Sho Baraka is Changing “The Narrative”
Narratives, whether self-curated or imposed upon us, are strong influencing factors in creating our identities and defining the shape of our lives.
For instance, Alexander Hamilton in the musical Hamilton desperately and obsessively seeks to create a narrative that is different from the one he was born into so that his identity is his own. And every time we post on social media, we are crafting our story anew in the creation of ourselves.
While we often assume we control our life’s narrative, we are not always aware of the cultural, social, and familial forces that shape our lives, whether they are for good or ill. In the operatic and angsty “Maybe Both, 1865” from Sho Baraka’s “The Narrative”, he raps, “I’m looking for a happy ending/ I said ‘We never had happy beginnings.’”
In the middle of our stories, we know our lives are full of struggle but yet, we long for an end to those very struggles. This is how story of “The Narrative” unfolds following the black everyman, Louis Portier, and yet peeling back the layers a bit, Sho Baraka is striving to change the narrative about and for African-Americans by celebrating black life and weaving the narrative of the gospel throughout the album.
Mimicking the wayward Twitter and award show rants of Kanye West on “Kanye, 2009”, Sho wonders, “And why black history always starts with slavery? ”
Aware of this tendency to begin the story of the black experience in America with men, women, and children in chains, Sho (in laid-back grooves and sparse instrumentation on the album opener), “Foreward, 1619”, celebrates the goodness of black life without sidestepping the historical and present travesties beset upon African-Americans. Only in the final bars is 1619, the year that the first African slaves arrived in Jamestown, referenced.
Yet, this is quickly overturned into a celebration of blackness through the pronouncement of the Civil Rights-era epithet, “I am a man”. In this opening Common-esque track, Sho creates a tension between the narrative African-Americans were born into and the possibility of change.
In a recent piece Sho wrote for Christianity Today, this tension is discussed within the context of American politics:
As a black Christian in an urban environment, I consciously struggle to give my allegiance to either political party. In this way, this election gives many white evangelicals a sense of what it’s like to be a black believer in America today.
And since the end of The Civil War in 1865, many African-Americans have wrestled with trusting Democrats or Republicans in bringing about policies that ensure the protection of black liberties and the flourishing of black communities.
“Maybe Both, 1865” is Sho at his angriest, spouting raps critiquing both political parties embodied in the shifting production of doppler effect, operatic singing, and morphing basslines.
Out of this flows accelerating anxious bass grooves as classic movie soundtrack strings rise and Sho raps about the tendency to simplify Christ to fit political agendas but “maybe there’s one Christ, and he’s pretty complicated.”
This enriching complexity of Christ intersects with the false hopes of political narratives, so that when Christians engage with the world, whether it is with friends, family, neighborhoods, ethnic bonds, or nation, our posture is love, truth, and grace through Christ, and not the simplified narratives that political discourses can create.
Unfolding throughout the rest of the album is a richly textured tapestry, weaving together narratives of black life now, in the past, and the possibility of a better future, one where hope and justice reign supreme.
Sho expands beyond the four-century long narrative of injustice and oppression that the black everyman, Louis Portier, has unduly received by countering that narrative with a celebration of the perseverance and achievements of African-Americans. Sho’s celebration of black life in America, while acknowledging the daily struggles of African-Americans, refuses to let his community be defined by them.
One way Sho addresses this is by taking on narratives with negative impacts, as with the ever present archetyping of black fathers as deadbeat dads and black women as unshakably strong in all situations. In “Fathers, 2004″ (the year Sho became a father), he reframes black fatherhood, while stylistically reflecting Stevie Wonder (who also celebrated black fatherhood in “Isn’t She Lovely”):
I’m a lover, a provider
I’m a teacher, I’m a fighter
I know there’s grace for me even when I’m wrong
Through all my indiscretions
and all my imperfections
Ima love you till the day that I’m gone
How do you spell dad? It goes L-O-V-E.
Then at the end of booming trap beats on “Here, 2016″, RAAN contributor, Ekemini Uwan, discusses how the requirement of black women to always be strong doesn’t allow space for black women to express their vulnerability, echoing partly what Malcom X said, that the most disrespected, unprotected, and neglected person in America is the black woman. Ekemini further notes, “We need our brothers to stand up and defend black womanhood. Don’t silence us, y’know; be happy that we are here to enable you, to empower you. But we also need that empowerment to go both ways.”
By being unashamed in diving into discussions on race through a gospel lens, Sho displays a more excellent way forward for all Christian artists in expressing truth, love, grace, beauty, and vulnerability.
Summarized in a sequel of sorts to Propaganda’s “Excellent”, the bebop jazz-sample over 808s “Excellent, 2017” navigates not only the future for the common good prosperity of black communities, but provides practical ways that all Christians can engage in neighborliness.
Ta-Neshi Coates’ dark dystopian vision of African-American life in Between the World and Me is complexly countered here by Sho as he outlines the excellencies of God in spite of black death and suffering. Excellence, in this regard, then is grounded in a love for God and seeing his work done in communities through participation with all people.
Musically and lyrically, the album as a whole is changing the narrative on Christian Hip Hop that many hip hop heads view as lacking the production quality and rich lyricism of a Kendrick Lamar, J. Cole, or Kanye West. The breadth of black music styles are represented and joyously celebrated from jazz to spirituals, soul, funk, gospel, rhythm and blues, and trap. Yet, another way God’s excellencies are celebrated by highlighting the rich musical culture that African Americans have created as image bearers of God.
The connecting threads of the Grand narrative stretching from creation to the cross, and from the reconciliation of individuals to the eventual homecoming and complete restoration of God’s children, is intimately attached to Sho’s narrative as an African-American: a black man born in cultural shackles, who is now bound and bought in the blood of Christ, set free with a yoke that is easy and a burden that is light. (Matt. 11:28–30) This is The Narrative that Sho ultimately clings to in shaping his identity and all black men, women, and children.
By placing the struggles and celebrations of life in a gospel context, the fulfillment of the promise Sho raps at the beginning comes to fruition: “Don’t close the book, I got more to write/ You can change the story, that is my advice.” In changing the narrative, we change our identity.