Freedom Singers, Cont’d
I saw the Freedom Singers at the Gaither Family Fest in May. And anyone with a heart will sympathize with them. Their story is very compelling. And when they sing Because He Lives in Romanian, the whole place stands in praise of religious freedom.
But here’s what nobody is saying: these boys illegally entered Canada on a barge. They were using a sort of “black market” deal … basically like the coyotes that smuggle folks across the US/Mexico border. Yet the Fox News crowds that stand and applaud the Freedom Singers for their courage would be all for sending a Mexican who did the same thing packing. So, the Romanian refugees get a break because they love Gaither? Oh, and they’re white. But the latino maids and leaf blowers MUST GO!
AND, they can’t sing worth a crap!
We’ll return to the quality of singing in a bit. For now, let’s stick with the immigration angle.
I get what the reader is saying, and doubtlessly there is some element of hypocrisy and/or a certain blindness to the double standard that may be in play here in some instances. But my guess is if you pressed many – maybe most? – of the conservative Christians who stand and clap for undocumented immigrants when it’s two guys from Romania on stage with Bill Gaither but who also insist on the deportation of all “illegal aliens” from Mexico and South America, they’d say that there’s a difference: namely, that the Freedom Singers were defacto asylum-seekers, in flight from religious persecution (and after reading Janet’s comment, I’m assuming here that they’ve sense received proper documentation from the Canadian government, which would explain their ability to travel and work in the United States*). (I don’t have any hard data to back this up, but my gut feeling is, whether intentionally or not, “illegal alien” is pretty much synonymous with latino/hispanic immigrants in most discussions of immigrations these days.)
It’s never been clear to me the exact nature of what one of the Freedom Singers refers to in their promo video as “some persecution” they were experiencing in Romania (a lot of the details of the backstory remain fuzzy, I gather, from the stage, though it is evidently explained in their book).
But whatever the exact details here, the Freedom Singers’ situation still seems an awfully lot like most immigration stories: people willing to undergo expensive, illegal, life-threatening hardship in search of a better life in North America.
Now, I’m sure there are plenty of folks who would value people immigrating for religious (or at least Protestant Christian) reasons of any sort over those mainly trying to improve the material conditions of their existence. And given all the human, legal, and social complexity of the immigration issue, I also think I get why a story like this one is so popular: it doesn’t look or feel like the typical south-of-the-border immigration stories we’ve become so desensitized to, and so it lets audiences tell themselves and others that they’re not against immigration (see I support these nice young men up there singing that Bill Gaither song), just the bad kinds. And then, too, there’s the singing-in-times-of-great-trial dimension to the story that provides an easy-to-grasp evangelical element to boot (Paul and Silas singing in prison etc).
The fact that many people who applaud the Freedom Singers’ story also support a zero-tolerance immigration policy in the U.S. doesn’t necessarily mean that all Christians are ethnocentric xenophobes who only want to keep out brown people, any more than all immigrants are system-gaming scofflaws here to mooch, scam, and exploit. The most we can say based on the evidence in both cases is that this is sometimes true.
What the Freedom Singers ought to remind us is that undocumented immigration has as many faces and stories as there are immigrants, and these stories complicate any one-dimensional view of immigration (what, for instance, is a term like “illegal aliens” but a rhetorical attempt to leach the human element out of the conversation?), even if we don’t hear about those stories from the Homecoming stage set to the tune of “Because He Lives.”
So much for the immigration question. Now: Does it matter if the Freedom Singers can’t really sing? David Bruce Murray says, not really. “If this trio can find a way to effectively communicate their story, people will want to hear them sing as well.”
Ah yes, … “if.” And there’s the rub. They’ve only just gotten started, but at this point, it’s still almost entirely a novelty act rather than a fully formed brand of any sort. And to some extent, a certain unpolished quality to the performance may actually help. Here, there’s not only the poor singing skills, but the amateur showmanship. On the video up at their site, watch the way the guy on the right stabs at his eyes with a fist in a far too conspicuous, stagey manner to be entirely believable right near the end of the song. He’s choked up enough to stop and dab his eyes … but manages to get right back in to the mix in time for the big finish. It’s transparent but the transparency is so earnest that it’s mildly endearing … a young Tony Greene does almost the exact same thing in that “When I Knelt” clip.
DBM compares the Freedom Singers to David Ring, who has made a sustainable gig out of his disability. Of course the Freedom Singers share some parallels insofar as their story of hardship is the organizing element of their appeal. But unlike Ring’s story, which is not anchored to a one-time event but evolves as his life unfolds before him and us, the Freedom Singers have a story of being locked in a container for Christ. Now that’s a powerful narrative, no doubt. But they’re here now … they’re free, and it’s not exactly clear where the energy for their story comes from after people hear and experience the group’s retelling of their original ordeal.
*See longtime (Canadian) reader NG’s helpful rundown of both some context and some relevant aspects of Canada’s immigration laws.Email this Post