As someone who loves to learn, I battle a seemingly unending flow of information into my life. The list of books and blogs I aspire to read has grown so long, I doubt I will exhaust it in my lifetime. But every so often, an artist’s work cuts through this cluttered list and demands my immediate attention. In 2016, that artist was rapper Sho Baraka.
Baraka gained national attention for his essay “Why I Can’t Vote for Either Trump or Clinton,” Christianity Today’s most popular piece of political writing during the recent election. While voters debated the merits of the major party candidates, he raised a concern many white evangelicals failed to see —that neither party seemed to recognize or understand the needs of the urban community.
“As a black Christian in an urban environment, I consciously struggle to give my allegiance to either political party,” he argued. “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. As a man, I’m greatly concerned by subversive attempts to deconstruct all “classical” definitions of manhood.”
Baraka’s bracing words reminded me that biblical Christianity rarely aligns neatly with political ideologies — nor should it.
I sat up and took notice, devouring Baraka’s interviews with National Public Radio, his work with forthdistrict.com (a website for urban creatives) and his most recent album The Narrative (Humble Beast Records, 2016.) What I discovered was a faithful voice, equally at home discussing the writings of the early church fathers as he is analyzing the lyrics of Kanye West’s latest single. Baraka built a platform as a rapper and community activist, but uses that platform as a pulpit to offer spiritual insight and a prophetic critique of politics, pop culture, and life in urban America.
Sho Baraka joined Denver Institute on Friday, February 24th for “The Artist’s Voice: A Conversation about Faith, Rap, & Race.” I encourage you to watch video recaps from this thought-provoking evening exploring Sho’s calling as an artist and activist, as well as how his Christian convictions shape his craft.
In case you need convincing to learn more, here are three reasons I turn to Sho Baraka for insight:
1) He’s theologically deep, yet contextually relevant. Baraka describes himself as someone who “Fraternize[s] with a remnant of people who have the cultural and theological aptitude to engage both Carter G. Woodson and G. K. Chesterton.” Examine his lyrics and you’ll see he combines contemporary urban culture with timeless streams of biblical thought. C.S. Lewis, W.E.B. Dubois, and David’s Psalms all find a relevant place in Baraka’s work.
2) He captures the tension of the urban experience. Sho reminds me that there’s more than one way to be a Christian, while calling attention to the challenges our urban brothers and sisters face. “We walk the tightrope between conservatives and progressives,” He says. “We share an anxiety and sense of displacement in the current sociopolitical landscape.” While our president describes the “carnage” he perceives in cities like Chicago, Baraka pushes past the headlines to reveal the daily reality and conflicting emotions many black Christians face.
3) He models prophetic creativity. At Denver Institute, we believe every Christian is called to join God in his work redeeming creation. That may come in the form of creating life-giving goods or services, but it also involves addressing brokenness in the world around us. We don’t have to don camel-hair robes and walk the streets crying, “The end is nigh!” to have a prophetic influence. Rather, we act prophetically by drawing attention to areas of life that aren’t as God desires them to be and calling others to address the need.
Sho is a master at this, as he explains when describing his album The Narrative: “[O]ne of the things I wanted to do was storytelling, [to] create a platform for identity formation…For so long, we have allowed bad stories to shape the African American experience and context. I believe it was my job to just assist in the correction of that narrative, to tell other stories, not just from a communal perspective, but a personal perspective.”
I may not be a rapper, but I long to be part of telling a different story—a story of restoration, justice, and hope.
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This post was published February 9, 2017
Joanna serves as Denver Institute’s Director of Public Engagement, hosts the Faith & Work Podcast, and oversees the Women & Vocation Initiative. Prior to coming to the Institute, Joanna worked in global telecom, nonprofit consulting, and campus ministry with Cru. She served as associate faculty at Denver Seminary and as a sewing instructor at Fancy Tiger Crafts. A third-generation Coloradan, Joanna appreciates both the state’s innovative culture and its cowboy roots. She has an MA in Social Entrepreneurship from Bakke Graduate University and graduated magna cum laude from the University of Colorado, Boulder. She also completed a certificate of Women in Leadership through Cornell University.