Ridden by the Spirit(s)

The holy Darcagüey, a watercolor portrait of a Moroccan dervish by José Tapiró y Baró, 1890. Dervishes are practitioners of a mystical version of Islam called Sufism, and are known for their ecstatic, trance-like dancing.
Yemaya (Yoruba deity of the sea and fertility), by Jorge Sanfiel.
The Thankful Poor by Henry Ossawa Tanner (1894)

JumpJim, the old record collector in White Tears, describes his mentor Chester Bly’s passion for collecting old blues 78s on page 136 of the novel:

By any standards, I was a serious collector, but he seemed to have nothing else, no need [for anything else] . . . He was just a vehicle for his obsession, what the Haitians call a cheval, a mount for the spirits to ride.

The cheval, or, in Haitian Kreyol, chwal, is a person possessed, or “ridden,” by a spirit (lwa) summoned in a Vodou ceremony. Vodou, while derived from West African religion, is a distinctly Haitian practice:

Haiti, the saying goes, is “70% Catholic, 30% Protestant, and 100% Vodou”. Vodou is everywhere in the Caribbean nation, a spiritual system infusing everything from medicine and agriculture to cosmology and arts.

Read more about Vodou ceremony — of which music is an integral part — and watch video here.

While in the Vodou religion, only Haitians can be “ridden” as chwals by the spirits (lwas), Kunzru seems to be suggesting that this kind of possession is more than metaphorical. What do you think?

Dr. Teresa Reed describes a similar practice in the black Pentecostal church of her childhood in Gary, Indiana, one of the northern industrial cities to which rural southern blacks moved en masse during the Great Migration:

There were many labels for this particular brand of the Lord’s work. The solitary dancer might be described as “getting the Holy Ghost,” “doing the holy dance,” “shouting,” “being filled,” “catching the Spirit,” “being purged,” or simply as someone “getting a blessing.” Whatever the descriptor, the phenomenon was familiar to all members of this religious culture. And it was understood that music –not just any music, but certain music — could facilitate such manifestations. . . [But]the parishioners at my urban, black-American church had no awareness of the many parallels between our Spirit-driven modes of worship and those common to our Afro-Caribbean counterparts.

Read Dr. Reed’s article, “Shared Possessions: Black Pentecostals, Afro-Caribbeans, and Sacred Music,” here.

Watch this, and notice the similarities, among other things, in dress between the church ladies and the Yoruban/Vodou/Santeria priestesses.

In Pentecostal church music, what are the elements that allow/inspire the Holy Spirit to take possession of the believer?

As Toni Morrison describes the funeral of Chicken Little in the novel Sula:

Then they left their pews. For with some emotions one has to stand. They spoke, for they were full and needed to say. They swayed, for the rivulets of grief or ecstasy must be rocked. And when they thought of all that life and death locked into that little closed coffin they danced and screamed, not to protest God’s will but to acknowledge it and confirm once more their conviction that the only way to avoid the Hand of God is to get in it.

A medley of “praise breaks”:

In her article “Unenslaveable Rapture: Afrxfuturism and Diasporic Vertigo in Beyoncé’s Lemonade,” Valorie D. Thomas posits Beyoncé’s visual album in the context of Yoruba religion. In the video for “Denial,” for instance, Beyoncé jumps from a skyscraper and dives into the water, reemerging as a figure of Yemaya, the Yoruba orisha (deity) who rules the waters and fertility. Read Thomas’s article here.

You may already know this famous gospel song, first performed in 1967. It is credited with creating the contemporary gospel genre:

In 1969, gospel singer Dorothy Combs taught it to white folk and rock singers Joni Mitchell, Joan Baez, and Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young, and performed it with them at the Big Sur Music Festival. Is its effect on the mostly-white audience similar to its effect on black worshippers?

The Arkansas-born Sister Rosetta Tharpe (1915-1973) was one of the first Pentecostal gospel artists to cross over into pop music. Her churchgoing fans were scandalized by her forays into secular music, but her passionate, shouting singing style and her use of distortion on the electric guitar were hugely influential on both black and white artists, and came to be known as the Godmother of Rock and Roll.

Other artists crossed over in the other direction, like the Reverend Al Green, who went from this:

To this:

The great Queen of Soul, Aretha Franklin, was herself a preacher’s daughter, and started her career as a young girl singing gospel. One of the unique features of her artistry was the way, as critic Albert Goldman suggested in 1968, she could make sex sound like salvation. Listen, for instance, to the gospel piano intro and the shouts of “Hallelujah” in the song “Son of a Preacher Man.”

What elements do soul and gospel share? What about rock and gospel?

Do you think that the audiences at rock festivals in the 1970s were experiencing a similar sensation of being ridden by the Spirit? How does music play a part in these experiences?

What about Kanye’s Sunday Service? Are the worshippers feeling it?

More on Kanye and gospel here:

What about the “Beyoncé Mass”?

You can browse the first published gospel songbook, the 1921 Gospel Pearls, here. The publisher, the National Baptist Convention, was a major African-American denomination.

https://hymnary.org/hymnal/GP1921

A timeline of gospel:

http://digitallibrary.usc.edu/cdm/timeline/collection/p15799coll9

The Musical Geography Project of St. Olaf’s College has a narrative timeline of gospel, with audio, here:

Questions for discussion:

  • How are gospel and spirituals similar — both musically and lyrically?
  • How are they different? Give an example of a spiritual AND a gospel song to illustrate your argument.
  • What do you think accounts for these differences, musically, historically, and socially?

Wild Style

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Wild Style (1983) of course remains the ultimate Hip Hop movie, and what it lacks in plot and structure it makes up for in accuracy, authenticity and sincerity. It was made by the right people, at the right time, for all the right reasons.

Read about the making of the film here.

Watch the film here.

The Cold Crush Brothers, one of the contending crews in the basketball throwdown scene:

Cold Crush in 2013, in a concert to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the film:

The Rock Steady Crew, also featured in the film, with a hit they had the same year:

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Lady Pink (Rosie) is still making work. Check her out here.

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So is Lee Quiñones (Zoro), pictured above with his wife.

And watch the trailer for a new documentary on Jean-Michel Basquiat (1961-1988), who was part of the street art scene:

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(Geoffrey Holder as Baron Samedi in the James Bond film Live and Let Die, 1973.)

In Wild Style, the white journalist who goes uptown to get her story listens to Blondie in her car and rocks a Debbie Harry look. Blondie’s 1981 hit “Rapture” syncretized various current forms of black popular music, including disco and rap. The video contains references to West African/Carribean religion, including Baron Samedi, the lord of the dead in Haitian voudou (and Basquiat has a cameo). What else is going on in this video? Is “Rapture” an homage to black culture, or a ripoff?

As a gallery owner says in the 1983 documentary “Style Wars,” which treats the same topics as “Wild Style,” Blondie was a popular meme in graffiti art. 

Watch it here.

On the other hand, in 1979, the conservative cultural critic Nathan Glazer declared about graffiti artists:

I have not interviewed the subway riders; but I am one myself, and while I do not find myself consciously making the connection between the graffiti-makers and the criminals who occasionally rob, rape, assault, and murder passengers, the sense that all are part of one world of uncontrollable predators seems inescapable. 

This is considered to be the first commercially-released rap single, the 1979 “King Tim III” by the Fatback Band — a live funk band playing instruments, not samples — with rapper Tim Washington.

The first commercially-released rap single to achieve mainstream success was “Rapper’s Delight” by the Sugar Hill Gang, also released in 1979.

“Rapper’s Delight” uses samples from the song “Good Times” by Nile Rodgers’s disco-funk band Chic. Note how different the sound is from a live band.

(Incidentally, Nile Rodgers was a member of the New York Black Panther party in his youth, in the same section as Afeni Shakur, Tupac’s mother.)

Questions:

  • Name three African-American cultural and/or verbal traditions that influenced the development of rap music.
  • Are any of these traditions still present in current rap styles? Which? Give an example of a song that demonstrates your argument, and attach a video in the comments.