I’m not good at being a Christian … at least not the kind of Christian I was raised to be.
At my home church, they take Romans 12:12 seriously, wherein Paul says, “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds … ” For them, that meant there was a clear demarcation between what was sacred and secular. The former were the things of God and acceptable for the Christian to participate in. The latter were the things of the world, and I was expected to eschew them.
But like I said, I’m not good at being that kind of Christian. I listen to the wrong music; I have a deep affinity for brown liquor (so much so that I wrote this); and, in the words of my friend and frat brother the Rev. Dr. Eric Gill, I love Jesus, but I cuss a little.
Thankfully, I’ve learned that I’m not alone.
Black millennials (people who, depending on which source you use, were born between 1980 and 2004) are redefining what it means to be a black Christian. Whereas black pastors in years past might have hid the fact that they listened to secular music, many black clergy today do not hide their fondness for hip-hop and R&B. Even notable clergy like Dr. E. Dewey Smith in Atlanta and Dr. Howard-John Wesley in Washington, D.C., have gone so far as to include lyrics of secular songs in some of their sermons.
Contemporary black Christians are increasingly not ashamed of their blackness, and they are distancing themselves from the respectability politics taught to them by previous generations. Some can twerk better than the most talented employee of your favorite gentlemen’s club, and they will probably move furniture in order to create an impromptu dance floor if you turn on “Knuck if You Buck” or the defining song of my generation: “Back That Azz Up.”
Yet there is one song that will have them all looking at the sky having a private moment in a public place when played: Kanye West’s “Ultralight Beam”—the official song of black folks who love Jesus but cuss a little. But a little context on the history of black gospel music is needed to understand how the song both participates in and pushes forward this revered aesthetic tradition.
Black church folks have been arguing about music for generations. Before the 1960s, black folks sang with passion, but they were largely committed to traditional chord changes and singing out of hymnals. Then, in the 1960s, James Cleveland popularized a blues-inspired form of gospel wherein he incorporated soul, jazz and elements of black pop into mass-choir arrangements. For many black Christians, he was considered too secular, but his contributions to black music cannot be overstated. Cleveland was foundational to the modern gospel sound that permeated black music from the ’70s to the ’90s. Then came Kirk Franklin.
“Franklin’s greatest contribution is the centering of hip-hop, not just in terms of musical style or use of rhyming, but as a broader sensibility,” says Charles Hughes, director of the Memphis Center at Rhodes College and author of Country Soul: Making Music and Making Race in the American South. Hughes explains:
He asserted the legitimacy of hip-hop within gospel by demonstrating their clear links, and asserted that gospel’s relevance relied on its ability to communicate with hip-hop listeners. In this way, he was the latest manifestation of a long dynamic within the history of gospel (where iconoclastic artists incorporate new secular sounds) and—like his predecessors—he faced criticism. But, also like his predecessors, he proved prophetic.
In his 1998 autobiography, Church Boy, Franklin addressed those criticisms:
Some of our strongest critics, especially inside the church, said we had turned our backs on traditional gospel music and were just contemporary R&B artists exploiting Christian lyrics for the money.
Then, in a 1998 interview in Jet magazine, he further explained: “Gospel music is not a sound; gospel music is a message. Gospel music means good news. It’s good-news music.”
This last point—that gospel music is, in fact, “good-news music”—may have attracted Franklin to work with Kanye on “Ultralight Beam”—the song to which now we turn.
“This is a God dream.”
There are curse words spoken on the track, but don’t let that confuse you. “Ultralight Beam” is firmly within the gospel music tradition.
I’ve been known to be a Ye apologist, but I’m willing to admit that the MC from Chicago can be irritatingly boastful. Even when he pantomimed humility in his first gospel-influenced track, “Jesus Walks,” Ye could not keep himself from indulging his hubris. That’s why the first track from The Life of Pablo caught me off guard. This is a song written by a man who is humble enough to understand that he needs the divine.
A minimalistic electronic sound is seamlessly interwoven with moments of call and response that is ubiquitous in the black church, but it is Kelly Price’s Pentecostal passion on the first verse that immediately brings black gospel to mind. Meanwhile, Chance the Rapper, the official MC of niggas who love God but curse a little, is virtuosic in the third verse. In his signature singsong delivery, he starts the verse quietly until it builds to a crescendo, all while discussing his aesthetic and spiritual journey as a hip-hop artist who refuses to bow to demands of industry executives. The song ends with a raspy, breathless prayer from Franklin, whose brilliance, as explicated above, charted the trajectory of gospel music over the past 30 years.
“Ultralight Beam” took me and many other black millennials into the presence of God like few songs can. It is self-assured yet humble, genre-bending while respecting and participating in black folk traditions. If that doesn’t describe the current generation of black folks, then I don’t know what does.