Rapper Sho Baraka’s new album The Narrative (available for free download through the Humble Beast Records website) opens with a declaration: “Devil goes to and fro like a lion seeking someone to devour. Resist him.”
But while the Atlanta MC is an evangelical Christian, what follows is far from your typical “Christian music” fare. Instead, The Narrative is just that: a rich, complex 66-minute story – not about faith per se, but about a faith-filled man grappling with a whole spectrum of historical (each song title is followed by a year in history), racial, and social issues.
That’s not to say The Narrative is self-serious or ponderous. Baraka has the jazz- and soul-infused sound of acts like The Pharcyde, Little Brother, and The College Dropout-era Kanye West (and even permits himself a “Kanye rant” on “Kanye, 2009″), and soulful ad libs and horn sections make for a celebratory atmosphere in the first half of the album with songs like “Soul, 1971,” “Here, 2016,” and “30 and Up, 1986.”
But in the second half, Sho rushes head-first into a maze of complex political issues, building on an essay he penned earlier this year for Christianity Today: “Why I Can’t Vote for Either Trump or Clinton”:
“As an African American, I’m marginalized by the lack of compassion on the Right. As a Christian, I’m ostracized by the secularism of the Left…
“I fraternize with a remnant of people who have the cultural and theological aptitude to engage both Carter G. Woodson and G. K. Chesterton. We walk the tightrope between conservatives and progressives. We share an anxiety and sense of displacement in the current sociopolitical landscape.
“I have had zero interest in either candidate this election. Many people are fearful about the next president, as they should be…
“I believe there is a third way… From mass incarceration to the right to life for the unborn, it’s time to engage in advocacy that better reflects the love and truth of the gospel.”
To put his money where his mouth is, Baraka later moderated a discussion with outsider presidential candidate Evan McMullin at a Church in Atlanta.
Of course, Baraka is not alone, and The Narrative is a kind of soundtrack to the growing bloc of outsiders who feel hopelessly unrepresented by both major party platforms. He references countless sources of inspiration for this new narrative, and while the list (which includes Catholic figures like G.K. Chesterton, Augustine, and Mother Teresa) is a striking display of Christian unity, plenty of non-Christians will find common ground here, too.
His mission statement comes in the track “Maybe Both,” a haunting song about the recent wave of killings of young men by police officers in African American communities – and no one is safe from Baraka’s pen on this issue. In the first verse, he goes after liberal academics, journalists, and politicians who talk a lot, but don’t ever seem to take the right actions to really change anything. In the second, he chastises conservative Christians for their rationalization of these wrongful deaths. And in the uptempo third verse, which consciously reflects the string section of Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On?”, Baraka brings a Christological perspective to the issue:
It’s funny how some people see the Lord
Some see him as a pacifist, some see him with a sword
The Lord who hated sin showed grace to the thief
Saved the lonely prostitute from being stoned in the street…
Many people isolate him just to make him fit their cause
Never too involved in a greater context at all
So, are there two christs totally unrelated
Or, maybe there’s one Christ, and he’s pretty complicated
He explains the song, which is inspired by Malcolm X’s “Ballot or the Bullet” speech, in an interview with NPR: “This song basically talks about a critique of both parties. And then on the third verse, I draw a greater conclusion on how oftentimes we use Jesus as a construct to propel or promote our own personal agendas, but understanding he was much more complex than we often like to make him out to be.”
That “both/and” mentality informs The Narrative from start to finish. “The youth view my history with some suspicion,” he raps on “Foreward, 1619.” “They wanna progress past religion and tradition.” But a powerful spoken word performance from Adan Bean at the song’s end shatters various assumptions about what that might mean (“I am the colored cog in the capitalist wheel… from master’s plantation to mass incarceration… whether it’s Little Rock or the Charleston Nine, trying to integrate or trying to stay alive”). On “Piano Break, 33 AD,” he admits that “thoughts of abortion taught me sanctity of life”; but on “Excellent,” ties the pro-life movement to another movement – Black Lives Matter – that the dominant narrative portrays as being in opposition. “Fight for justice from creation to the tomb, I know black lives matter and they should matter in the womb.”
Before the final statement of “Piano Break,” the album comes to a closes with a duo of songs about fatherhood: “Words, 2006,” about raising a child with autism, and “Fathers, 2004,” an ode to men working hard to raise faithful, wise, and good sons and daughters.
These more personal songs may seem like outliers in an album largely about political justice, but Mother Teresa – in a textbook both/and stance – would have disagreed.
“What can you do to promote world peace?” she famously asked. “Go home and love your family.”