Mar 30, 2013

The One Where Christian Music Bloggers Are Uncomfortable with Race

In the film "The United States of Leland", Ryan Gosling was a youth who was put in a detention center as he was awaiting trial for a horrific crime that you don't fully realize what it is until the end of the film.  He's talking to Don Cheadle, who is the instructor there in his class, and in this discussion he points out a fault that Cheadle has and Cheadle responds with "I'm only Human, man." To which Gosling brilliantly quips, "It's funny how people only say that after they do something bad. I mean, you never hear someone say, "I'm only human" after they rescue a kid from a burning building."

I think that's how many of us in the Christian community seem to be.  We tend to want to hold others up to impossible standards that we ourselves don't want to be held up to. We don't have a problem pointing out others' shortcomings and failures, but when it is throw back on us the tendency to rely on the tried and true "I'm only Human, none of us are perfect" is a bit tempting.

I am reminded of that when I've seen some criticism lately from Christian music reviewers, as it pertains to Christian rapper Sho Baraka's newest album The Xth and more specifically his song "Jim Crow".  I've seen quite a few reviewers take issue with some of the strong language in the song, namely his using the "N-Word" as well as the words "bitch" and "hoe".

                                                MORE AFTER THE BREAK

And if you only hear that, you may think that they have a point, because how can a Christian artist use those words in their music, right?  However if you listen to ALL the words, and not just three, then you get the realization that there's a story there and that Sho has a story to tell.

It's not just that there was racism in the past, but that racism still persists.  That many people seem to continue this evil racism today through their words and actions.  That there is still this systematic racism in place that prevents equality.  Is it better than it was? Sure, but that doesn't mean that we need to just get complacent and decide that we can stop fighting.

In particular, I see some white reviewers angry about the "Divisive" nature of the song, and the idea that the Christian artist should not use that type of angry language.  I disagree on every point.  And I'll go even further and say that those white reviewers (and full disclosure, I'm white) are reacting in a way in which their white privilege is shining through, yet they can't see it. 

Specifically, there was a review at JesusFreakHideout which, despite seeming to praise the album in all aspects except this one song, gave it a 2.5 out of 5, had this telling quote:

Perhaps the most offensive part of the entire song isn't the ugly words Sho uses, but the fact that he states that black men are used only to be exploited by white men and to help them reach their goals. Sho paints with a very broad and hurtful brush. Perhaps it should be hurtful to some, but it should not be all-encompassing. Instead, "Jim Crow" takes a very direct approach and does not seem to allow for any room other than Sho's stance.  

The remarks that are referred to in there is Sho's references to Hollywood often casting black actors in roles as the so-called Magical Negro" where they exist solely to help out the white characters, and often have mystical powers or great insight that they use to help guide the white characters to their goals.  Examples include The Green Mile and The Legend of Bagger Vance.

However the reviewer seems to be extrapolating from those lyrics that Sho is simply referring to white people in general using black people for their own gains, and discarding them afterwards.  That's not even close to what was being said.  He was making those comments specifically in regards to Hollywood.  In fact here is Sho's lyrics where he makes that reference.

Hollywood wants to pimp us to get dough
Exploit us, but give us money
Somebody say “Ho!”

Let’s thank them movies and them TV shows
Be a token or I’ll play an Uncle Tom role
Or be a magic negro until the day I’m gone
Help the white man reach his goal
But never reach my own

Or an oversexed male
Even a coon
A young man who loves ignorance
Praising his doom

So that reviewer seemed to be caught up in how uncomfortable the lyrics and the rawness of the subject matter made him feel, and wasn't able to properly put it in the appropriate context.  And in the process, he did Sho a great disservice by misinterpreting what he said and presenting him out of context to readers.

However I think it's very typical of some white people to tell a black person how to feel about something.  What language is or isn't appropriate, or not to tackle a subject such as the systemic racism that is deeply embedded in our nation's history, because it is "divisive".  I wrote about this in a way recently with the situation that Beyonce finds herself in with her song "Bow Down".  Many people are upset at her for using the phrase "Bow Down Bitches", while giving a pass to men who say the same word, and worse. And while I pointed out that I didn't care if she said it, I just didn't like the song, I acknowledged that there are those out there who are acting like they have a right to tell Beyonce what she can and cannot say in a song, just like in this situation, there seems to be some who would insist that Sho refrain from using strong language because it causes them to be uncomfortable.

What they are saying is "when you point out the racist history of this country, you are going to alienate many customers out there that don't like to hear that.  They don't like to know what this country did, and/or want everyone to "just get over it."

That was so long ago, you know?  I mean we have a bi-racial President now...that means racism is over, and focusing on that whole pesky racism thing is counter productive.  WE (as white people) have been able to put that behind us and move on and succeed, why can't you black people do the same?

Do I need to point out how ridiculous that view is?  Sadly it is a very real viewpoint that many have.  All you have to do is turn on Fox News and you'll see actual TV talking heads saying pretty much that same thing.  Which makes sense when you realize that in a 2010 poll, it appears that only 1.38% of Fox News' viewers are black.  So it stands to reason that with that many white people watching your network, you would have a vested interest in not looking back in history.

Also there's another point here that isn't being addressed, I don't think.  And that is the fact that for just about as long as I can remember, Christian music has been very vanilla.  I don't mean that in a race related way (although there's that aspect as well), but more to the point of being bland and plain.  I wrote about this when I did my review of Lecrae's "Rehab" album.

Growing up I found Christian music to be very plain and bland and just ordinary.  The lyrics were banal and cliched to the point of being laughable.  Which is why nobody I knew listened to Christian music, except those in the church whose parents didn't let them listen to anything else.

The mission, it appeared, was to try to be as non-controversial as possible.  Don't speak on political issues, simply do the typical "Jesus Loves Me" type of thing.  The production values were trash making it impossible to really get behind.  Growing up I listened to a variety of Christian artists of all genres, whether it was Kenny Marks, Rick Cua, Amy Grant (more on her in a bit), Petra, Stryper, DC Talk and more.  However almost all of those artists were very color-by-number, so to speak.  Petra and Stryper would hit the slightly harder edged type of music, but the lyrics for the most part weren't really that noticeable. and often were overly simplistic.

The point seemed to be to have this stable of Stepford artists that put out the most easily accessible, non threatening music possible.  And it sucked hard (with few exceptions).  Also everyone had to have this perfect image, and anyone that dared do something that reeks of human behavior was marginalized and kicked to the curb.

One thing that I'll always remember is when Amy Grant (who I like) got a divorce, many in the Christian music industry completely and utterly lost their collective minds.  It was as if she she committed the worst sin every conceived, and that if she did not fall on her knees and grovel at the feet of every industry exec and beg for their forgiveness, then she would be shunned.

This went down when I was in Virginia, and I remember the Christian book stores pulling her albums from the shelves in the aftermath of her divorce.  Somehow those albums which praised the Lord exuberantly, were now not Christian enough or something.  It's this sense of hypocrisy that so many in the industry have where they want these artists to live up to some impossible example, and when they inevitably are shown to be human, they are eviscerated and cast out.

People like that are the reason that I have questioned my beliefs so much, because I look out and see people like that, that are supposed Christians, and it makes me think that if THEY are representative of what it means to be a Christian, then maybe I've been fooling myself.

I see bigots and racists all around, all cloaked in the word of God, and I'm told I have to behave a certain way, speak a certain way, BELIEVE a certain way, and even VOTE a certain way, and if I don't, then I'm not a REAL Christian.   It's mind boggling and sadly it's very real.

Disgraced Christian comic Mike Warnke once had a quote (albeit while playing the victim after having lied repeatedly about his past) where he said "The only army that shoots its wounded is the Christian Army."   And while he uttered those words while playing martyr for things that were wholly his fault, I always felt that those words rang true too often.

I mean look at how many Christians went in on Kirk Franklin because he had the audacity to use secular artists in his music.  He had the nerve to reach out and try to appeal to a broader audience rather than simply, to use a pun/cliche, preach to the choir.  And he would inject a more urban vibe to his music, incorporating hip hop sensibilities to reach a broader audience.


I understand the fear that some have of letting the un Godly infect the Godly and water it down and whatnot, but when you have a situation where you only want your music to be catered to those that ALREADY believe what you are saying, you are limiting your audience, and speaking only in a business sense, you're cutting off your nose to spite your face.  I remember first hearing about Kirk Franklin on MTV of all places,  when I saw the video for his song "Stomp" which featured Salt from Salt & Pepa.  If it wasn't for that video being on a mainstream channel, I'd have never heard of Franklin, or went on to hear his Christian music.

Artists like Sho Baraka, Braille, Lecrae, Shei Atkins, Evidence and others are a new breed of Christian artist.  They are able to get across their message of Jesus while simultaneously also reflecting realism in their music.  They can tackle serious subjects, broach real life issues, all the while maintaining their spirituality and not succombing to the dark side. 

And fortunately for those who like Christian music with a message and deep lyrics, they aren't afraid to make some lily-white bloggers uncomfortable with the fact that this country had and continues to have a very serious problem when it comes to racism.  And sticking your head in the sand pretending it doesn't exist may work for you in your life, but thank God that doesn't work for them.

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