James Cone’s work The Spirituals and the Blues is a unique expression of African American political theology. In this text he seeks to examine the unique cultural foundation that has shaped both Spiritual and the genre of Blues as a form of musical expression. For Cone music can represent a cross section between political ideology and theological frameworks. Through this piece it is apparent that the distinctive experiences of African American has radically shape their view of politics and religion and that the connection between Spirituals and Blues makes sheds some light on this point. For him both are deeply connected to the point that you cannot one from the other. Furthermore, he believes that the use of Spirituals and the Blues have both been utilized by African American to subvert the oppressive forces of Western white supremacist culture. He writes: “Black music is also social and political. It is social because it is black and thus articulates the separateness of the black community. It is an artistic rebellion against the humiliating deadness of western culture.” (p5-6). Ultimately for Cone the use of Spirituality and the Blues serves as a way for African American to seek liberation from political and theological institution that is both destructive and oppressive.
Cone does great work in explicating the differences between traditional notions of Spirituals and how he believes African Americans have actually used Spirituals. This begins with his rejection of a Marxian view of Spirituals. Marx believes that the Spirituals sung by the Africans slaves’ sole purpose was to act as an opiate for them in relation to their slave masters. Marx’s ideology is marred by his concept of class consciousness. From this he believed that Spirituals allowed the slaves to passively conform to the desires of their slave masters. Cone however, vehemently disagrees with this assessment. He believes that African slaves were keenly aware of the power of musical interpretation and inherently new the dangers it posed to the authority of the slave masters. Thus, the slaves had to be subtle in the ways that they used Spirituals as theme for liberation without alarming their white slave masters. The Exodus story and Moses served as one way that the slaves could elude to liberation that did not alert their masters to their intentions.
The Exodus narrative as a slave spiritual had a profound implication on the way the slaves envisioned their lives both politically as well as theologically. Moses’ message of liberation called for divine liberation in heaven as well as earthly liberation from the slave masters. Cone points to slaves like Nat Turner who courageously learned to interpret the bible for himself. It is from his version of scripture that he saw the Christian imperative for not only a spiritual liberation heaven but its Earthly manifestation in the mist of slavery. This ultimately led to his rebellion and subsequent death. Similarly to Cone’s configuration of the Spirituals he believes that the Blues had a similar message. The Blues represent a secularized version of the socio-political message that was expunged from Spirituals. They too could equally be used as tools of liberation against dominant oppressive groups. Much like spiritual the Blues could be used to articulate a powerful socio-political message with profound theological implications. They affirmed the personhood of African Americans in the face of institutions that were created to take this very thing away from them.
While reading Cone’s work I began to think about some of the other connections that can be made with between African American experiences and how that has translated into music to have implications for theology, politics, and society in general. I preface this by stating that James Cone wrote this particular work in the 1970’s so what he wrote was indeed insightful for the context to which it was written. However, I believe that the religious insights from spiritual are reflected within the work of African American’s in other genres of music as well. In today’s context I do not see theo-political issues reflected in any particular artist or genre rather I see it in various songs by various African American artists. For example, Kanye West in his song “Gorgeous” poses a very interesting question.
West is questioning the function of hip hop music in the 21st century. Much like the Blues did for African Americans in the 20th century hip hop resonates with ideal and experience of many African American youth today. This is complicated by the secular nature of hip hop music. Hip hop music in itself could be seen as the religion of the youth today. The thought, ideas, cultural values, and even its counter cultural elements are appealing to youths. Ultimately, West is posing the question has hip- hop music replaced the socio- political elements that were once held onto by the Blues and Spirituals. Hip hop is to the soul of modern youth as what spirituals were to slaves. While admittedly this is not the case for all of hip hop music, West may be on to something, certainly there are hip hop songs that articulate a political theology the likeness of spirituals and the blues. Kanye West’s own work is an example of this. His song “Jesus Walks,” although not a gospel song has some inherently spiritual dimensions to it. From the introduction to the hook the song is laced with theo-political implications. He begins with the verse:
“We at war ” “We at war with terrorism, racism” “But most of all we at war with ourselves”(Jesus walk)” “God show me the way because the Devil tryna break me down” (Jesus walk with me)”
These lines hint at how West views some of our current socio-political struggles. Threats such as terrorism, racism, and even our inner struggles can leave us helpless. He sees they only way out is through his belief in Jesus. Jesus serves as liberation in this context in much the same way that Christian theology function as a form of liberation for the slaves in the 18th and 19th centuries. West in this particular song is making use of theology and politics to articulate freedom from systems of oppression that dominate society today. Although West’s song gives insight to current use of African American political theology, I wonder what other songs and genres have similar themes.
James Cone’s The Spirituals and The Blues
Efrem Smith and Phil Jackson. The Hip Hop Church: Connecting With The Movement Shaping Our Culture
Anthony Pinn, et. al.: Noise and Spirit: The Religion and Spiritual Sensibilities of Rap Music
(A THROW BACK!): Calvinism And Holy Hip Hop