“In the United States, Protestantism has been both the privileged religious discourse and the discursive frame privileged in efforts to define both ‘religion’ and race,’ alongside a host of other modern categories. Such was the case even as race, framed as secular, modern discourse, was hailed as the principle of social organization that trumped religion — as an umbrella term for a host of ‘primitive practices’ associated with a previous epoch — under the sign of modernity. In short, to become a modern subject was not simply to become secular or to lose one’s religion. Rather, it was to acquire ‘good religion,’ which meant ascribing to a particular sort of Christianity (read: primarily ethical, literate, and reasoning). Good religion took on the form of white Protestantism. In contrast, black religion was ‘bad religion” in that it carried, by definition, evidence of earlier, African ways of being in the world….”
Josef Sorett, “Secular Compared to What?”, in Race and Secularism in American, ed. Johnathan S. Kahn and Vincent W. Lloyd (Columbia Univ. Press, 2016), p. 50
I always thought of Gil Scot-Heron as the godfather of rap. But Ted Brooks and the Jubalaires antedated him by a couple of decades.
The Jubalaires formed as the Royal Harmony Singers in the late 1930s. Coming out of the Southern gospel tradition of Jubilee-style quartets, the Jubalaires went north to New York City. By 1946, they were regulars on the popular Arthur Godfrey radio program, and they had their own fifteen-minute program every Sunday morning as well. They were accompanied by a series of excellent jazz guitarists, but their music was mostly focused on tight vocal harmonies. As a gospel group, the topic of many of their songs was Bible stories or other religious topics.
So where does the rap come in? Well, one of their best known recordings is a song called “Noah.” After singing an introductory part in four-part harmony, baritone Theodore “Ted” Brooks takes the lead. But Brooks doesn’t sing, he raps. It wasn’t called rap back then, but today there’s no other word for it. His rhythm, his rhymes, the whole feel of it sounds a lot like some of the early rap I listened to back around 1980. I could almost imagine that Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five had listened to Ted Brooks, except that the members of that group were born in the late 1950s and early 1960s, well after the hey-day of the Jubalaires. And of course, Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five did not take Bible stories for their topics. But if they had — if they had done something about the story of Noah, for example — we could imagine that it might have sounded something like Ted Brooks in the mid-1940s:
“Hey children, stop, be still and listen to me, When God walked down to the brandy sea He declared that the evil descend from man, And then he decided to destroy the land. He spoke to Noah, and Noah stopped. He said, ‘Noah, I want you to build me an ark, ‘I want you to build it three cubits long, ‘I want you to build it big and strong, ‘I want it thirty high and fifty wide ‘So it will stand the wind and tide.’…”
Hard to believe that the first rapper was making rhymes about Bible stories. Now I’ve got to figure out a way to use this in a Sunday school curriculum….
At the end of August, “The Ongoing History of Protest Music” website had a blog post titled “A Month of Protest.” The first song they featured was “Black AF,” by Crystal Axis, an Afropunk band from Kenya. (Before you crank up the sound be aware that, like a lot of punk rock, “Black AF” is Not Safe For Work.)
I didn’t even know that leftist punk rock still existed. But Crystal Axis are keeping the tradition alive with some really hard-hitting songs. As I started listening to their music, I was particularly struck by their 2017 song “Leopold,” an anti-colonialist song about King Leopold of Belgium. Leopold led Belgium in the brutal exploitation of the Congo, and Crystal Axis’s lyrics provide a concise summary of the king’s self-justification:
“I’m the king and it’s all mine Under Force Publique and Christ Your hands are mine tonight Fingers up one time!”
Leopold was especially notorious for ordering the amputation of the hands of workers if work quotas were not met. Theologically he, like other Western colonial rulers, used the Christian religion both as a cover and as a justification for his crimes against humanity.
“Take the Throne,” a song they released last year, also has some leftist theological comment. First, the lyrics call out the injustice caused by gross economic inequality, where the rich are literally starving the rest of the world:
“You eat, we watch; a revolution’s born We’ll tear down the walls and then we’ll take the throne”
Now comes their theological commentary:
“The voice of the people is the voice of God Too many lies, deities we can’t applaud”