[Featured image: Christopher Polk | Getty Images]
It should go without saying that authentic Gospel music is rooted in the Black American Christian experience, but it must be said. I have seen more than my fair share of predominantly white choirs singing Negro Spirituals without a contextual understanding of what they are singing about. These performances often lack the fire born in the crucible of the Black experience in America and passed down through sacred memory and storytelling in Black communities. It is not a judgment against the musicality of predominantly white choirs. From my technical standpoint, the performances range from mediocre to magnificent just as any other work would. Rather, it’s a statement about the character of Black music – it is rooted squarely in the Black experience. In the words of Solange [Knowles] “Don’t feel bad if you can’t sing along / Just be glad you got the whole wide world / This us / This shit is from us / Some shit you can’t touch.”
I watched Chance the Rapper’s performance on the 2017 Grammy Awards. It was pure euphoria. He recruited other Black Gospel artists like Tamela Mann and Kirk Franklin along with some others to help him with his remixed mash-up of “How Great is Our God” and “All We Got” from his 2016 Mixtape Coloring Book. It was pure, #BlackBoyJoy and #BlackGirlMagic on international display. Black Twitter responded with ecstasy:
Now, before someone begins Evangeli-splaining to me how Chris Tomlin is the original writer of the song “How Great is Our God,” be very clear that I am in no way arguing that Evangelical Christianity has no share in Chance the Rapper’s performance. It is clear that Chance the Rapper has been influenced by Evangelical Christianity. I am arguing that if you see Chance the Rapper’s performance through the lens of Christianity sans blackness you will miss what made this performance so important. The same people (white Evangelicals) who, by upwards of 80%, brought us President Donald Trump despite his covert and overt racism, xenophobia, and bigotry, will claim a victory in Chance the Rapper’s display of black faith by ignoring the blackness thereof.
In a 2016 Buzzfeed post entitled “Why Chance the Rapper’s Black Christian Joy Matters,” Tomi Obaro, ruminates on the important intersection of Chance the Rapper’s Black experience and Christian identity. Important to note in her piece is the “profound mingling of the sacred and the secular” that can be both disorienting for those squarely on either side of that imaginary divide and euphoric for those of us who abide in the middle place. She specifically connects the “recent deluge of overtly spiritual, specifically Christian music” from black artists like D’Angelo and Kendrick Lamar to the “recent spate of highly publicized acts of state violence against black people.” Obaro goes on to say, “In a time when justice is nonexistent, black artists, as they’ve done before, call upon a salvation that this Earth cannot give us.”
As I watched social media’s response to Chance the Rapper’s performance, I was caught in an interesting mixture of feelings. I was happy that he was getting the recognition he is due and that he was using this global stage to promote his art. I called to mind Beyoncé’s 2016 Superbowl performance (I know it was technically Coldplay featuring Bruno Mars and Beyoncé, but let’s just be real here) and Kendrick Lamar’s performance at the 2016 Grammys where the relentless joy, tenacity, and very real pain of Black people was on full display. It felt like breathing deeply when you’re used to only taking shallow breaths, like for just a few moments it was okay to be Black because even if folks didn’t like it, you had your cousins and nem’ who had your back in case anything popped off.
I was also bewildered that people who scarcely could utter the words “Black Lives Matter” were hailing this performance as “amazing” and “thrilling.” I began to wonder if Chance the Rapper, and other contemporary, unapologetically Black artists like him giving musical voice to the Movement for Black Lives, would get caught in the web of whiteness that strips black art of its prophetic voice in order to reduce it to mere entertainment, or to use a generic Christian term – “worship.”
Even a quick perusal of Chance the Rapper’s body of work will reveal that his is unapologetically Black. In the opening verse to “Blessings,” Chance the Rapper raps:
I don’t make songs for free, I make ’em for freedom
Don’t believe in kings, believe in the Kingdom
Chisel me into stone, prayer whistle me into song air
Dying laughing with Krillin saying something ’bout blonde hair
Jesus’ black life ain’t matter, I know I talked to his daddy
Said you the man of the house now, look out for your family
In these six lines, Chance the Rapper moves fluidly through personal and social commentary, using spiritual references to articulate both experiences. He begins by connecting his own personal struggle against the hegemony of record labels (“kings”) with his perceived call to create “freedom” music that promotes liberation and authenticity. He sees himself as directly and artistically involved in the Movement for Black Lives by creating a platform for other, independent, unapologetically black artists to give musical voice to the movement. He moves into a statement against the western sanitizing of Jesus of Nazareth – a brown-skinned, Palestinian Jew – by connecting his death to the state-sanctioned deaths of black women and men in America (Trayvon Martin, Sandra Bland, Eric Garner, Mike Brown, and others). For Chance the Rapper all of these struggles and experiences – personal, professional, and social – find their intersections in him and he has no intention of not fighting back. In his own words, “I speak of promised lands / soil as soft as momma’s hands / running water, standing still / endless fields of daffodils and chamomile.” Don’t be fooled. He’s a freedom fighter and these are freedom songs.
Chance the Rapper’s Grammy performance was definitely Gospel, but make no mistake about it, authentic Gospel music is rooted in unapologetic Blackness. Melva Wilson Costen, emeritus professor of Worship and Music at the Interdenominational Theological Center, suggests that “Gospel music in worship is in essence a liturgical offering from the black church to the world.” She credits “creative African Americans who sought and found ways to express good news because of, in spite of, the bad times they experienced” as the originators of contemporary Gospel music. Moreover, Costen rightly names that the sacred/secular divide of other expressions of Christianity, including white Evangelical Christianity, was foreign to poor, black people whose lived experiences of unapologetic blackness and Christian identity and that these two streams coalesced into the “deep roots” from which Gospel music would spring. God was not only concerned with saving our souls for the afterlife. God was, and remains, concerned with saving our lives in this life and stands opposed to any system or structure that opposes life, agency, dignity, and empowerment for marginalized, oppressed, and vulnerable people. Gospel music cannot be divorced from blackness and blackness cannot be understood outside its relentless will to “keep on keeping on” even, and especially, in the midst of the white supremacy hell-bent on its demise.
Maybe it is because we live in a country where Columbus Day is still celebrated as a national holiday, despite the real and historical reality that Christopher Columbus didn’t discover America, he invaded it and proceeded to murder the indigenous people who lived here; and maybe it is because we live in a society where the Kardashians continue to “pioneer” trends black women created decades ago; but I find it necessary to protect Black cultural treasures from the dangers of white gaze and cultural appropriation that seeks to domesticate Black culture. In the words of Chrystal Valentine and Aaliyah Jihad, it too often feels like too much of our culture and experience gets “lost in translation” whenever our culture is taken and remixed by those who do not and refuse to understand it.
It’s not as though I am unwilling to share the richness of Black culture. I actually believe that if America is to be redeemed it will be by listening to and heeding the voices of people and identities caught under its delusions of greatness, and that includes black artists like Chance the Rather. However, we must make sure that Black artistry remains intact. It is incredibly frustrating to see that what some white people see as mere entertainment is black people screaming to survive. Performances like Chance the Rapper’s 2017 Grammy performance are great courses in the contemporary Black experience; unfortunately, too many will see it is as optional and extracurricular (like a reductionist Black History class that reduces MLK to a “dream,” Malcolm X to a white-hating racist, and ignores the significant contributions of black women altogether).
Art is important because it gives us open windows into the experiences of others. What we must always understand is that when you are a guest in someone else’s house, you can enjoy what they provide for you, but you cannot simply take what doesn’t belong to you simply because you think it looks better on you.
 Solange. “F.U.B.U.” from A Seat at the Table.
 Chance the Rapper. “Blessings” from Coloring Book.
 Chance the Rapper. “Blessings (reprise)” from Coloring Book.
 Melva Wilson Costen. In Spirit and In Truth: The Music of African American Worship (Lousiville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2004),74.
 Ibid., 75.