Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Tomorrow's Class

I'm creating my class for tomorrow and thought I'd post some of it here since it's so blindingly interesting and insightful :P The topic is Popular Music and Religion, and my thesis is that since the earliest days of the record charts (and before, of course, but I only have 55 minutes so I have to narrow it down somehow!) singers, songwriters, and musicians have used songs as a medium through which they can both express their religious beliefs and challenge the religious (and social) status quo. Because music is so popular, fluid, and well broadcast its an ideal medium for the message, and the message can easily be found in secular music the world over. To illustrate this point we'll spend time listening to and watching (what is shown in music videos can be equally as important as what is said in the lyrics) music and videos that encompass many different genres (R&B, gospel, rap, soul, pop, rock and roll) and nearly half a century.

We begin with Sam Cooke. Where else could we possibly begin? Born in Mississippi in 1931, Cooke moved to Chicago as a small child. In 1950 he joined the gospel group The Soul Stirrers (one of the most popular and influential gospel groups- they'd been around since the late 1920's) as their lead singer. Cooke had an immediate hit with the Soul Stirrers with "Jesus Gave Me Water", although my personal favorite from this time is "The Hem of His Garment". Cooke spent the next 7 years with the Soul Stirrers, and when he left in 1957 to pursue a pop career the Soul Stirrers most successful days ended.

But Sam Cooke was just getting started. Between 1957 and his death in 1966 he had 29 Top 40 hits, and is considered one of the most influential musicians in the creation of soul. His musical influence is wide ranging and encompasses such performers as John Lennon, Al Greene, Rod Stewart, Otis Redding and Bob Marley.

Early reggae was, in many ways, essentially gospel set to a Jamaican beat. My favorite of this genre (and since I'm giving the class I get to pick my favorites) is "Rivers of Babylon", which was written by Brent Dowe and Trevor McNaughton of The Melodians (a Jamaican reggae trio formed in the early 1960s). Many of the lyrics are taken from Psalm 137, a psalm that was written about the exile of the Jewish people to Babylon in 547 BCE. Some lyrics have been changed or added to reflect the Rasta beliefs of the song's writers. Many people have covered the song since- everyone from Sinead O'Connor to Sublime. I grew up listening to Jimmy Cliff sing it, but these days I prefer the Sublime version. You can listen to it in the music player at the bottom of my blog. Here are the lyrics:

By the rivers of Babylon,
Where he sat down,
And there he wept
When he remembered Zion.
Oh, the wicked carried us away in captivity,
Required from us a song,
How can we sing King Alpha's song
Inna strange land?
So, let the words of our mouth
And the meditations of our heart
Be acceptable in Thy sight.
Oh, verai!

And Psalm 137:
By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept
when we remembered Zion

There on the poplars
we hung our harps

for there our captors asked us for songs,
our tormentors demanded songs of joy;
they said, "Sing us one of the songs of Zion!"

How can we sing the songs of the LORD
while in a foreign land?

"Zion" is an important religious concept in Judaism, Christianity, and Rasta. Another well known song that touches on this theme (and owes some debts to both Reggae and the Bible) is Lauryn Hill's "To Zion", written for her son. You can hear this one on my blog music player, too. In it, Hill (perhaps somewhat immodestly) places herself in the roll of Mary in the Annunciation (when the angel Gabriel came to Mary and told her that she was pregnant by the Holy Spirit), and Zion is both her beloved son and a longed for place of religious fulfillment. She critiques the cultural claim that children are a burden, particularly to young women with careers, and G-d as the source of the blessing of children. Lyrics:

Unsure of what the balance held
I touched my belly overwhelmed
By what I had been chosen to perform
But then an angel came one day
Told me to kneel down and pray
For unto me a man child would be born
Woe this crazy circumstance
I knew his life deserved a chance
But everybody told me to be smart
Look at your career they said,
"Lauryn, baby use your head"
But instead I chose to use my heart

Now the joy of my world is in Zion
Now the joy of my world is in Zion

How beautiful if nothing more
Than to wait at Zion's door
I've never been in love like this before
Now let me pray to keep you from
The perils that will surely come
See life for you my prince has just begun
And I thank you for choosing me
To come through unto life to be
A beautiful reflection of his grace
For I know that a gift so great
Is only one God could create
And I'm reminded every time I see your face

That the joy of my world is in Zion.

Some performers, however, are critical of religion and its broader cultural context, and use this critique to illuminate all manner of social ills. Immortal Technique is an independent New York rapper (he has refused offers made him by record labels) and cultural critic. His songs are harsh, and dripping with anger and profanity- but they are also educated and eloquent. Here is the video of "Point of No Return" (warning for those sensative to profanity- there is lots!):

I cannot deny the value of anger.

But I don't see anger as the only tool of social change. U2 (most especially Bono, the lead singer) is well known for their religiously motivated (and generally positive) lyrics and their political activism. Since 2004 Mainline Protestant churches have begun using U2's secular songs as hymns in services called "U2-charists". U2's list of religiously inspired songs is so long I don't even know where to begin- but since we were talking about Psalms earlier I guess we can start there. The last track on U2's 1983 album "War" is called "40" and is based on- you guessed it- Psalm 40. "40" has been a frequent concert closer from 1983-1990 and 2005-present. Their 2004 album "How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb" contained the song "Crumbs from the Table", the title and lyrics of which reference Matthew 15 (and Luke 16): the story of the Canaanite woman who follows Jesus begging him to heal her daughter. He refuses her twice, telling her that he is sent to the Israelites alone, and that it is not right that dogs should be given food when the children are still hungry (nice one, Jesus!). She replies that even the dogs get the crumbs from the table when the children are through, and he praises her faith and heals her daughter. U2-charist services appear to gravitate to late 80's and early 90's U2, using such songs as "Until the End of the World" (which features a conversation between Jesus and Judas Iscariot), "One", and "Mysterious Ways". I'd guess this is a demographic choice- 30 somethings are heavily courted by churches these days. Here's the video for "Until the end of the World".

Just as U2 helps to contemporize Christianity, so Outlandish presents us with an up-to-the-moment Islam. Outlandish is a Danish hip hop group comprised of 3 members- 2 Muslim (of Moroccan and Pakistani descent) and one Christian (of Honduran descent). There music is not, therefore, exclusively Muslim, but a number of their songs are. "Look into my Eyes", the first single from their 2005 album "Closer than Veins" uses a poem by Palestinian Gihad Ali as the lyrics. Ali wrote the poem as a teenager and it deals with issues of American foreign policy in Israel and Palestine.

Outlandish also does an English-language cover of "Aicha", a song first made popular in French by Algerian singer Khaled. I am particularly interested in the video for "Aicha", as it features such a variety of Muslim women: in hijeb, in typical Western clothing, shopping, teaching, with families and children, women who are of Arabic, African, and European heritage. Muslim women are so routinely portrayed as one dimensional in our cultural image, and I appreciate the way this video give some breadth and depth to the faces and lives of Muslim women, all the while affirming their worth and desirability. See for yourself:

Longest blog post ever, eh? Well, that'll probably wrap it up for my class tomorrow. But I really can't leave you without recommending Tom Wait's "Chocolate Jesus". That man is unique, and so is his delicious religious song. Here he is live on Letterman.

...And that's what I do for a living!


Stacie said...

oh I love it, you make your classes so interested, how dare they text during it. :)

Andrea said...

I need an hour to read and digest all that. Fascinating. I love what you do! And so happy you can always answer 'those' questions.