Sergio Lopez is a cultural critic and historian, as well as city councilmember for Campbell, Calif. He graduated from Yale University and currently studies at Duke Divinity School. His work has appeared in TIMETeen VogueAmericaNational Catholic ReporterGeez, and more. His writing can be found here.

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Why Aretha Franklin was ‘The Queen of Gospel’

by Sergio Lopez 10-31-2022
Half a century later, "Amazing Grace" — the best-selling gospel album of all time — still speaks to the Black experience and touches the souls of all.
The cover of Aretha Franklin's album "Young, Gifted and Black," featuring her in multiple poses with a stained-glass window in the background.

Young, Gifted and Black album cover (1972)

TOWARD THE END of the film documenting the performance of Aretha Franklin’s album Amazing Grace, the singer sits at a church piano. Like so many times in her childhood, she begins playing — gradually, almost tentatively — the opening chords to “Never Grow Old.” It was her first single, released when she was 14. As she sings of “a land where we’ll never grow old,” built by “Jesus on high,” folks in the audience — including gospel pioneer Clara Ward — cannot help but get up and dance. “Never, never never” — and then a Franklin trademark: mmm-mmm-mmm — “never grow old,” she testifies. You believe her.

This year, Aretha’s Amazing Grace turned 50. The album — recorded live at New Temple Missionary Baptist Church in Los Angeles with James Cleveland’s Southern California Community Choir and one of the greatest backing bands in all of pop music history — blends and crosses boundaries of genre, generation, race, and class. In 1972, Amazing Grace was not just a return to Aretha’s roots, but a vision of a future — one rooted in the Black experience in the U.S.

The liner notes credited Gene Paul as “assisting engineer.” Today, he is a legendary producer. Paul traces the genesis of Amazing Grace to Aretha’s 1972 record Young, Gifted and Black. That album’s title track, penned and first sung by Nina Simone, was a breakthrough in the civil rights and Black pride movements. “In the whole world you know / there’s a million boys and girls / who are young, gifted and Black,” the lyrics proclaim. While recording Young, Gifted and Black, Paul told Sojourners, Aretha began to conceptualize the live recording of a gospel album as a follow-up. When she thought of the potential project, Paul said, she “was smiling, captivated.” To Paul, there is a clear through line from Young, Gifted and Black to Amazing Grace: The former spoke to the contemporary Black political moment; the latter looked back in time while pulling her spiritual and cultural roots into the present. Both pointed the way to a Black future that was joyous and free.

Faith, Doubt, and Murder in ‘Under the Banner of Heaven’

by Sergio Lopez 05-03-2022

FX, Hulu: 'Under the Banner of Heaven'

The show is based on Jon Krakauer’s 2003 book of the same title, detailing the brutal 1984 murder of a woman and her infant baby by two brothers from the Lafferty clan, a prominent family in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

In ‘Nightmare Alley,’ a Carnival of Sin

by Sergio Lopez 12-23-2021

'Nightmare Alley' / Searchlight Pictures

Despite the discomfort some viewers might feel from the film’s visceral violence, Nightmare Alley is ultimately an old-fashioned morality tale, one in which del Toro refuses to let his central character escape the weight and judgment of his own actions. The film barrels towards the moment when Stan’s schemes fall apart with unrelenting brutality, and eventually Stan’s machinations begin to unravel. Nightmare Alley also thrills in the strong performances of characters: Cate Blanchett’s Dr. Lilith Ritter, cool and unflappable, always in control even when she seems not to be; Toni Collette’s Zeena, whose love is more complex than it initially appears.

Now If You're Looking For a Savior, Well, That's Not Lorde

by Sergio Lopez 08-26-2021

Lorde in 'Solar Power' via YouTube

Lost in much of the promotional hype leading up to Solar Power was the quiet news that in the interim between her previous album and her latest, Lorde had started therapy. Famously private, she didn’t share much more than that, but she doesn’t need to — and anyway, the new sonic landscape of the album speaks for itself. Whereas the propulsive and explosive beats of Melodrama mirrored the rhythm of thoughts racing out of your control, the bubbly basslines of Solar Power reflect the steady progression of growth she’s experienced in the years since.