CeCe Winans has a new album coming out in March called “Believe For It,” and she debuted a few songs at her first live, virtual special called “An Evening of Thanksgiving,” which aired on February 21 at 7 p.m. CST.
Compassion International, a Christian ministry aimed at finding sponsors for children worldwide, has partnered with Winans for the event. She’s also a strong supporter of their work and has sponsored a few children herself. It’s a fitting partnership, given new songs are meant to encourage people, and that’s how she sees the work of Compassion.
“I get excited about partnering with organizations that are doing something that brings life, and Compassionate International does that. They make a difference, and they put a smile on kids’ faces who otherwise wouldn’t have hope. They bring hope,” says Winans. “They bring peace, food, water, clothing, and education. They give them something that will enhance their life, not just for a moment.”
I had an opportunity to chat with CeCe about her new songs, the virtual event, and her son taking on a new leadership role in their church.
You’ve had so much music success. Can you share what’s unique in the new music that’s coming out? What can fans look forward to?
It’s my first live record, and it’s music that encourages you to sing along. I think that’s something that people can look forward to. I’m doing a lot of songs that maybe you’ve heard before, maybe not, but I know that a lot of people have sung them in their churches. I wanted to create something that people and churches and everybody could sing along with. So it’s definitely a CD that’s filled with praise and celebration. Everybody needs some hope right now.
Tell us about the creative process during the making of your new album.
I’ve always determined songs by how they’ve ministered to me. I believe that if it hits my heart, it’s going to hit other people’s hearts. But the title of the record is called “Believe For It.” And this was the last song that came in when we decided we had all of our songs, but we felt something was missing. We really liked it [the album], but it seemed like we needed something else with the theme or something that will kind of, I don’t know, just put us in the frame of mind that we need to be in.
And my producers, Kyle Lee and Dwan Hill, got together, and they started writing with another young man, and they came back, and they played one song for me, and it was a good song. And I was like, that’s good, but that’s not it. And we kept going because, again, we had a strong record already, but we all kind of agreed that we needed something else. Another part of the puzzle was missing. And then they came with the song, Believe For It. And when I heard it — that’s it! That’s it! We all agreed, and I even did some writing on it to finish it up. But it is just the message of hope that everyone needs to hear. It doesn’t matter who you are, where you come from. You need to brush yourself off, brush those dreams off and start to believe again.
You’re so passionate about the work of Compassion International. Have you ever sponsored a child?
I’ve been sponsoring kids for years. And you go into this thinking you’re going to be a blessing to them, and you WILL be a blessing to them, but it ends up coming back to your life in so many ways. I know my kids are blessed.
Giving blesses your life. When I went to visit some of these kids years ago, and I saw the level of poverty that they lived in, first of all, my heart was just broken. I mean, they walk miles and miles for dirty water, contaminated water. I’m talking 10 miles.
And then you see where they live. And the first thing you realize is, “What am I complaining about? Why do I have to complain about anything?” They had this joy on their faces. And so when I came home years ago, I told my kids, “Oh no, no, no. We are going to live our lives differently.” And they were probably looking at me like, “Mom, what are you talking about?” You have to live a whole different way. Because of that, I know I’ve been blessed. I get excited about compassionlive.com. I pray that everybody will tune in, but not just tuning in, go and sponsor a child because even coming out of 2020, people who are brokenhearted, people who have lost their job, people who need major blessings in their lives, I’m telling you the way to break through is to give.
I understand your son is taking on more of a leadership role in your church, Nashville Life Church in Nashville, TN. What does that mean to you personally and to your family?
My husband and I started this church eight years ago, and it was birthed really through my son and his friends. When we started, it was all millennials, and our church is filled with millennials. And then my husband and I looked at each other and said, “Really, God? You want us to pastor?” We’re like, “Okay, here we go.” But my son started with all of his friends, and God just did work in my son’s heart. And he started witnessing and getting people to feel with the Holy Spirit. Leading people, should I say, to be filled with the Holy Spirit.
It started in my home with 35 people. And the Lord told my husband when we started eight years ago that my son would pastor. So we were the founding pastors, and my son has been pastoring along with us all of these years. The transition that we made three weeks ago is him being lead pastor, and now we’re the founding pastors. It’s just exciting because even within those three weeks, it’s like growth is happening the way he’s anointed to do it. And my husband and I looked at each other and said, “Wow, thank God. We at least carried it for eight years.” We didn’t make it work. We knew that we were in the will of God doing what we did, but we knew it was always about him and this generation.
It’s not like we’re retiring, but we are definitely in the background encouraging, pushing him, and just covering him. It’s exciting to see and not only him, but all the young people, our staff, are taking it over, and they’re the Joshua generation. It’s time.
David E. Talbert, Director of Jingle Jangle: A Christmas Journey, has written and directed a delightful musical with more black and brown faces than you typically see in a movie of its type. Talbert’s son inspired him to write the film after they started to watch one of his childhood favorites, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. Let’s just say his son wasn’t feeling it.
“My son is looking at me like, what is wrong with this dude? And he asked if he could get up and play with his Legos? I said you don’t like the movie? He says, ‘mmmm.’ And as he walked away, I looked at him, and I looked at that screen. I’m like, oh, on his wall, he has Miles Morales and Black Panther. And that’s when it occurred to me. He didn’t do it because he didn’t see anybody that looked like him on that screen,” said Talbert.
That’s when Talbert approached Netflix about what happened with his son and the fact that there aren’t any holiday musical options with a majority of people of color. Scott Stuber, the head of original films at Netflix, agreed with him and decided they had to do something about it. So they did.
Jingle Jangle: A Christmas Journey follows legendary toymaker Jeronicus Jangle (Academy Award winner Forest Whitaker) whose fanciful inventions burst with whimsy and wonder. But when his trusted apprentice (Emmy winner Keegan-Michael Key) steals his most prized creation, it’s up to his equally bright and inventive granddaughter (newcomer Madalen Mills) — and a long-forgotten invention — to heal old wounds and reawaken the magic within.
Urban Faith talked with Talbert about his new movie, its nods to the Black church, and advice he’d give to aspiring filmmakers of color.
David E. Talbert, Director of Jingle Jangle: A Christmas Journey, on Magic Man G and the influence of African American culture and music.
It’s impressive that Netflix was so receptive to your Christmas movie vision as I’ve heard that Black filmmakers struggle with getting blockbuster-type movies made.
Well, we do, but you know, before Black Lives Matter, and the racial and political unrest, and the pandemic, there was a wave and a Renaissance that was happening. And you know, from Get Out that Jordan Peele did — you know, Black people never lived past five minutes in a horror movie. They paid us by the minute. But Jordan Peele broke the mold with that. And then Ryan Kyle Coogler with Black Panther. You can’t watch a Marvel movie unless you see, God rest his soul, Chadwick Boseman, his character, or the general or the little sister, you’ve gotta see them in those worlds now. And so those films normalized people, representation, and genres. And that’s what this film is doing, too. It’s normalizing people of color in worlds of wonder. And I think this Renaissance is happening, and Netflix knew that they were ahead of the curve. They knew that we not only wanted it as a Black community, but the world wants it, too. We’re number one in 23 countries worldwide, and we’re in the top 10 films in 70 countries around the world.
You’ve spoken about the nods to the Black Church in your movie. Did you grow up in the Black Church?
My great grandmother was one of the founding pastors of the Pentecostal movement in DC. — Pastor Annie Mae Woods. I grew up in a storefront church, three generations of holiness preachers I was raised under. And you know, I watched the Word of God change people’s lives. And just words moved people to tears, to reconciliation, to reform. In addition to that, there’s no better theater than the Black church. I mean, watching the sisters shout and then somebody tried to touch their purse, and they stopped mid-shout to get their purse. But it was a community full of heart and warmth and love and messaging, and meaning that moved me as a kid and stays with me as an adult.
How did those experiences shape you as a director?
Well, you write what you know. You write stories and pieces of stories you’re inspired by, that you grew up with. I mean, Jeronicus Jangle is the journey of Job. He had everything, lost everything, and he got everything back. He lost his faith, he lost his belief, he questioned God, he questioned himself, he’s like all of that. But it was a path, it was his journey to get back to what he had, and even more so. I’m not a religious person at all. I’m a proud member of bedside Baptist. But I’m spiritual. I’m not about religion; I’m about relationship more. But these things are in me. These are my part of my DNA. And so, I never do my art to preach to anybody, but the themes or lessons of morality will always be in there because that’s who I am.
Share more about the symbolism of Black culture and the Black Church in the movie.
The background dancers were the Pips in the Temptations, and the Four Tops and the Dramatics, and all those groups are grown men dancing and choreographed movement that we love. And with “Magic Man G,” that’s the Black church. I mean the shout music in there. It was like New Orleans. But that’s shout music up in Magic Man G. And then the emotion of this day and a spirit. And, you know, all of that is entrenched in African American music, soul music, music from the continent. In the snowball scene, that’s an artist from Ghana, Bisa Kdei. So, we just want to celebrate our music that we love, but that’s universal. The world loves our music. And so, I wasn’t shy about doing what moves me—and growing up in a Black church, this is the music that moved me.
What advice would you give for future filmmakers of color?
That all is possible, and don’t put yourself in a box. Don’t let anybody else put you in a box. You know, my grandmother told the story of what they did when she was growing up. She said that they took grasshoppers that used to jump six feet high into the air and put them in an old jelly jar. They would poke holes in the jelly jar and put a grasshopper in there. When they took the grasshopper out the next day, the grasshopper only jumped six inches because that’s all the room they had. The grasshopper then who could jump to the sky had been taught that he could only jump this high. And she told me that to say never forget how high you were created to soar. As artists and inventors and innovators, we can soar to the sky. Don’t let people put you in that jelly jar, poke holes in it, and then teach you that you can only soar six inches.
It used to be that you had to be stuck in bumper-to-bumper traffic to be exposed to sarcastic, misleading, and — fine, I’ll admit it — occasionally entertaining slogans about politics and spirituality.
No longer is this the case.
If you use Facebook with any kind of regularity, you’ve probably witnessed photo memes popping up like dandelions. And you may have liked them. You might have shared them. You might have even created a few. But I implore you — please stop. You’re making it hard for real communication to take place on Facebook, which is one of the few places where people with radically different worldviews can engage in honest dialogue.
Don’t believe me? I offer several reasons, with examples:
Reason No. 1: They’re often inaccurate or misleading.
Exhibit A in our proceedings is this gem above rebuking Christians for focusing on the wrong things. Now the fact is, the underlying truth behind this is something that I believe in strongly — Christians should be known more for how we help the disenfranchised than for what political stands we take. But the actual statement is just not true. Plenty of Christians line up at food banks and homeless shelters all the time — so much so, in fact, that these days it fails to even qualify as news. But you’d never know it from this meme photo, which relies more on stereotypes than actual data.
And this image is just the tip of the iceberg. With the next big story involving a church or a Christian leader, there’ll be plenty more.
And even the ones that aren’t snarky in tone can be disingenuous. If they include any kind of statistical graph, for instance, they’re bound to manipulate or distort the truth in some way. After all, there’s a reason why Mark Twain referred to statistics as the worst form of lying. The best of these are usually large and thorough enough that they require full-screen viewing to accommodate all the details. But even these should be taken with a grain of salt.
Reason No. 2: They exist primarily to amuse or incite people who already think like you do.
Let’s be honest. People don’t encounter these photos and say, “Wow, perhaps I’ve been wrong all these years, and my long-held political and/or religious beliefs are actually dangerous and wrong.”
It never happens because these aren’t designed to engage people who hold different views. Rather, their purpose is the same as much of the partisan-slanted media we see today — to reinforce your views and help you feel better about yourself for believing that way.
Now, I’m all for exercising free speech — but images have power. And as we know from Spider-Man’s Uncle Ben, with great power comes great responsibility. And if this were only a political issue, I might not be as concerned. But in today’s political climate, where being a Christian is still associated with being Republican, these photos are making it harder for unbelievers to see the truth of the gospel because of all the political baggage.
I believe that everyone, Christian or not, has a right to participate in the political process. But Paul told the church in Galatia to avoid letting their freedom become an excuse to indulge in their sinful nature. For many of us, sharing these photos is a way of sticking it to the people who we feel are “the problem.”
As citizens of a global community, this is wrong.
Reason No. 3: If not misleading or divisive, they’re often so generic as to be meaningless.
Because “if at first you don’t succeed” at motivating your friends, maybe there’s something missing.
And that something is context. Many of these inspirational quotes and images, if they were on my refrigerator, I might find really moving. But the thing is, they would only be there if I put them there. People self-select these things. You can’t pass out inspirational nuggets like candy and expect them to be effective. One person’s inspirational quote is another person’s cheesy platitude.
Reason No. 4: They make it harder to enjoy actual photos taken by your actual Facebook friends.
No disrespect to George Takei, the Japanese-American Star Trek alumnus whose posts get shared like crazy by his millions of Facebook fans, but he’s not my Facebook friend.
I know that in today’s relational economy Facebook friendships are slightly more meaningful than people with whom you make eye contact in elevators … but still. With so many people in my Facebook feed, I find much more meaning and significance in the large and small details that my friends post about their lives. You know, babies, vacations, meals, costumes, graduations, etc. So by constantly sharing these photo memes, you’re cluttering your feed with stuff I’m not interested in.
Because that’s the point of Facebook, right? To make connections and enjoy relationships. So if you want to be someone who builds relationships across the cultural divide, do us all a favor and stop posting these photos.
Grammy-winning gospel performer Kirk Franklin can’t be onstage these days but he’s featured virtually in an upcoming benefit to draw attention to poor children across the globe who are affected by COVID-19.
Franklin is joining World Vision, Food for the Hungry and Compassion International in the “Unite to Fight Poverty” virtual concert set to be televised and streamed online on Friday (Aug. 28) at 8:30 p.m. EDT on Daystar Television Network, Facebook, YouTube and PureFlix. It is also scheduled to air at 3 p.m. EDT Saturday on Fox Business.
Franklin, who won six Stellar Gospel Music Award trophies on Sunday, joins 20 other Christian artists for the two-hour fundraiser to aid the three Christian humanitarian organizations. Those groups are working to help families experiencing extreme poverty in the wake of the pandemic and natural disasters by providing hygiene supplies and clean water.
Franklin, who has traveled across the world, also recorded a new video of his song “Strong God” for Compassion to raise awareness about the crisis. Even as he’s drawing attention to the pandemic, he acknowledged it’s hard for him to not know when he’ll be able to perform in person again.
“I miss people,” said the host of the “Sunday Best” televised singing competition. “And I’m looking forward to getting back in front of people.”
Musician Kirk Franklin in 2019. Courtesy photo
Franklin, 50, talked to Religion News Service about the global effects of the coronavirus and his calls for the church to respond to racial inequities, but he declined to comment on whether his related boycott of Trinity Broadcasting Network and the Dove Awards continues.
The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Oh, no, no, not at all. Not at all. Not at all. And I’m really appreciative and grateful for everything I get. ’Cause I know nothing is owed to me.
This is the first time that World Vision, Compassion International and Food for the Hungry have worked together on an effort like this benefit. Why did you decide to join this joint effort?
It’s because I believe in the ideals of what they stand for. And I know that even though there are many disparities and deficiencies in America, we are still a blessed country. I’ve been blessed to travel the globe and I can totally understand how, even in the middle of this global pandemic, there are many countries and many individuals that are not able to just pivot and to diversify to survive. I can totally see why this would be such a great moment to come together because we’ve never seen anything like this in our lifetime. And it makes me so proud of them to see them unify for the same cause.
What song or songs did you perform and why did you choose those selections?
Well, my song selection was not really based on the mood or the cause of the event. I just wanted to do music I thought would make people feel good. I performed “Love Theory” and “Just for Me.” I’ve been blessed by God’s guidance to have a whole bunch of songs and at this stage of my career, whatever I pick is going to be something that just feels good. But sometimes it’s hard to pick. And so you just deal with what you’re feeling at the moment.
You went to the Dominican Republic with Compassion International. How recently did you go and how long were you there?
Believe it or not, it was right before the world shut down. It was in January. And I was there almost a week.
What is it that struck you particularly about the trip?
How many people in the world still live marginalized lives, that still live under the poverty line, and how many people are forgotten by the 1%. That is just a mystery to me. And it can make me even, at times, question God’s bigger divine plan, even though I have to choose to believe, when it’s hard to believe. But that is something that has always fascinated me.
A recording set for the “Unite to Fight Poverty” virtual concert. Courtesy photo
How has COVID-19 affected you personally?
We’ve had people we know, family members have died, people in the churches we’ve been members of have died or people have been hospitalized. So we’ve seen it firsthand, we’ve seen it up close. And then also I’m in the people business. And so many artists and churches and ministers and pastors, we’re in the job of touching people and there’s something very healing and therapeutic for the soul when we do. And we have not had the opportunity to do that for almost six months.
Has the death of George Floyd and other people, Black people in particular, in police-related incidents affected you personally?
Yes, yes, of course. I’ve been very outspoken. I’ve been very engaged. I’ve been very consistent in my conversations about the disparity of how these actions are in the legal system, in the systems there to protect people, but they don’t protect all people. And also been very vocal about the lack of the church’s voice in social issues that affect people that go to these churches, that sit in these pews. And the lack of information or the lack of conversation has been really deafening.
You appeared in March on Trinity Broadcasting Network, and you discussed these very issues you just spoke of. Has anything new come of that time with TBN or any new steps since then?
I can just say that my heart and my passion won’t stop in any conversation I have that has to do with social injustice or the injustices of any group of people the Bible calls Christians to be engaged in. And, until we are more visible, more visual, more outspoken and more committed to these causes, I will continue to have conversations.
So did that appearance in some way mark an end of your boycott of TBN and the Dove Awards, or is that continuing?
Musician Kirk Franklin in 2019. Courtesy photo
I will just say I will continue to have conversations until the conversations are not needed.
I’m just going to ask one more time: In October, do you expect to be on the Dove Awards?
In October, I continue to keep the narrative of God’s heart and social injustice, and the church’s lack of engagement. We should be the ones leading the narrative and until we do, I will continue to speak up and speak loud and humble and with love until there’s tangible change.
But it sounds like you’re not ready to answer the question about whether you’re going to be there or not.
I will be where I’m supposed to be with this message. I will be at whatever platform I’m called to be able to talk about how God’s love should include everybody. And, until that happens, I will continue to preach love, truth, justice and grace.
Since you are an artist of faith who performs about faith, how do you have faith as you go through this time of the coronavirus pandemic and not being able to perform the way you’d like?
I started going back to therapy and that’s been very, very good for me. I’m a Black man that goes to therapy. I talk, I pray, and they are synonymous. It has been really, really good to be able to have somebody to be able to help you as you help other people. That’s something that can be very, very encouraging. For the first time in history, we had so many pandemics that were contemporaneous: You have racial pandemics, you have political pandemics, you have economic pandemics. So those things can be very daunting for someone that is looked at to be able to try to have all the answers.
Growing up playing music in the Church of God in Christ isn’t the only thing Clinton, Mississippi-bred bluesmen Eddie Cotton Jr. and Jarekus Singleton have in common, but it might be the most significant.
“When other churches were conservative, not letting people bring in drums, not letting people bring in guitars, at the COGIC church the lid has always been off,” says Cotton, whose father was a preacher at Christ Chapel Church of God in Clinton.
The weekly free-form church services were a training camp for both musicians — Singleton’s grandfather led the True Gospel Church of God in Christ in Jackson — challenging them to keep up with all manner of instrumentation and tempos while honing their improvisational chops.
“Anybody could get up and start to singing,” he says. “If people wanted to shout, they shouted. And being a musician, you had to put music behind what they were doing. If you couldn’t catch them, you were accused of not being able to play.”
After church services, though, Cotton turned his attention to the blues in the historic Sarah Dickey neighborhood where he grew up. That was the music he heard on 90.1 FM while riding around in his uncle’s car, from old schoolers like Howlin’ Wolf, B.B. King and Albert King to “southern soul” blues artists Tyrone Davis, Elmore James and Little Milton, who recorded for Jackson’s Malaco Records.
“Blues was played all the time around the neighborhoods, and the music fascinated me,” says Cotton. “It had a certain feel to it that I just loved even as a youngster.”
Cotton understood how the music of his church related to the music on the block. Even though the songs played in the Church of God in Christ were gospel, he says, they still used blues-based chord progressions and scales, which gave him a feel for the blues. At Jackson State University, he expanded his knowledge base and began experimenting with other kinds of music, but blues was always his foundation, and he sought out likeminded artists.
“King Edward was the first that I ever saw, that I could put my hand on, that was playing the blues like I’d never seen it before,” he recalls. “That encouraged me more than anything, because it was like I found a new home.”
Cotton struck up a friendship with Edward and began sitting in with him on guitar at live performances. “Hearing blues on a radio is one thing,” he says, “but to see somebody play it live is another. I’ve heard guitar players all my life, but they didn’t play with the mastery of lead that I saw King Edward play with. And he was doing it for a living.”
Despite being born half a generation apart, the lives of 50-year-old Cotton and 35-year-old Singleton intertwined through church, music and familial bonds.
As leaders of neighboring churches of the same faith, Eddie Cotton Sr. and Jimmy Lee Shearry, Singleton’s grandfather, preached and led revivals together. That’s how Honey Emmett Shearry, Jimmy’s brother, came to teach Cotton how to play guitar. Later, as Cotton’s popularity grew, he paid that mentorship forward by teaching Singleton’s uncle, Tony Shearry, who then opened his world to the blues.
“We all looked up to Eddie coming up,” says Singleton, who remembers seeing Cotton perform at the Alamo in Jackson while in high school. His uncle Tony would bring him to hear music at the old 930 Blue Café on North Congress Street, too, even though he was underage. “I couldn’t get in, but I’d sit outside and listen to the bands.”
Cotton and Singleton share an independent streak, and not just in their commitment to the blues. Both artists put in the work to have it their way, building their audiences and running their own businesses while continually investing back into it and becoming savvy marketers.
Although they’ve both recorded for prominent record labels, they currently maintain control over their own recording and performing careers, while others choose to work within the traditional network of booking agents, managers and publicists. Their method is becoming more common in the age of streaming, where consumers listen to music through platforms like Spotify and Apple Music instead of owning physical CDs distributed by a label.
“I wanted to do it a certain way,” Cotton explains. “I wanted to make a certain amount [of money].
And you’ve got these people, the movers and the shakers so they think, and if you don’t do it they way, they try to make it hard on you. So, I always was, ‘If you can’t get in the niche, you have to create your own.’”
As Cotton and Singleton have established themselves as popular blues musicians on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean through touring clubs and the European and U.S. festival circuit, their friendship and mutual respect endures.
“I go to his house every now and then,” Singleton says. “He’ll just grab a guitar, he’ll tell me to pick one up. He’s a phenomenal musician. He plays organ, drums — and he might can play more instruments than that.”
The artists were scheduled to perform together at the city of Clinton’s 31st July 4th Family Fireworks Extravaganza until the continued spread of COVID-19 led the city to cancel the event. Instead, Singleton has been working on his fourth album at Brudog Studios in Pelahatchie.
“The pandemic is holding us up for sure, as far as playing live,” Singleton says. But considering more recent events, he has heavier things on his mind these days.
“This racial issue we really have to address, and it’s getting out of hand. I’m just thinking about how we have to speak to this racism and this police brutality, and this unwarranted behavior toward blacks and other minorities,” he says.
The killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery at the hands of policemen or private citizens acting in that capacity this spring have made those issues a global conversation once again.
“A policeman should be a friend of the people,” says Cotton. “He should be someone who I can trust to uphold the law. If you check history, that kind of authority is always being abused. What I think is going on now is with social media, you can’t get away with stuff you used to get away with.”
As statues and symbols honoring the Confederacy began to come down around the United States, Mississippi legislators voted to remove the state flag, which flew for 126 years with the Confederate battle emblem in the upper left corner. Gov. Tate Reeves signed the legislation to retire the flag on June 30.
“[The flag] shouldn’t even be an issue,” Cotton says. “I hear people talk about their heritage. I can understand that, but on my side, being an African American, it didn’t work for me. I don’t need to be reminded that this is what it’s about — white supremacy. That part I don’t agree with. That’s what it means.”
Beyoncé in her new visual album “Black Is King.” Image via Disney+
Beyoncé’s visual album “Black Is King,” released Friday (July 31) on Disney+, brings to life the music of her 2019 album, “The Lion King: The Gift.”
“Black Is King” reimagines the story of “The Lion King,” which told the tale of a young lion named Simba who flees his home after his father, the king, is killed, rediscovering himself and returning years later.
African Americans have been on a similar journey, said writer and theologian Candice Marie Benbow.
“It is this human story of both Simba and Black people — that we are trying to find home, come back to home and live into who we truly and fully are,” said Benbow, who created the #LemonadeSyllabus social media campaign after the release of Beyoncé’s previous visual album, “Lemonade.”
Spirituality plays a huge role in that journey in “Black Is King,” which draws imagery from Christianity and traditional African religions.
“It is this honoring that Black people have always been a spiritual people, full stop, and that spirituality is robust and that to demonize it in any way, shape or form is also to demonize yourself,” Benbow said.
Here are five times religion and spirituality make appearances in “Black Is King.”
1. Moses imagery
“Black Is King” may be a reimagining of “The Lion King,” but the young king’s journey of knowing and returning home to himself and his people also parallels the story of Moses told in the Hebrew Bible, said Tamisha A. Tyler, co-executive director of Art Religion Culture, or ARC, and a doctoral candidate studying theology, culture and ethics.
Moses imagery in “Black Is King.” Image via Disney+
At the time Moses was born in Egypt, Pharaoh had enslaved the Israelites and ordered all Hebrew boys who were born to be killed, according to the Book of Exodus. To save her son, Moses’ mother, Jochebed, placed him in a papyrus basket and placed it in the Nile River.
Pharaoh’s daughter discovered Moses and raised him. He went on to lead his people out of slavery in Egypt and is revered as a prophet in a number of religious traditions.
“Moses grew up to be a young man that helped his people find freedom. Moses became then the person or the symbol of liberation” for the people of Israel, Tyler said.
“Black Is King” begins with the image of a basket tumbling down a river.
Later, during the song “Otherside,” viewers see Beyoncé placing her baby into the basket as she sings, “Best believe me / You will see me / On the other side.”
Nicholas R. Jones, assistant professor of Spanish and Africana studies at Bucknell University, sees the Moses imagery in “Black Is King” as “this rooting and reclaiming of Christianity as a continental African type of religion in many ways.”
After all, Jones pointed out, Christianity was in Africa long before European missionaries and colonizers arrived on the continent.
2. The orishas
“The orishas hold your hand through this journey that began before you were born,” Beyoncé says as the film draws to a close. “We never forget to say thank you to the ancestors, noble and royal, anointed, our blessings in the stars.”
Orishas are “intermediaries between human beings and the higher divine” that are represented or manifested in nature, according to Yoruba spirituality, Jones said.
Beyoncé first appears in the film on the beach, dressed in white and holding the baby she presumedly has drawn from the water. She kneels in front of two men swinging censers as she describes “coils in hair catching centuries of prayers spread through smoke.”
“You are welcome to come home to yourself. Let ‘Black’ be synonymous with glory,” she says.
Beyoncé carries a child in the beginning of her new visual album, “Black Is King.” Image via Disney+
Jones and Benbow describe the scene as an offering to Olokun, the orisha who has dominion over the ocean, depths, darkness and profundity.
“You are immediately tuned into the fact that this is a deeply spiritual quest, and it begins with an offering to the African deities who have carried our ancestors and who carry us,” Benbow said.
Beyoncé also is channeling Oya, an orisha often represented by the water buffalo, when she appears wearing horns and cowhide and smoking a pipe in another scene, Jones said.
There are other spiritual beings in the film, too, including the zangbeto — shown covered in palm fronds and climbing onto the hood of the adult king’s car later in the film — who “puts things back in order and essentially demands justice,” he said.
“For me, in ‘Black Is King,’ Beyoncé is really playing with all of these types of images, iconography, so on and so forth,” Jones said.
“I really see the message being a decolonial type of spiritual project, really calling both Black people in the diaspora and in continental Africa, as well, to sort of this decolonial project to return to your roots — explore your ancestral, spiritual, religious roots.”
3. The divine feminine
Throughout the film, Beyoncé embodies the divine feminine, imagery she has evoked many times before.
Viewers of her 2017 Grammys performance spotted references to Kali, a Hindu goddess who has been worshipped as the Divine Mother and Mother of the Universe; Venus, the Roman goddess of love and beauty; and the Virgin Mary, the mother of Jesus in Christian traditions. Beyoncé also evoked images of two orishas: Yemoja and Oshun.
“Black Is King” offers glimpses of paintings in the background of several scenes in which Beyoncé is depicted as the Virgin Mary, haloed and holding a child.
Beyoncé depicted as Oshun in her new visual album, “Black Is King.” Image via Disney+
She makes this clear in the song “Mood 4 Eva,” singing, “I am Beyoncé Giselle Knowles-Carter / I am the Nala, sister of Naruba / Oshun, Queen Sheba, I am the mother.”
Like Oshun, Beyoncé is pictured in gold and yellow and often near water and waterfalls. She also is accompanied — as are several of Oshun’s avatars — by birds, including peacocks and vultures, according to Jones.
“Even in the diaspora, when enslaved Africans were clearly praying to Virgin Mary, we have to think about different forms of religious syncretism and the camouflaging of Catholic saints with different orishas or divinity,” he said.
Beyoncé returns to water again and again in “Black Is King.”
“Water” is the name of one of the songs in the visual album, featuring Pharrell Williams and Salatiel. The film features rivers, waterfalls, the ocean, recycled water containers, even a synchronized swimming sequence, and serves as the setting for rituals and offerings.
“Water signifies life. Water signifies purity. Water signifies hope and water signifies the ability to be reborn,” says a voiceover in the film.
Water is a symbol of rebirth in the Christian rite of baptism, Benbow said. It represents life, she said, pointing out many believe the continent of Africa is the origin of all life and civilization.
“And so to go back to water, which represents life, and to see these Black people in water, dancing in water, doing all of this around water, it is again embracing the truth that this life, these contributions, what we know to be true, to be us, they don’t exist without Black people,” she said.
Water also is part of the imagery associated with several orishas, including Olokun, Yemoja and Oshun.
In “Black Is King” water is “transformative,” Cate Young wrote for NPR.
“Its mythical power is reflected in both the pain of sailing Black people across endless oceans for subjugation and its healing potential to wash away the violence of that history,” Young said.
Beyoncé performs ’Spirit’ in her new visual album, “Black Is King.” Image via Disney+
5. Coming full circle
One of the film’s most powerful moments comes near the end, when Beyoncé sings the triumphant anthem “Spirit” in what appears to be a sun-drenched chapel. She is framed in the window like a halo and surrounded by a choir dressed in purple.
Tyler sees the scene coming full circle from the opening Moses sequence.
“You can’t get that moment in ‘Spirit’ without seeing all of the orishas. All these different pieces that you see throughout the film lead up to ‘Spirit,’” she said.
“It’s a return to something that you understand at a deeper level now, so that the choir, the voices singing together, that moment in that church is deeper because you’ve reclaimed a part of yourself that people have tried to deny you.”
Even as she appears surrounded by the church choir, Beyoncé is dressed in yellow, evoking Oshun.
The moment highlights the way the spirit that has guided and continues to guide Black people is “at work in all places,” Benbow said.
“Beyoncé is a church girl, born and raised Methodist. She just released another visual album steeped in honor and reverence of the indigenous religious/spiritual practices of our ancestors,” she tweeted.
“Sis, if you have been looking for permission to explore and understand, let this be it.”