Sunday night Chance the Rapper took home three Grammys. It felt like a victory for black music, especially as the night ended with the Album of the Year award going to Adele for a project that came out in 2015 over Beyoncé's Lemonade. The Chicago rapper's story already felt like a win; five years ago he was a high schooler with a promising mixtape, and now he's being mentioned among music's greats. It was beautiful, on Grammy night, to see an artist whose rise runs so parallel with the changing rules of the music come away with honors for Best Rap Performance, Best New Artist, and Best Rap Album. The acceptance speech for Best New Artist was joyous, as Chance spoke about the freedom he strives for as an independent artist. Yet it was also difficult to watch as he laid on heavy religious overtones.
Chance's religious beliefs have also run parallel to his arc of achievement over the past year. His guest verse on Kanye West's "Ultralight Beam"—the most overt gospel song on an album West said would be fully gospel—defended his beliefs against naysayers and drew inspiration from the Bible's Luke 23:34, which states "Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do." The verse was Chance's "I've arrived" moment, where he cited finally working with his idol, West, as a sign that his career would continue flourishing and solidified his case for eternal life by referencing works like gospel-leaning "Sunday Candy." It was also in this verse that Chance rapped about challenging the old guard and making his then-forthcoming mixtape Coloring Book eligible for a Grammy without selling it commercially. His three awards last night cannot be separated from that unwavering faith and work ethic. One of the most valuable functions of his "Ultralight Beam" verse is the message that if you believe in something hard enough and dedicate your life to it, you will be rewarded. Life isn't always that simple for believers or nonbelievers, but like with church sermons, it's the conviction in the message that resonates with a congregation or, in this case, a digital audience. This religiosity sometimes makes being an all-in fan of Chance challenging; while any fan of independent music, black achievement, and black visibility should be happy for all of Chance's accomplishments, his constant invocation of God is jarring because of the way Christianity has been used as a weapon against the black community in America.
Sunday night, Chance performed Coloring Book's "How Great" backed by a choir dressed in white, accompanied by two of gospel music's biggest stars, Kirk Franklin and Tamela Mann. In the lone verse Chance has in the song, he makes multiple references to the Bible: "The type of worship make Jesus come back a day early," references the Bible's instructions on always being prepared for the second coming of Jesus. Many of the church sermons my childhood pastor gave warned us to never be a half-ass worshipper if we wanted to be swept up in the rapture. "With the faith of a pumpkin seed-sized mustard seed," references the Bible's Matthew 17:20, in which Jesus tells his disciples that faith the size of a mustard seed is enough to move mountains. In the tape's first track, "All We Got," (which was also performed Sunday night) Chance raps "I get my word from the sermon / I do not talk to the serpent / That's the holistic discernment." This wasn't the first time Chance had gone on national television and shared this kind of message. In October, he performed "Blessings (Reprise)," on Fallon. In that song, he cites his belief in God as the reason for his abilities and success: "I speak to God in public, I speak to God in public / He keep my rhymes in couplets/ He think the new shit jam, I think we mutual fans." Most songs on Coloring Book lend at least a few lines to Chance's Christian faith.
Gospel music is the crown jewel of the black church. No matter how dynamic a pastor or reverend delivers their message at the closing of a service, it's the choir that most consistently lifts the spirits of the congregation. It's the reason why artists who may be fully removed from the church or never physically in it still occasionally throw gospel elements into their music (Kanye West's "Jesus Walks," Drake's "Lord Knows" Talib Kweli's "Get By"). It is arguably the most American genre. Its origins cannot be discussed without a study of the history of this country and how it became the world's most powerful empire from the free labor of African slaves. Gospel was created out of necessity. It gave a voice to those who, in every other avenue of their lives, felt physically and figuratively silenced. Hearing a choir's collective voice roar and vibrate throughout a sanctuary is one of the most exhilarating experiences that American music has to offer—this is true to the point that a gospel choir has become shorthand for a certain kind of emotional display. Some of the memes and gifs that most properly convey supreme joy, victory or overcoming obstacles are ones that recycle church goers catching the Holy Ghost with their hands waving, skipping down the church aisle, or breaking out into unrecognizable, spirited dances. Hearing a song that speaks to the heart—ones about how even when down and out, God has been there to hold you up or how the challenges of life will no longer exists when you pass on and meet him and other loved ones in Heaven—holds immeasurable power. It's music with a message about escaping trauma and experiencing full freedom and peace that can resonate with anyone if the specifics of the Christian faith are swapped out.
Much of that ideology, though, while potentially empowering, feels dangerous to the black psyche in today's world. So much of the Christianity that is practiced in the black church was used as a weapon to hold the community down. It feels backward at this point to place faith in a God that rewards you most for being a merciful person, even to those who treat you without an ounce of respect or recognition of your humanity. It's what kept some inert during slavery, believing that acting in revolt would not be pleasing to God. It's what made families of those killed at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church by Dylan Roof be forgiving.
Of course, this is not every black person's experience with Christianity. Much of the black church's value is not confined to echoing the lord's praises. Equally important is its function as community and refuge. Most of my family's church consisted of my own blood relatives and others whose families helped establish the church when my great-grandmother was a child. My experience was not one of rigorous Bible study, Christian camps, or missionary work. My fondest memories recall moments of gathering, eating with family, playing football with cousins and friends on the church's blacktop, and enjoying quiet laughs with other children about the way some church members would catch the Holy Ghost.
These experiences changed for me as I entered my late teens and spent much of my Sunday mornings in church obsessing over the Book of Revelation, equally terrified and turned off by how chaotic the world was supposed to become for those who did not get it together in time for Jesus's return. My first year of college at Long Island University's Brooklyn campus was spent learning from people who practiced Hinduism, Islam, Judaism, and Buddhism—a gumbo of experiences that I didn't come across growing up in Baltimore. These people, mostly in their late teens as I was, were still trying to figure things out while staying true to the belief systems they were raised on. But to my own family, because they weren't Christians, they were all doomed to Hell. And now with my own departure from the religion, I am constantly reminded by my family that I share the same fate. That way of thinking—and the implied support of demonizing anyone whose values didn't line up with mine to a T—permanently turned me away.
It's not any of my business whether or not Chance's faith mirrors any of those beliefs, but I cannot help but feel a constant tug-and-pull while witnessing his admirable maturation. The rap fan in me is fully satisfied watching him break down barriers, adding depth to the Black American narrative. On the other end, I cringe when I hear him continuously tie every accomplishment to a complicated God. My mind travels to films I've watched and books I've read about Christianity being of one of strongest tools used to stifle black progress. In Paulo Freire's 1968 book Pedagogy of the Oppressed, he wrote, "The oppressed, having internalized the image of the oppressor and adopted his guidelines, are fearful of freedom." Practicing Christianity as a black person in 2017, where we are still subject to many of the injustices we've been experiencing since arriving in America, feels like screaming into an echo chamber, wishing for something to work when it hasn't proved to. Subscribing to a belief system that many of us would not practice had it not been for slavery (I know Christianity existed in pre-colonial Africa, but that's not where most African-Americans get their faith from) keeps our salvation bound to the oppressor. But the beauty of music is that it holds the power to transcend whatever may divide us as people.
Chance's music loses or gains no value because of his personal beliefs. Separating myself from the intended purpose of the music, I often listen to gospel and recognize that if I were to step back into a church for reasons other than a funeral, it would be the music that brings me. Better than most have done within rap, Chance upholds his religious beliefs all while speaking about drug usage, reminiscing about teenage flings, and embracing artists who don't speak on their relationship with his personal God. And while I disagree with his religious beliefs, if there is anything to be learned from his rise it's that, faith in something, whether that be in God, your community, or just yourself can help you realize your dreams. That is something I can get fully behind.
Photo: Kevin Winter/Getty Images for NARAS
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