by John Ellis
At the onset, allow me to confess that I know very little about hip-hop culture or hip-hop music. Two things I do know, however, are Jesus and words, specifically words crafted into a story. This is why I’m comfortable stating that The Narrative by Sho Baraka is a compelling, nuanced, and thought provoking story that has Jesus at its center; that’s hard to find and should be valued. Sadly, as one of the largest Christian retailers in the world, Lifeway has decided to remove The Narrative from its shelves. But I want to talk about the Sho Baraka’s latest album before diving into the murky world of Christian retailers and their aesthetic responsibility.
In God’s kind providence, I began listening to The Narrative the day after I began reading The Ways of White Folks by Langston Hughes. One of the most prominent members of the Harlem Renaissance, Hughes was a writer of immense talent. His poems, plays, short stories, essays, and novels uncover the black experience in early twentieth-century America in beautifully profound ways.
Prior to reading The Ways of White Folks, my primary experience with Langston Hughes was through his plays. Like his plays, The Ways of White Folks makes for an uncomfortable yet engaging read. While confronting the reader with the cultural divide that exists because of the sins of white people, the collection of short stories simultaneously weave layers of common humanity in and through the painful confrontations of white society’s sins and the effects those sins have on the black community. One of the most painful stories in the collection is the final story titled “Father and Son.” In the story, a rich white man tragically suppresses his love for his black mistress and the children she has born him. The final line of the story and, hence, the entire collection, “The dead man left no heirs,” is a jarring statement about the ways and thoughts of white folks.
The Narrative by Sho Baraka reminds me of the poetic gravitas of Langston Hughes. The albums’ songs are thoughtful vignettes on the black experience in 21st century America and the societal and political commentary are sharp reminders that I am, indeed, a child of privilege because of my ethnicity. And like Langston Hughes, Sho Baraka confronts the listener with our common humanity; there is a universality to the human experience which is unfortunately marred, clouded, and pitted against itself by society’s sins of racism and lack of empathy. Thankfully, those sins cannot be ultimately destroyed. This makes the narratives of Sho Baraka’s experiences even more poignant and personally convicting for the white listener, especially for the white Christian listener.
Sadly, within the political climate that has turned discussion about race into a toxic brew of distrust, anger, and lack of empathy, many within the American church bristle at the suggestion that white Christians should seek to understand the African-American experience and perspective. While a large portion of the blame can be placed at the feet of political pundits and a media that is desperate for online clicks, Christians, specifically white Christians, need to repent of our own sins, which include an unwillingness to simply accept that not everyone in America has the same perspective, much less experiences and obstacles (or lack thereof), that we do. Repentance doesn’t just involve acknowledgment of past wrongs, but the faithful desire to change. An important first step to change involves the quiet act of listening to the experiences and perspectives of African-Americans. To that end, The Narrative by Sho Baraka is an excellent and God-honoring articulation of the African-American experience and perspective that white Christians should consider engaging through listening.
One of the differences, possibly the most important difference, between Sho Baraka and Langston Hughes is that by the grace of God, Sho Baraka places his identity and hope in the gospel of Jesus Christ. Throughout the album, Sho Baraka doesn’t leave the listener any room to doubt the fact that he strives to keep his eyes on Jesus even as he seeks to understand and articulate his own experiences while calling for empathetic engagement with a narrative that’s far more complex than is suggested at the surface level.
The album opens with a plea to resist the devil; a parallel to the Biblical narrative that opens with the parents of all ethnicities succumbing to the devil’s temptation. “Foreward, 1619” then seamlessly transitions into Sho Baraka’s brief fleshing out of the various pushes and pulls he’s felt as a black American, more specifically, as a black Christian American. The opening track is Sho Baraka’s reclaiming of the narrative(s) that others leap to write when first confronted by the rapper. Baraka gives a brief glimpse into his youth when he lost his “sense of being colorblind/In between white supremacy and black nihilism/AME churches, corner stores, and the prisons systems,” but adroitly raps the challenge, “Don’t close the book, I got more to write/You can change the story, that is my advice/I read in color, they see black and white/You just saw the cover, but there’s more to life.” Before spoken-word poet Adan Bean closes the track with an artful and painful confrontation of the far-reaching implications of slavery, Sho Baraka exposes his main burden with the sharp lines, “Folks who wanna be close but the devil stands between us/Who knows the dirty souls with an urgent need to be cleaned/up/They oppose my solution, everybody hates Jesus.”
“Forward, 1619” is one track out of fourteen, and all fourteen pulsate, weave colorful stories with the greatest Story, and give a glimpse into the experience of a black brother in Christ who is committed to pursuing Jesus without denying sin’s effects on his community. In fact, Sho Baraka’s deep faith in Jesus is what allows The Narrative to be so effective in its honest expression of cultural divides.
During “Kanye,2009,” a song that Sho Baraka refers to as his “Kanye rant,” he unloads a torrent of social and religious critique. For me, the standout is the entire first verse, which I’m going to quote in its entirety:
“You better watch your mouth/I’d rather pray for forgiveness for what might come out/Lord, have mercy on the words I speak/I’ll have an opinion but might change my views next week/Like why, when I share my faith it’s called intolerance/But when they share their hate it’s called scholarship/And why ain’t no Whole Foods in the hood/All I see is fast food here, can we eat good?/We need black-owned, and less bad loans/Less pawns shops and liquor stores and We Buy Gold/And why (Shut up!) black history always starts with slavery/So even when I’m learning they still putting them chains on me.”
Among many excellent guest artists, Jackie Hill Perry’s appearance on “Kanye, 2009” is a highlight for me. Her lyrical ode to motherhood is both pointed and poignant.
As I wrote in the opening paragraph, I’m not attune enough to hip-hop to be able to legitimately express opinions about how The Narrative adheres to the genre. However, I do feel comfortable in pointing out that the jazz, soul, R&B, and Gospel influences in the album allowed Sho Baraka to produce an album that is as musically robust as it is lyrically. Musically, my favorite track on The Narrative is “Here, 2016” that has a glorious horn section to compliment the driving beat. The fact that Lecrae holds court with Sho Baraka on “Here, 2016” is more than just a bonus.
Unlike many of the albums that I’ve reviewed over the last three years, every single track on The Narrative asks me to write about it. Normally, albums have at least one or two tracks that don’t hold my attention enough to want to spill ink about them. All fourteen songs on The Narrative challenge me, entertain me, and cause me to praise Jesus for the salvation given by grace through faith and the steadfast witness of Sho Baraka to the power of the gospel of Jesus Christ. Sho Baraka’s aesthetic excellence combined with his desire to magnify God’s name and promote the gospel of Jesus Christ make Lifeway’s decision to pull The Narrative extra disappointing.
Lifeway stated that their decision was based on complaints they’ve received about the inclusion of the word “penis” in one of the songs on The Narrative. There are several moving parts within Lifeway’s reason for that decision, and some of those moving parts are rather blurry. For the sake of simplicity, I’m going to start with the word and the song which includes the word “penis.”
“Piano Break, 33 A.D.” is the final track on Sho Baraka’s excellent album. The offending song opens with an homage to the great American Puritan Jonathan Edwards – “Are we sinners in the hands of an angry God?/Or is God being judged by a sinning mob?” The song goes on to detail societal sins (eugenics, abortion, and racism) as well as confessing Sho Baraka’s struggles. Confessing his past sins and failures was what was too much for Lifeway and some of the Christian retailer’s customers.
After asking “Who can judge our moral conduct?” Baraka bluntly reveals that “I was an insecure boy who just thought that he was a genius/But always pissed off, that’s because I thought with my penis.”
As try as I might, I’m having a hard time understanding why any Christian would be offended by the lyrics quoted above, especially considering the context. First, there are several ways that Sho Baraka could’ve articulated the truth of his past that are actually crass, if not downright obscene. Secondly, his confession is appropriately stark and reveals the heart of a man who knows that he is a sinner but who is resting in the truth that he is a sinner saved by faith and held firmly in God’s hands. The word is simply not offensive, unless, of course, the listener takes offense at how Sho Baraka laid his lustful past at the foot of the cross.
Sadly, however, get enough people involved in something and things that the majority never even thought to be offended at will become an issue. Apparently, this is what happened when Lifeway’s customers began buying The Narrative. Lifeway, of course, and not needing my permission, can stock their stores however they see fit. And while other writers have attempted to divine the motives of Lifeway’s offended customers, I’m going to resist the urge. To be charitable, I don’t want to assume motives about individual brothers and sisters in Christ without having the opportunity to talk to them. I do, however, want to conclude by calling Lifeway to task for failing to be good stewards of aesthetics.
Not long after the story broke about Lifeway giving Sho Baraka the boot, a filmmaker friend of mine sent me a text message attempting to convince me to write an article listing the ten albums that Lifeway should remove from their stock before The Narrative. While an intriguing idea, that seems like way too much work that would require wading through a lot of unenjoyable music. A quick perusal of Lifeway’s website reveals that the company shills products like the movie War Room, a plethora of Amish romance novels, and a wide assortment of toothless, theologically anemic Christian pop music. While willing to take a stand against the contextually appropriate use of the word “penis,” Lifeway seems to have next to no quality control when it comes to aesthetic standards. I have written quite a bit about Christians and aesthetics, and I’m not going to rehash my arguments (if, however, you are interested in reading those articles, please click here, here, here, and here).
Since they’re one of the largest Christian retailers, I understand that Lifeway caters to a wide array of tastes and expectations. While sounding harsh, I do understand that Lifeway doesn’t necessarily have the luxury of weeding out all of the inferior products that many of the customers demand. After all, Lifeway is a business. However, there’s something deeply unfortunate when one of the largest Christian retailers pulls an example of artistic excellence that also magnifies the name of God. Sho Baraka is an artist that actually has something to say, and his latest album doesn’t divorce his voice from the sanctifying work of the Holy Spirit in his heart and life.
The Narrative by Sho Baraka is an album that many Christians should prayerfully engage. Not only is it an enjoyable work of art, but The Narrative is an example of aesthetic excellence that honors God through both its form and function. It’s a Christ-honoring expression of a viewpoint that many white Christians are unfamiliar with. God’s kingdom is made up of all tribes, tongues, and nations; seeking to reflect the true nature of God’s kingdom, American Christians should desire to hear from our brothers and sisters in Christ who have different cultural experiences than we do. The Narrative is a great way to help bridge the rhetorical and experiential divide that exists between Believers because of sin. It’s a shame that Lifeway bowed to pressures from the lowest common denominator and have chosen to censure The Narrative.
You can buy The Narrative here.
Soli Deo Gloria