So another Black History Month is here, and for artists, writers, musicians, and other creative types that hail from the Black community, it’s an opportunity that comes with a burden.
February is a time when your workplace, school, or church might be more open to forms of artistic expression that highlights the achievements of Black people, particularly for those of you who live and/or work in a predominantly White community. And while it’s obviously a great opportunity to highlight the best of our tradition as a community, it also means that from an exposure standpoint, it’s an opening to get your songs, poems, plays, or paintings seen and heard by people who might be able to support you financially.
But the burden is the challenge of successfully executing your art without being swallowed whole by the bitterness of the struggle. I mean, let’s just be honest: struggle might be the catalyst that serves to incubate powerful works of art, but it’s terrible as a sales technique. No one can alienate their audience through their art and simultaneously persuade them to become financial supporters.
The truth is, we’ve come a long way as African Americans. No longer are we restricted to the kinds of gigs and roles that kept us docile and subservient in the minds of the majority. In recent years, there has been a greater level of visibility to the everyday struggle that Black Americans endure, and it’s also helped place a premium on authentic Black art that helps to articulate that struggle.
Still, if we’re not careful, we’ll fall into a false dichotomy, where we feel like either we must keep it fully 100 at all times with our art, or we’re selling out for the money.
But there’s a middle ground.
Discerning the Difference
Ten years ago, I was in a hip-hop duo traveling to a Christian camp to do a concert for a bunch of youth from the inner city. When I arrived onto the campus, I headed to the most logical place for music performance—the chapel.
As I walked into the chapel, I walked up to the sound booth, and told the guy that I was with the hip-hop group that was supposed to perform. He gave me this blank stare, so I thought, “Hey, it’s loud in here, so maybe he can’t hear me that well.” I tried again, a bit louder.
“I’m with the Iccsters… y’know, the hip-hop group.”
Again, he gives me this confused stare. And then he says, “This is Christian camp.”
Right then and there, I almost lost it. I could tell that he didn’t really mean to say anything offensive to me, but it was like all the years of being stereotyped as a young Black man, overlooked and misunderstood as a rap artist, all the times hip-hop had been blamed for all of society’s problems—by other Christians, no less!—almost overwhelmed me. I wanted to set him straight and tell him that there are Christians who perform hip-hop, and his assumption was shortsighted, racist, and insulting.
But I had somewhere to go, so I swallowed that rage, walked out of the room, called my contact, and located my actual destination (a different building with a smaller setup).
Often, when I’m invited to share hip-hop as a form of worship music and find myself in spaces that remind me of that day, I’m tempted to go back to that moment, tap into that rage, and give the audience a piece of my pain.
The wisdom and maturity of age helped me learn how to posture myself, not as someone with an axe to grind, but as someone with something of value to share. And when I share my pain, I do it with an eye toward giving others an opportunity to join me in my struggle, instead of guilting them for not already being onboard.
Sometimes God calls us to stand up and fight; other times, He simply gives as an opportunity to share who we are and how we got here. As an artist, my prayer is for us to flip the script and learn to discern the difference.
HARRY BELFAFONTE: “They have turned their back on social responsibility,” opined the activist and actor about today’s black celebrities. (Photo: David Shankbone/Wikipedia)
Harry Belafonte is a legendary entertainer, known for his iconic performances in films like Carmen Jones, Buck and the Preacher, and Calypso. And who can forget his award-winning “The Banana Boat Song (Day-O)”? However, in a long and distinguished career, Belafonte’s greatest accomplishments arguably may be his involvement with the civil rights movement.
During the ’50s and ’60s, Belafonte was one of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s biggest supporters and endorsers. He fully believed in the message and movement that King worked so tirelessly to establish. Belafonte provided financial support for King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) as well as the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Council (SNCC), and he also participated in several rallies and protests alongside King. Still a civic-minded crusader today at age 85, he continues to live his life as an outspoken activist for social justice and equality.
Belafonte has never been one to shy away from social commentary or hold his tongue in conversation. He has been known for his honest comments and straightforward critiques about politics, show business, and society.
In an interview last week with the Hollywood Reporter, when asked whether or not he was happy with the images of minorities portrayed in Hollywood, he caused a stir by calling out two famous black celebrities by name. “I think one of the great abuses of this modern time is that we should have had such high-profile artists, powerful celebrities,” Belafonte began. “But they have turned their back on social responsibility. That goes for Jay-Zand Beyoncé, for example.”
JAY-Z AND BEYONCE: Is it fair to compare the altruism and social involvement of today’s stars to those of the civil rights era? (Photo: Ivan Nikolov/WENN/Newscom)
Belafonte believes that industry heavyweights like Jay-Z and Beyoncé have a social responsibility to be outspoken regarding issues of race, prejudice, and civil injustices, mainly because they have the social influence and public platform to do so. Janelle Harris at Essence echoed those sentiments. “There’s been an ugly dumbing down when it comes to acknowledging and addressing pertinent issues, even having empathy for and interest in what’s impacting our community. It’s an attitude of detachment,” she said.
She added: “I agree with Harry Belafonte. I think young people could be doing more. Twenty, thirty, forty-somethings. It’s not just the celebrities, though they’re certainly part of the vanguard for making philanthropy and activism cool, which is unfortunately necessary for some folks to get involved.”
Jay-Z and Beyoncé are definitely the closest thing the black community has to pop-culture royalty today. The hip-hop power couple topped Forbes list this year as the world’s highest-paid celebrity duo, raking in a staggering $78 million. But are they giving back?
Guardian columnist Tricia Rose wonders as much. She writes, “It is undeniable that today’s top black artists and celebrities have the greatest leverage, power, visibility and global influence of any period. It is also true that few speak openly, regularly and publicly on behalf of social justice. Most remain remarkably quiet about the conditions that the majority of black people face.”
Many celebrities often take on a non-controversial role or use their celebrity indirectly as a fundraising tool, rather than taking an overt stance to engage civically. Rose continues to say that her previous statement is not intended to, “discount their philanthropic efforts,” but to raise awareness. And Belafonte’s lament illuminates a fundamental shift in black popular culture.
“As black artists have gone mainstream, their traditional role has shifted. No longer the presumed cultural voice of the black collective social justice, it is now heavily embedded in mass cultural products controlled by the biggest conglomerates in the world,” says Rose.
FREEDOM FIGHTERS: Belafonte (center) with fellow actors Sidney Poitier (left) and Charlton Heston at the historic civil rights March on Washington, D.C., in 1963.
Rose notes that individuals like Belafonte willfully sacrificed their safety and lives by marching with civil rights protesters under threat of police violence. His commitment and contributions are rare among modern superstars.
She adds: “In the history of black culture popular music and art has played an extraordinary role in keeping the spirit alive under duress, challenging discrimination and writing the soundtrack to freedom movements.” Visionaries like Paul Robeson, Lorraine Hansberry, and Nina Simone are a few that Rose believes understood that responsibility and made a conscious effort to better society through both their art and fame.
As for Beyoncé, the singer’s representatives did respond to Belafonte’s charge by citing a litany of the singer’s charitable acts, including funding of inner-city outreaches in her hometown of Houston, as well as donations to hurricane relief efforts in the Gulf Coast and humanitarian campaigns following the Haiti earthquake.
In fairness to Beyoncé and Jay-Z, it is not for any of us to judge how they use their money, nor to pressure them into being more generous than they already are. What’s more, the issues in today’s society are quite different than they were during the civil rights era. So, it might be unfair to impose those kinds of expectations on today’s African American celebrities.
Still, it’s hard not to feel that we do need more influential people with Belafonte’s mindset to help us reenergize the black community. His contributions over the course of his career have changed the world for the better and have proven that entertainers can be important difference makers for change and justice.
IN RADICAL COMPANY: Tonéx with gospel artist Fred Hammond at the 2008 BET Celebration of Gospel in L.A.
If you’ve made it this far, you know what this series is about. In the first three parts, we took a look at Christian music as a whole, the cultural definition of gospel music, and the identity of the artist formerly known as Tonéx in light of all of this.
Next up, some conclusions. (But first, an illustration.)
In the critically acclaimed series Sports Night, sports anchor Casey McCall (Peter Krause) has the following exchange with his co-host and best friend Dan Rydell (Josh Charles):
“How can I be cool again? I’m a newly divorced man, I’m young, I used to be cool, I need to be cool again. Help me… be cool again.”
“Well, first I would need to disabuse you of the notion that you were ever cool before.”
Christian music: same as it never was
If we’re really going to understand the extent to which Christian music in general, and gospel music specifically, has ceased to be particularly “Christian” or full of the gospel message, we’ve got to come to grips with the fact that, on a large scale, much of it never was in the first place.
Not that there has never been any music written or created by Christians used by God to proclaim His glory and fulfill His purposes. On the contrary, God has been using people for that purpose since the days of Asaph and the sons of Korah.
The issue, rather, is that the arbitrary manner that evangelicals in the ’80s and ’90s were taught to discern which music is good, legitimate, and holy and which music is bad, wrong, and sinful was flawed at best and hypocritical at worst.
It’s time to stop the charade.
We must get away from using terms like secular and Christian to differentiate the music recorded by and/or marketed to Christian people.
Those terms didn’t work before, and they don’t work now.
Some songs by some artists do a great job at communicating truth, and others by others do a poor job. Some artists glorify God by creating great art that stimulates the senses and appeals to our sense of beauty and awe. Others glorify God more explicitly by calling our attention to His mighty acts and wondrous ways. And some just know how to set a great hook to a good beat so they can put food on the table.
In the grand scheme of things, there should be plenty of room in the marketplace for artists across the spectrum of aesthetic achievement and spiritual significance.
But if we can’t tell which is which, then the problem is not with the artist or the song; the problem is with us as listeners. And since listeners are the customers in this commercial model, then listeners must be the ones to start changing if we’re going to change the system.
We’ve got to be smarter. We must learn to understand the difference between the gift of music, the vessels who carry the gift, and the Giver who created them both.
And we must learn to appreciate, support, and promote music from musicians who do their best to honor God and make a difference with their music, regardless of whether they are being promoted by a “Christian” record label, a “secular” record label, or are completely independent, especially since some of the best musicians out there started with the former but are now doing the latter.
Don’t call it gospel, either
Language matters, y’all.
If we’re going to bring about change in the gospel music industry, we’ve got to find another word to describe the music. Dawkins and Dawkins called it “rhythm and praise,” awhile back. Maybe that will work, maybe not.
But we need something else.
It’s not that the word gospel is bad, just culturally loaded. The meaning has gotten so diluted that it’s no longer useful. The priorities of today’s contemporary gospel listener are so far out of whack that we tend to care more about whether the beats are hot than the message being transmitted.
That’s why pastors like my man Cole Brown of Emmaus Church (author of Lies My Pastor Told Me) tends to opt for phrases like “gospel-centered” to describe the kind of music that he wants his flock to listen to.
Gospel music might have started being only about the message of Christ, but after a while, we consumers have learned to blindly trust the reputations of the artists themselves and the industry machinery that marketed their wholesome imagery to our willing eyes and ears.
And it’s made us lazy.
Many of us have fallen prey to the prosperity gospel and other distortions of Christ’s message because we’ve learned to turn off our brains anytime the beat is bangin’ and the track has “Jesus” in the hook.
Bad for us, bad for them
And while more and more esteemed Christian recording artists have been scandalized by divorce, infidelity, or other forms of impropriety, most Christians shrugged and kept listening. Consumers of American church culture, we’ve learned to just move on to the next wave of talent instead of trying to bring substantial reform to an industry that leaves so many anointed musicians personally shipwrecked and morally adrift.
Because that’s what’s really insidious about this whole thing.
The arbitrary division between sacred and secular is not only bad for the listeners, but it’s bad for the artists, too. Too many people assume that just because a person is anointed by God to minister with music, it means that person has their life together.
We put our artists up on pedestals without giving them a way down.
And artists don’t live or work in a vacuum. But when these folks go through the trials of life, either we’re too busy to notice, or we find ourselves offering excuses without taking the time to look closely.
In many cases, the people who are close enough and involved enough to make a difference in the lives of our best artists are too scared to risk angering their friends and losing access to influence and revenue in the process. So they refuse to ask tough questions of our artists that can hold them accountable.
Though I don’t know him personally enough to know for sure, I’m fairly certain this is what happened to Tonéx, and it happened so consistently for so long that after a while he felt like he couldn’t reconcile who he felt he was to the person everyone expected him to be.
Though he is still ultimately responsible for his choices and will stand before God to account for them just like all of us, I understand a little more about how Anthony C. Williams went from singing as Tonéx to singing as Brian Slade. His was not only an individual failing, but a failing of the system as a whole.
And I’m saying … if we want the system to change, we have to change what we look for in our music, and what we use to describe it.
Lose the baggage, keep the flavor
This issue is the biggest reason why so many rappers like to refer to themselves as Christians-who-rap rather than Christian rappers. They’re trying to sidestep all of that baggage.
I used to think that was dishonest of them, especially compared to the bold stand displayed by members of The Cross Movement and the 116 Clique / Reach Records crew. Now, in retrospect, it seems pretty smart.
So that’s my advice to up-and-coming artists today.
Lose the baggage, and keep the flavor.
Stop selling your material in the Christian discount bin, and take the bold step of getting yourself out in the marketplace, where your music can be experienced, appreciated, and critiqued like everybody elses.
If you’re good, people will notice. If you’re a Christian and you want your music to bless other Christians, people will notice that, too. Christians use iTunes and eMusic just like everyone else.
And if you’re not as good as you thought you were, or if you don’t meet the expectations that others might have had of you … so what? Maybe you’re just supposed to be obedient. Or maybe your music will open a door and lead you into the next phase of ministry you’re supposed to be in.
And note, there’s nothing wrong with having a music ministry that is aimed primarily at Christians or churchgoing people. (That’s the sweet spot for my own hip-hop crew.) But if you’re going to do that, be honest about who you are, and resist the urge to live up to other people’s expectations if they’re not biblical.
More importantly, if you’re going to minister in that fashion, make sure you have people in your corner who knew you as a person before they knew you as an artist. As an artist, you need people in your ear who care more about pleasing God than making you feel good. You need folks who can challenge you to walk in a manner worthy of your gift and calling.
But what about Tonéx?
The good news is that, as I said before, if Tonéx is a believer in Christ (which it seems he is), then his name is written in the Lamb’s Book of Life, and that is a very good thing. That is worth rejoicing over.
And the extent to which songs in his catalog reflect that reality, those songs should be listened to, celebrated and promoted. I’m thinking, for example, of a song like “To Know You, Lord” from Out The Box. It’s a very nice, relaxed, smooth, jazzy worship tune.
Yet, we cannot afford to lose our vigilance in engaging the lyrics. We need to be asking ourselves things like, “What does it really mean to know the Lord? How do we know if we do or not?” As we listen to our music, we must be like the Bereans, who checked the things they heard against the Scriptures.
This vigilance is especially important in light of the role that music plays in modern and postmodern culture. In American society, artists are the prophets. So we must use discernment in the way that we engage with art, whether “Christian” or not — otherwise, we could be led astray by another gospel.
On the flipside, we must not have a judgmental attitude as we do this. Not that we shouldn’t use our judgment, but we can’t act like just because an artist has struggles in an area, nothing they have to say is worth hearing. If God can use a donkey to speak, he can use an imperfect person, even if that person is a nonbeliever.
And if you want to buy any Tonéx recordings or attend any of his live shows — including the ones he’s been doing as “B. Slade,” just approach it like you would any other concert. If you enjoy the music and you think you’ll have a good time, and you can conduct yourself in a manner that represents the Lord while you’re out in public, then go. If not, or if you think it might be a stumbling block to the people around you, then don’t.
The end of Christian music
The truth is, the end is near. We are in the last days of Christian music. As the years continue to turn, we will see more and more signs of the end of Christian music as we know it.
And this, for the many reasons I’ve covered, is, generally speaking, a good thing.
But there’s another end we need to consider.
If we as Christian consumers are to be discerning about the media that we consume, then we need to consider this other end. And if we as Christian musicians are going to be successful in creating, marketing, and sustaining our musical vocation, then we definitely need to be aware of the other end.
We need to understand the end of Christian music … the goal. The Aristotelian virtue of it. What is the point of listening to, evaluating, and creating this music, or any music?
It’s the same as anything else.
Man’s chief end, according to catechism, is to glorify God and enjoy Him forever.
If our music, despite the exterior labels, despite the cultural connotations, despite the raft of expectations riding on each release … if our music can do those two things — help us to glorify God and enjoy Him in some way — then we’re doing something right.
And regardless of how uncomfortable it may feel, this is, I believe, the direction that God is calling us toward.
When we are pleasing God, we don’t have to care what others think. We don’t have to care what our sales numbers look like. We don’t even have to care whether we live or die, because as Paul says, to be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord.
And in that state, we’re free to live out the ethos of the great theologian Michael Stipe — yes, that Michael Stipe, of R.E.M. — who once penned the following lyrics:
“It’s the end of the world as we know it, and I feel fine.”
Let the church say “amen.”
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