in the genre, many aspects of Cleveland's life often go ignoredincluding his death from "congestive heart failure. But in a context where gospel music had lost so many individuals to HIV/AIDS, Cleveland's death became the symbolic marker of what was wrong with gospel music," Jabir added.
Born and raised on the South Side of Chicago, Cleveland was born into what Jabir termed a "working-class consciousness" that gives Cleveland a particular perspective of music that is situated in a modern civil-rights era.
Cleveland learned from and grew out of popular women gospel artists who pioneered the genre. Jabir said that since women set the stage for gospel, the tone for sexuality that is set by this omnipresent femininity comes into question.
"It is the thing that haunts gospel music, this question of sexuality and masculinity" said Jabir.
But Cleveland's approach to gospel music, according to Jabir, is a "product of unapologetic determination toward freedom." Gospel politics and are intertwined with the politics of the civil rights era, into one shared consciousness.
"Desire and sensuality is a fluid phenomenon. It is not reducible to identity" explained Jabir.
To exemplify this ideology and behavior, Jabir told the story of broadcast hoppers who would go travel between the West and South sides of Chicago. Jabir explained that "these broadcast hoppers may start at one of the broadcast, then go to Glady's restaurant to eat, then travel to Rev. Cobb's for another broadcast, and then maybe after go to the Tiger Louge or the Kit Kat Club. Religiosity, life, and eroticism are continuous versus secular in this example. "
Jabir described this community as a "fluid erotic community. ... They simply live, and Cleveland inhabited this."
Jabir warned against idolizing Cleveland as a gay historical figure, now, because it inherently goes against the lifestyle Cleveland led. While he did not hide his sexuality, he also did not claim it and pronounce it. He also rejected denouncing the lives and experiences of others; rather, "anyone was a someone," explained Jabir, in Cleveland's world.
"We will not be able to retrieve Cleveland as the subject to beat up on, nor can he become the heroic gay," Jabir declared. "[He] is neither of those. [He] is a very fluid erotic life that can call into question our own commitments to certain forms of identity."
Cut short before he could take home his intention with the talk, Jabir asked the audience, "What can we do with that?," referring to those questions Cleveland raised ( and continues to raise ) about identity politics. He wished to go on to "radically change the audience's perception" of Cleveland and his influence on the genre, Jabir expressed later.
Jabir further discusses these themes of music, religion, and masculinity in his book One More Valiant Soldier, which focuses on the first Black regiment in the Civil Warthe first South Carolina volunteers.