Play It First. Music For the Present Moment

Image from the video “This Land” by Gary Clark, Jr.

I am a preacher - a White preacher. I depend on the voices of others to articulate the words that ring true in this world. It’s not just about relevance, it’s about the power to stir the soul, to move the mind, and to raise up the body - individual and communal. In other words, if I don’t find the voices of the people who are worth hearing, my own voice won’t sound like much. I spent the 80s being formed by the early voices of the hip hop movement. Those voices ring as true now as they ever did, and they are part of the prophetic canon of our time. I want to know who is speaking now into this crazy ass world that longs for truth and the power to save us, mostly from ourselves.

What’s echoing in my mind as I form thoughts and ideas about something beyond me are four voices. For the record, I am a Christian and the voices I am mentioning sound as though they are too, but not all the prophetic voices worth hearing are Christian. It’s just the world I speak into.

Lately, I cannot get the sharp voice of Lecrae out of the space between my ears. His album All Things Work Together is three years old, but, from the screen shots of the last couple of weeks and months, it still burns. I don’t like to describe music. It was Miles Davis, I believe, who said “I’ll play it first. And tell you about it later.” Lecrae has been around a while, and he was a darling in the Christian hip hop world. That is, until he started singing about his own people’s experience and all the industry execs figured out he was Black and had some shit to say. (Screw em,’ he started his own label.) His song “Facts” is a testament to justice and truth. Opening with the prophetic words of Ekemini Uwan and winding its way around to The Rev. Dr. William J. Barber, Jr., the man assumes his place as a prophetic voice. There is nothing comfortable about his words - not if you are white and find a place to rest in the status quo.

If you like discomfort and find it informative, then I have to go next to Kendrick Lamar’s album DAMN. It was released about the same time Lecrae’s album came out. They were relevant then, but now that the world is set ablaze, let anyone with ears to hear, listen. Kendrick’s songs are not for the faint of heart. In his song “FEEL.”, Lamar’s own words speak to that, “F#$k you if you get offended.” That is a particularly prophetic claim, since to be a prophet means to drive a nail from the forgotten into the lofty comfort of indifference.

If you need a place to start that pulls you into the cries and feels of the Black American experience, then you’ll want to go back a while to, G-d rest his soul, Charles Bradley’s 2010 album No Time for Dreaming. I can’t tell you how to react, but if his song “The World (Is Going Up In Flames)” does not strike your depths, then you ain’t livin’ in the world he was living in and might need a reality check.

I’ll send you next to a more recent release, Gary Clark, Jr’s album This Land. The prophets are always there to say “What about God” and “What about justice.” Clark’s words speak of a timeless cry, “What About Us.” Notice, these aren’t questions. They are judgments on the people who have failed to listen.

I will admit that the songs and albums mentioned here are not easy listening. Music has always broken me open, but not like this. For me as a preacher, these artists and their music are less playlist and more scripture. They are lament psalms sent with the keys to open me up to the vulnerable and holy and beautiful work of reconciliation. In them, more than judgment and guilt, I hear a new commission to listen, learn, and respond to the sufferers of injustice. So I use them like a musical bible. I quote them in my sermons. I play them in my house, my car, and my earbuds, and I let them liberate me, my theology, and my preaching.

All four of the voices I mention are prophetic – pissed and full of love and hope. If we preachers can’t reflect rage and point to the love that amplifies it in our own sacred spaces, then nobody is buying the bullshit we’re peddling anyway. I’ll end with a description of America from Lamar’s song “XXX. FEAT. U2.” “It’s not a place / This country is to be a sound / of drum and bass / You close your eyes to look around.” Listen up. Preachers aren’t the only ones with something to say. - The Reverend Allan Cole

Link to Spotify playlist will all the songs on it:


The Rev. Allan Cole is an Episcopal priest at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Lakewood, Colorado where you can hear him preach, with a lot of rap references every Saturday night and Sunday morning on Facebook and YouTube.