Finding God in Black Music
My affinity for music has unquestionably been at the forefront of my identity in recent years. I’m a sophomore in college now, and this love was truly solidified last year when I performed in my school’s talent show. However, my relationship with music was completely strained before I discovered my deep passion for singing. Although I attended a fine arts school in the eighth grade and another in high school, I only realized my love for solo performance at the end of my senior year of high school. Moreover, for most of my life, I found shame in genres like hip hop and gospel. Instead of embracing genres that were designed for me to experience liberation, I attempted to find comfort in “colorblind” religious spaces that had nothing to offer me. It took time for me to realize that I will experience Christianity differently as a Black woman in the United States.
As a child, my blackness and my faith were just facts of my reality. I grew up in Fort Worth, Texas, in environments predominantly filled with other African Americans. I saw myself in my neighborhood, in my church, and in my elementary school. I was secure in my identity as a Black kid because I hardly knew anything else. Throughout my childhood, my mind was also inundated with scriptures and sayings that my teachers found to be vital within the Christian faith. In my elementary school, I remember learning about the importance of obedience, of practicing modesty, and of guarding my mind from violent video games and vulgar hip hop music. These teachings were heavily focused on our sinful nature and on the things we should avoid once we allow Jesus to cleanse us from ourselves. While this ideology was being taught in my school, the prosperity gospel was being taught in my home church. I eventually came to recognize that neither of these fully resonated with me. I felt more naturally drawn to a different type of theology that I began to learn in the seventh grade. This theology was based on looking inward and on meditating to find God. It was peaceful, rooted in solitude.
Because my school in the seventh grade presented Christianity as this quiet and contemplative faith tradition, I was felt that gospel music had no place in the ideology. It was too loud. Too forward. So, as I slowly began to adopt the ideologies that were being taught in this setting, I also began to forget the value of my culture. I couldn’t listen to my music without being embarrassed because there was too much weight attached to it. I needed something lighter because I felt that God was not concerned with the traumas of my community. Even after I ended up leaving this school to find opportunities for me to explore the arts, I still desired to chase after this God, and I joined a youth group to do so.
My new fine arts school was the first school I attended that was not affiliated with the church, but because I was involved with the youth group, I still had the ability to expand on the understanding of God that I had developed at my old school. The youth group reminded me of the lightness I felt was important to God, and the theology of the group resonated with me mostly because it had a great focus on love and on Jesus. However, even though everything seemed aligned—I was a worship leader, and I went to church camp with the group twice—I recognized that there was a sense of unrest deep within myself, and I decided to take time to assess what was going on. This process began during my sophomore year, and I came to the conclusion that I could no longer follow a theology that didn’t account for my truths. My reality was that my history is heavy, and to minimize this is to turn my back on my ancestors. I, like James Baldwin once mentioned, became an accomplice to my own murderers. And in realizing all of this, I figured that I may as well run toward my culture instead of away from it.
In my senior year at my fine arts high school, I was given a semester-long capstone assignment that would come to shift my life permanently. This assignment required a performance element, so I decided that I would sing to express my journey of accepting my cultural identity. During the six months, I read books, watched documentaries, and listened to music in order to learn more about myself through my culture. I fell deeply in love with what I learned, and I had my first glimpse of what I consider freedom at the end of this process when I presented my performance element. I sang with a fluidity that could have convinced anyone that music was my first language. Everything just felt natural. I was singing Black music, operating through what Audre Lorde describes as “the erotic.” She says that in this space, “Not only do we touch our most profoundly creative source, but we do that which is female and self-affirming in the face of a racist, patriarchal, and anti-erotic society.” This experience made me feel everything at once. I felt vulnerable, empowered, and terrified, but somehow I was also at total peace. I knew then that there was something for me in music.
Truthfully, my capstone experience started a fire within me not only in regard to music, but also in regard to my passion for social justice. The experience allowed me to explore what work in advocacy could potentially look like, and I was inspired by the creativity of it all. I now cling to what I know as my culture, and I feel most liberated and connected to the Divine when I experience Black music like jazz, blues, soul, gospel. I find healing in hip hop and R&B. The grit of this music speaks to my experiences and is what makes me feel seen. I’ve finally learned to accept the heaviness of my experiences and to find beauty in the resilience of my people. I’ve been able to reconcile who God is to me through seeking justice, and I’ve been able to recognize that music is my bridge to get there.
About the author: Diamond Tate is a second year student at Seattle Pacific University studying Social Justice and Cultural Studies. She's known to many as a music enthusiast, a podcast fanatic, and a lover of all things black.