"We about to get a little black history lesson in here," laughs Takenya Freeney Battle in our conversation on Zeitgeist Radio after I admitted I hadn't heard of whooping.
A.k.a Morgan Gets Exposed As Being Very White.
Ok, I wasn't completely hopeless. As she explained what whooping is I realized I had absolutely encountered it in media, and it influences most (if not all) of the Black musical styles that I know and love. The term may have been new to me, but the form is in the fabric of American culture.
Takenya is a wildly talented musician who does many things NOT related to this post. Her main program is teaching people to find their best voice and "Slay the Mic" in both public speaking as well as daily life. You should absolutely check out her programs and follow her on Instagram.
She is also the daughter of a preacher in the Black Baptist Church. "The whole youth choir was nothing but me and my cousins," she says. Was that because it was a small church or you've got a lot of cousins, I ask. "Yes and yes. Yes and yes!"
In the Black Baptist Church generally, singing plays an integral role in the spiritual and social experience. However, whooping (also spelled hooping) is a specific form of preaching that my white ass hadn't heard of.
A linguistic side note for fellow white asses, don't say "woop" say "hoop." In fact, I'm going to switch the spelling now to make sure you're learning it right. I'll keep the "ing" but to say it right is really "hoopin." If you want to look up videos etc (please do!), I found a lot more information with the spelling "whooping."
Hooping is an improvisational and expressive form of worship that combines rhythmic and melodic repetition with powerful vocals. Hooping is at the core of the processes that create gospel music and even blues and jazz.
It emerged as a powerful communication of a spiritual message between the preacher and the congregation. Its defining characteristic is the "call and response" tradition so engrained in African American history. "These are things that have survived the transatlantic slave trade," says Takenya. "These things are still relevant today."
As Takenya explains, "there's a sound, then a pause, but it's rhythmic." She demonstrates on the fly for me:
I'm going way up yonder [pause]
I'm gonna find my way [pause]
Cause I'm gonna go this way [pause]
So I don't have to do anything else [pause]
In the pause is the response from the congregation, typically cries of agreement ("yeah!").
The piano (or organ) plays a pivotal role here also. During the pause, the pianist plays a big chord called a preaching chord. "But you have to make sure you're not playing over them speaking, you have to play in the pause, in the key that they are hooping in," says Takenya. In theory the piano provides the rhythmic foundation and harmonic structure for the preacher, although Takenya laughs, "if it's my daddy you're gonna be chasing him, because he'd be all over the place!"
When she was 15 years old, Takenya was "volunTOLD" to be the new pianist for the church. The fact that she'd only had 3 years of piano lessons was irrelevant; she was the piano player now.
"There was no open-your-hymnal-to-number-435-and-begin type action in the church that I grew up in, ok. It was 'They sing it, you better get it before they get to the chorus. You better find us. We're just going to start singing.'"
"And it was nothing but call and response and trying to hurry up and catch them before they threw me off."
"My grandmother, I would catch her saying, 'Thank you, Lord, thank you!' Because I'm doing it, I'm hitting the right notes at the right time. Or I can hear her saying, 'Help her Lord!'" We can guess what's happening there.
Some people don't feel like they've experienced preaching unless there's been hooping. They want the emotional tie-in, the freedom of movement, the power behind the message that only music can bring.
Others, though, feel turned off by hooping and feel the display is more a performance by the preacher than worship of God. Some feel hooping puts the spotlight in the wrong place, others feel it's too stereotypical.
Regardless, one thing is certain: the spirit of hooping, with its call and response tradition, rhythmic inflections, and emphatic melodic repetition, is at the very core of Black American music.
Go on YouTube, look up some whooping preachers. You'll see what I mean.
Thanks, Takenya, for the history lesson.