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Spirituality in Song

Arts & Culture | March 6, 2017

There is no denying the growing presence of spiritual elements in popular music today. While music with religious connotations is not a new phenomenon, many popular musicians have recently begun integrating their faith into their art in a way that is modern and relatable. On February 24, UK Grime rapper Stormzy released his debut album, Gang Signs and Prayers. As its title suggests, the album merges beliefs and everyday experiences, placing Stormzy on a star-studded list alongside many other artists who have been doing the same—like Chance the Rapper and Kanye West. However, mainstream artists are not the only ones popularizing religious music. In fact, one of the more popular classes taken for an art credit at Tufts is Gospel Choir; over 100 students have been enrolling in the course each semester since 2006, when current Director David Coleman took the helm. Other organizations on campus have long been incorporating religion into their music, namely the a cappella groups Essence, S-Factor, and Shir Appeal.

Specializing in music of the African diaspora, a cappella groups Essence and S-Factor frequently perform gospel covers. Due to its roots in the Black oral tradition, gospel music serves as a testament to the resilience and creativity of Black people and, as such, celebrates the people behind it too. Speaking to this, senior Kristiana Jordan, a member of Essence, said, “I think Black music and religion are interconnected because, even though not everyone that is Black is religious, it is integrated into the culture. Even thinking back to slavery when we were singing Negro Spirituals and as Christianity was becoming incorporated into plantations, they would mix hymns with musical styles from Africa and a whole blend of things that contributed to this Black gospel style.”

Echoing these comments, S-Factor members sophomore Isaiah Marshall-Thomas and junior Travis Percy spoke to their own group’s connection with spirituality. “Black music is inextricably linked with religion in so many different ways. Black gospel music is rooted in the experience of overcoming so much adversity and uniting behind a collective cause in the process of doing so. It invokes a sense of community, even how it’s centered around call and response mechanisms and the way the group members have to interact with that,” Percy said.

Is music itself becoming more religious or are we just seeing it crossover more frequently into the mainstream? Drawing from the invocation of community and struggle, the current political climate presents a time in which faith in the unknown—like the future—and hope are greatly needed. In this case, the appeal of popular music with overt spiritual elements to non-religious people, especially young people, does not seem so outlandish.

Speaking specifically to the sentiments of Jordan and Percy, if music at its core aims to articulate a message, then the link between spiritual Black music and protest cannot be overlooked. Perhaps this could be seen as an iteration of the Black radical imagination and subsequent reflection of the times, but through music. Often religion requires us to overlook our worldly existence for a larger purpose that can sometimes feel alienating or incomplete, especially for people of marginalized identities. In this sense, music is a means through which one can root their faith in their corporal reality and consume it through art too.

For many Black people, these familiar sounds are reminiscent of home. Religion aside, the communal aspect of music about faith inspires a sense of community that can be hard to find in an increasingly individualized society. “It can also be a source of inspiration as a lot of people grew up with it,” said Jordan. “Gospel music is how I started singing, in the church and with the teen choir, which I think is true for a lot of Black musicians.” Similarly, Marshall-Thomas said, “I try to think of it as more so paying homage to our ancestors and their struggles than I do singing to God.” Thinking about ancestry and struggle, what does it mean to celebrate the African diaspora with positive imagery through a religion that also represents strife in the very same people’s lives? Given the interwoven history of slavery, White supremacy and Christianity, how do these performers reconcile the context in which religion became entangled with the Black tradition with the significance that it has in our culture? For example, thinking about the Judeo-Christian conceptions of God as male and given that Gospel music is heavily influenced by, and sometimes even taken verbatim from the Bible, how are these songs framed in a way that is respectful to its context and tradition, but also inclusive and representative of our ideals today?

According to Percy, recognizing this history and deciding to center the music of the experience is one way to do so. “Without going to all of the liberation theology behind how a Black Christian can reconcile all of those opposing forces, you can sing music about something that is liberating and oppressive at the same time,” he noted. Similarly, Jordan described a process of separating the music itself from the ill that it can represent by focusing on personal interpretation. For her, “It’s almost like gospel music is divorced from the church and all of its prejudices. I focus on the music itself more and what it does for me. Thinking about the Kim Burrell situation and all the -isms that go along with that,” referring to an incident in which gospel singer Kim Burrell made homophobic comments and lost widespread support as a result. “Black churches can be violent sometimes, but I focus on my personal connection with it.”

How then, do those who cannot disengage the two or do not have a personal connection with religion navigate these spaces? “When we’re singing gospel, we always talk about how even though not everybody can identify with it, we all have a similar element or something we want to be grateful for or some sort of spiritual connection that they can connect with. So we encourage each other to tap into that,” Jordan said. “Thinking particularly about our song ‘Gospel,’ for example, which is one about thankfulness and gratefulness, it’s universal even though the song itself is particular to Christianity.” By this principle, having spiritual elements doesn’t always equate to spirituality per se, especially when it is just as much of a cultural emblem as it is a religious one.

In a different set of racial and religious circumstances, Jewish on-campus a capella group Shir Appeal also finds connection to spirituality through song. Junior Stephanie Leah Evans of Shir Appeal told the Observer, “Singing makes me feel connected not only to the people, but also to the culture that is being represented. We are always looking for new ways to represent Judaism by diversifying repertoire and showcasing different cultures, too, so there is the inter-faith aspect of it too. It’s all linked.” Evans also emphasized the recurring idea of finding secular themes in religious music by relating it to common human understanding of subject matters like love and empowerment.

Popular music is bringing religious elements of faith and hope to the non-religious masses, but for those who are in touch with their spirituality, this is just a reaffirmation of the power of music in preserving and spreading the faith. Incorporating religious elements into music can be a way to explore personal themes of growth, community and hope, especially when these things seem to be under threat.