Online Conversation | Reimagination and Repair: Creativity for the Life of the World
with Sho Baraka
On Friday, May 14th we hosted artist and author Sho Baraka for a conversation around his new book He Saw That It Was Good: Reimagining Your Creative Life To Repair A Broken World.
Baraka says, “The command to love—in all the fullness and justice of that word—is laid on all, from politician to painter. With every policy pushed, every stroke of the brush, we put forth what we believe about God and about good. With what we make, we affect the world. For better or for worse.” In this conversation we explore how our creative gifts and good works can contribute to the care and repair of our hurting world. We hope you enjoy!
The song is “Pulling Out the Chair” by Greg LaFollette.
The painting is ‘Streamside’ by Edward Mitchell Bannister, 1870.
Special thanks to Bruce Van Patter for this visual depiction of our conversation with Sho Baraka!
Thanks to this event’s co-hosts:
Transcript of “Reimagination and Repair” with Sho Baraka
Cherie Harder: Welcome to all of you who are joining us for today’s online conversation with guest Sho Baraka on reimagination and repair. We’re so pleased to collaborate with our friends at the Rabbit Room and the Jude 3 project and the & Campaign, all of which are absolutely terrific organizations that really span the range of activities from the arts and humanities to apologetics to policy. And so we encourage you to check each of them out. We at the Trinity Forum work to cultivate, curate, and promote the best of Christian thought and provide a space and resources where leaders can wrestle with the big questions of life and come to better know the Author of the answers. We hope today’s conversation will provide a small taste of that. And certainly one of those big questions of life is how we think about, work within, and contribute to a world that was created and called to be good and beautiful, yet is everywhere marred by injustice, ugliness, and oppression. How do we help redeem, repair, and renew such a world, including our own little worlds, when nothing is the way it seems like it really should be? So today, to help us wrestle with that, we are so delighted to welcome our guest, whose new forthcoming book He Saw That It Was Good explores the way in which the creative act of storytelling and art-making can help us reimagine and even heal the brokenness of the world.
Cherie Harder: He explores the ways that our stories form both our identities and our culture, how they can lead to flourishing when they are grounded in love and truth-telling and to injustice when they are not. He opens the possibilities for reimagining and repairing the distortions in our stories as an act of vocation and worship, a reflection of the creator God. And he ends with a call to creativity that can, in his words, make new worlds and new realities and a more lucid image of how the world is supposed to be. It is a fascinating and a challenging summons, and it’s hard to imagine someone who could make it with more creative or compelling force than our guest today Sho Baraka. Sho is an internationally known recording artist, song writer, director, and author. He’s created and released at least four rap albums, both with Reach records and with his own label, which he co-founded, High Society. He’s also a co-founder of Fourth District, a curated platform for artists and thinkers, a co-founder of the & Campaign, and an adjunct professor at the Wake Forest University School of Divinity. He has been called one of the most strikingly original Christian thinkers of his generation, Frederick Douglass with a fade, and is the author of the forthcoming new work He Saw That It Was Good, which we’ve invited him here today to discuss. Sho, welcome.
Sho Baraka: Thank you for having me. I feel so sophisticated right now, I just want to let you know, Cherie. That introduction was very, very professional and NPRish. So now I feel like I have a high standard I have to live up to.
Cherie Harder: Thank you. We are really glad to have you here today. So your book is all about story, so it seems only fitting to start out with your own story. What led you to write this book? What’s the story behind it, and what did you most want your readers to take away?
Sho Baraka: Yeah, so I think this story is—I think the life term—a life lived, if you will, very similar to music. Oftentimes the first project that an artist makes is probably their most authentic and intimate because you’ve been thinking about all the things you’ve been wanting to say, and you finally have a platform in which to say it. So this book, I would say, is really the formation of a young man whose parents gave him Harlem Renaissance literature to read, whose brothers gave them hip hop to listen to, who’s lived in Southern California and lived through the Rodney King trial, the O.J. trial, whose has experienced race riots, who went to a BCU college in Alabama, Tuskegee University, who’s been in evangelical spaces, both Black and white, who’s made art and traveled the world. And all of those worlds have gold and shadow. And all of those worlds are responsible for making me the individual that I am. And so when I finally landed on writing a book, originally I actually wanted to write fiction. I wanted to write a novel. I just love fiction. I grew up reading it. Some of my favorite people today are novelists who are dead and gone. Some are still alive. And I just wanted to emulate that. I feel like art has a brilliant way of disarming people, engaging conversations that probably lectures and sermons couldn’t, and I’ve seen that utility in my own work. But it made more sense for people who knew me as a public thinker, somewhat of an advocate and activist, to write a book that was probably non-fiction, that told stories about my life, but as I tried to do it, include some fiction.
Sho Baraka: So really, this is just, how has Sho been formed? How can I help people through the process of what stories have done to them, how to help them tell better stories, how they can see stories as a way that has been weaponized for good and for bad, and how we have been shaped by theologies and stories that are oftentimes maybe anemic when it comes to biblical principles. And so what I want the reader to walk away with is a sense that, one, good is there, but good is not always fixed. Sometimes good vacillates at times. And sometimes it can be elusive. And I’m not teaching relativism, but I am teaching that sometimes situations call for different actions. And sometimes you can be the hero and sometimes you can be the villain. Sometimes our work can cause great flourishing. Sometimes our work can cause great detriment. Sometimes the stories you can tell can bring great affirmation and sometimes they can bring assimilation that can be harmful to a culture and people. So I wanted them to walk away understanding that we are made to be good in God’s image. We are also made to create good and that we have to think deeply about ourselves and do a lot of inventory on what our work is doing in the present.
Cherie Harder: So you talked about story in your book as being formational both to our personal sense of identity as well as our cultural sense of identity, and it makes one wonder, what makes a story good?
Sho Baraka: I think, one—and I’ve heard many theologians and thinkers pontificate over this— I think the one thing is it tells the truth about society. And that doesn’t mean that that truth is always necessarily a biblical truth. It doesn’t always have to be like “Thus says the Lord,” but if I am talking about love and marriage and parenting and all I do is I bring the gold in the marriage and the parenting, and I never talk about the depression. I never talk about the postpartum. I never talk about the fact that sometimes I don’t like my children, you know. And I think there is this veneer that a lot of Christian art puts on, because we feel like the more authentic we are, the less credibility we will have or that we’re promoting some sort of sense of evil, or in order to engage this that we we may take on the contagion of evil. And I don’t think that’s the way that Jesus has operated. He wasn’t necessarily afraid of association. He understood that he can operate in the darkness because he brought light. And I think oftentimes what we do is we just avoid the darkness altogether. And I think this is something brilliantly, brilliantly done in the art of like a Flannery O’Connor, who dealt with the grotesque and she brought the truth to the South. She spotlighted what a lot of people would find the great traditions of the South. But she also spotlighted the shadows of its racism and its classism and different types of shadow in their agrarian, I guess you can say culture, that was there.
Sho Baraka: And so to only talk about the brilliance and the light of a culture, I think tells a dishonest story. But I also think we can get it bad by making—and I think Tim Keller does this brilliantly—when you make the solution something other than Jesus and you make the problem something other than sin. I think that is something that keeps me in this particular parameter of how to tell a good story. I can talk about marriage. I don’t have to talk about it when I make a love song. When I first became a Christian, I was like, let me write a love song. I felt like the only thing I could say is like, “Well, I love you, girl, because Jesus loves me first.” And sometimes that’s an obstruction to a good song. Like, you know, I think about Stevie Wonder and “Ribbon in the Sky.” He didn’t have to give a three-point sermon about why he loved this individual. And sometimes just removing the three-point altar call is OK as long as you don’t make the ultimate solution something greater than the redemption of Christ. I think you’re on the way to a good story, if you will.
Cherie Harder: You know, your example of Flannery O’Connor is an illustration of a point that you make often in the book, which is really compelling, that really any good story requires a keen observer of both the light and the shadow. But I think one of the challenges that might be occurring in many of our viewers is that in many ways, even when you are trying your best to see clearly and to be what you called an “honest observer” in your story, all of us are coming from places where our view, our abilities to observe, are limited. They might be obscured, they may be distorted without us even realizing it, perhaps through no fault of our own. And so with all of the limitations on our ability to see fully or truly, how do we learn to be more honest observers in order to tell a good story?
Sho Baraka: I think it takes a humble disposition and not entering into the space as lords, but entering into the space as humble servants and people who are willing to learn. Any time you enter into a space thinking that you are the arbitrator of all that is good and right, I think you’ve come without ears to listen. I do think we all have tribes that form us that help shape our identity, and then when you come to this metropolis, what you’re doing is you’re negotiating. And I think the negotiation and the exchange is what makes communities and what makes cities and makes nations brilliant and makes it beautiful. However, what tends to happen is you begin to dominate and use your power in order to suppress or marginalize other people’s voices, whereas I think in a world where Christians are called to engage in love and serve that’s the wrong posture to have, because I think ultimately we’ve taken on this attitude that the goal is to win. And I don’t think Christ has called us to necessarily to win the debate. It’s to win with love, and sometimes love and winning is dying on the cross, it’s dying to your own self-interest. And so, for me, it’s what does it mean to be fully confident that you believe in what you believe in, but operating with a humble disposition, a humble posture, and knowing that though things were perfect at one point in time, we don’t operate in a Garden of Eden where everything and all our functions and facilities are perfect. But now we operate more in what is like a garden of Gethsemane where there’s pain, there’s struggle, and we’re all trying to figure out how do we work through this tension of knowing that we have to take up our crosses, and this is what God has called us to. And though we don’t want to do it, at some point we must do this.
And so there is no necessarily returning to Eden on this side of heaven and the garden in which we’re trying to create flourishing and life and community is a different garden of tension and frustration. But we have all the necessary tools, as Ephesians talks about, in order to make communities where people can operate within charity. And I think that’s the ultimate goal. Perfection is a far reach, but charity is doable. And I think it’s Henry Nouwen talks about how hospitality is not forcing change, but it’s creating an environment where change can possibly happen. And I think that’s the humble disposition: it’s walking into a place and saying, how do I not force people to put on my sin-stained culture, but understand that there is their culture—and as Richard Twiss talks about, not to remove and strip their identity to assimilate into mine—but to bring observance to where there may be blind spots and stain in your own culture. And so helping you become a better global citizen, a better citizen of the world within your own culture. And where our culture and your culture may conflict, and if there is dissidence, can there be reconciliation? Can there be repentance and repair? And if not, then we will have to figure out how to stay away from each other until we can.
Cherie Harder: There’s so many directions we could go in that one. But I guess, you know, one of the first questions would be: we’re all living within different stories, stories that we have constructed and told, stories that had been told to us. And as you point out, a lot of those stories do affect how we see ourselves, how we see the world, how we see each other. So how does one sort of go about the process of both recognizing and then hopefully repairing the flawed stories, the stories that distort our identity or our views of other’s identity?
Sho Baraka: One of my main things is that we have to recognize that we can be a part of the problem. It’s not just those people over there. They make the bad stories; they make the flawed stories; they create in ways that are quite detrimental to the development and the formation of people. It’s like, no, no, we contribute to that. And I say in the book that every swing of the hammer is informed by something. You may not be the one who’s making the decision in your vocation, but you’re building something. You’re contributing to the building, and you should know why you’re contributing in any way, shape, or form. And so first, understand what you’re doing. In this book, when I say “creative calling,” though I’m an artist, I like to think of everybody as creative because we’re all contributing to producing some sort of cultural product, I guess you could say. Parents produce children, engineers produce things so that we can operate within our cities and our world in a functional way. Obviously, artists create things that we can look upon and be impressed with. And so in some way, we’re all creators and we’re all creating. And so when you know you’re evaluating yourself consistently, and you’re looking, and you’re hearing what people are saying—I think just as much as you want to be heard and just as intently as you speak, you should be able to listen. You should be just as aggressive in your listening as you are in your speaking.
Sho Baraka: Howard Zinn says that every cry of the poor is not legitimate. However, you will never know true justice unless you listen to the poor. And until we get to a place where we see our work and we’re like, oh, I may be contributing to the detriment of my community, then the most necessary thing to do is to repent and then participate in the process of repair. I think one of the things that America has done a good job of is admitting that there have been some systems and some practices in the past that were negligent, detrimental, deplorable, and inhumane. However, what I don’t think has been great has been the repair. It’s like, oh, we apologize and we’ll stop. But you have to understand the effect that some of these things had on people. And how do we participate, actively participate, in the repentance and the repair of that scene? I’ve been married 18 years now, and if I am vile and disrespectful to my wife and I just treat her any kind of way, and then years into the marriage, I’m saying, “I stopped doing those things, young lady. Like, what do you want from me? I’m no longer abusive to you.” She’s going to say, “No, I have trauma. I have been impacted. I have great effects from the way you treated me.” So the way to repair potentially would be, let’s go to counseling. Let’s figure out how to repair the actions. Now, when I reach to touch you, you’re not jumping anymore.
Sho Baraka: I think there are forms of prejudice is that Black people have about the world in a good way that needs to be repaired because there’s an assumption that if I walk into this space that there’s an assumption about me as an individual. And those stories need to be repaired on both sides because racism, slavery, marginalization, whatever the new sociological word, they’re not just impacting the the recipient. They also impact the people who harbor these things because they have a false sense of who they are. The recipient is always assuming that they have to prove themselves. And as Toni Morrison says, they’re always distracted from actually getting work done. So they’re trying to prove that they have culture, they’re proving they have language, they’re proving that they have art, they’re proving that they’re smart. And then the person who harbors these or participates in these particular practices feel like they’re in the space where they need to be proven to. And those are very, very damaging places to be. And so the world needs a great repenting and repairing, not just physical, not just institutionally, but also psychological repair. And I think that helps with how we tell stories and what we say about one another. And proximity helps with that, I think. But it’s not just proximity, it’s also how do we begin to learn outside of our cultures? And there’s so much information out there that you can connect to even if you’re not in proximity with people.
Cherie Harder: Thanks, Sho. There’s a lot we can dig into there. One of the things I did want to ask you about is we have the challenge in that essentially all of us are flawed storytellers in some way. And you mentioned in your book that many of your heroes were deeply flawed storytellers in some way or the other. G.K. Chesterton, you pointed out, was against women’s suffrage. Martin Luther King Jr, hero to so many of us, did not treat women well. I think you gave the example of W.E.B. Dubois who wrote a eulogy for Joseph Stalin. There are important, even deep ways, in which many heroes told a false story. But we’re also, it seems like, in a time where even people who tell beautiful stories in some areas and false stories in others, there’s kind of like a binary public reaction at times. We don’t seem to do a great job in dealing with nuance. It’s either adulation or cancellation. And I wanted to get your thoughts on how do we think about, respond to, creatively engage a flawed storyteller?
Sho Baraka: Yeah, this is so— I wish I had to— There are so many people, the debate rages on on how do you properly “cancel” someone, I guess. And if I had it right, I’m sure I’d have a New York Times best-seller right now and people would be paying me hundreds of thousands of dollars to speak for five minutes on their platforms or whatever. I am of the belief that there are some people who definitely need to shut up. There are times when I have needed to shut up, and there are times when people need to be told what you’re saying is quite harmful and toxic and you need to take a back seat. I do feel like I personally would much rather allow for public debate about a person’s work versus silencing people so that they can move to the silos of the shadows of the corner and build and develop followings where nobody’s testing or challenging that thought publicly. Also I am a huge believer in grace. As much as I think that there are ridiculous thoughts in the world, as much as I believe that there are some ideas that are very harmful in the public square, I also believe that the best ideas ultimately win out at some place at some point in time. To get really harsh, sometimes it takes violence for those ideas to win out and that is the last resort. But if it takes that then, you know, I think, the world… Well, anyway, I do think that we should allow for public discourse and not be so quick just because somebody shares an idea that we don’t like to silence them and remove them from particular platforms.
Cherie Harder: Just to be clear, you’re not condoning violence in pursuit of a right idea.
Sho Baraka: No, no, no. What I am saying is that there have been times when violence has been necessary as a last resort. But no, I will say no, I actually like to think of myself as a pacifist in some ways, and so I don’t believe that violence is the answer for much of any solution, but it also would be naive to think that violence hasn’t benefited—violence in the sense of war—hasn’t benefited the world in some ways with the removal of particular people because they have risen to particular powers and promoted particular ideologies that I think were so damaging that it would have manipulated the world for the worse. But I do believe even in those cases, that folks who are in those positions— I believe in a great gospel and it may be naive of me and maybe shortsighted, but I believe that the gospel is so powerful. I believe truth is so, so poignant that it can win out and it can change the minds and souls and lives of people. And so when we remove people from the discourse and we remove them from hearing better ideas, I think we lose our opportunity to get them to see the better idea versus the idea that they may be perpetuating.
Sho Baraka: And then the other thing is that though these folks, some of these folks, may teach and promote some ideas that may be harmful, the reality of it is like, for instance, I know that George Whitfield promoted slavery. I live in the state in which he lobbied for slavery to continue. But guess what? My daughter goes to a school called Whitfield Academy. And I recognize that in light of his ridiculousness, that there potentially could have been some good that he stood for. And I hope that when I die, if my story is to be told, that there will be some aspects of my story that are shameful, that I am not happy about. However, I would also hope that people would say, you know what, there are some aspects of his story that people need to hear. And I think that’s ultimately what I am trying to argue is who is the whole person? What is the whole story? And how do we how do we roll out the whole person so that we just don’t celebrate the gold of an individual while ignoring the shadow? Because I think if we would have told whole stories after the reconstruction, then we probably wouldn’t have monuments to Confederate soldiers. We won’t be so quick to memorialize people if we told the truth ahead of time. So hopefully that was cogent.
Cherie Harder: So we’re going to go in just a minute or two to questions from our viewers. But before we do that, you’ve spent your life as a creative person and you close out your book with giving some fairly practical examples and encouragement to people who find themselves wanting to help cultivate creative ways to reimagine and repair the world. And I wanted to ask you about those. And in particular, there was one that struck me, which was counterintuitive, which was rest. And so I wanted to ask you about the link between rest and repairing the world and the creative life which we think of as being initiative-taking and engaged and active and forward-leaning. So I want to ask you about that in particular but also just your recommendations, principal suggestions, for people who want to be more creatively engaged in reimagining a better story.
Sho Baraka: Yeah, so I found that rest is quite pertinent for me as a creative, because what society tells you, what the industry tells you, is that you have to always be present in order to be relevant, in order to get yourself out there. You can’t allow the consumer or the audience to forget about you. And what I’ve learned over time is that relevance isn’t necessarily how often you speak, but, to me, relevance is, when you speak, are people listening? And for me, it takes time in order to do that and to be in that place, in that disposition, because oftentimes what happens is you are so busy trying to ascend the hill and to get to the peak to say I’ve arrived, that when you get there, you forget to live life. And you’re at the apex and it gets lonely. Nothing grows and lives at the top of mountains. And so what happens is you have to descend. You have to descend in order to live in a valley. And when you’re in the valley, that’s where life happens. And therefore, you’re cultivating life, you’re living life, and you’re reimagining things. You’re doing life for people. People are giving you imagination. People are giving you insight. So now you have the tools and the equipment to ascend the mountain again. So it’s about peaks and valleys rather than just rising and staying.
Sho Baraka: And I find that the the busyness of life does a disservice to us, and in Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude, there’s a wonderful example of what happens when people— So there’s a plague that sweeps over the fictional city of Macondo. And the folks, they don’t sleep. So insomnia. So now they’re up constantly, and they find this to be a good thing because now they can get so much work done. They’re so productive, right? But there’s one line in there that just rocks me when I read it. He says, “The people forgot how to dream.” And that’s what happens when we overwork ourselves, when we are consistently trying to be busy, when we’re always producing, producing, and progressing and progressing, that we forget what it was like to dream. We don’t know. We’re just trying to produce so that we can be in everybody’s faces. “You hear my album? You hear my song? I got another song come this week. ‘Bout to write this book. You got this book? You got this book? You got this song?” And it’s like, when do you have time to live? When do you have time to dream? What happens is you’re always producing, and then eventually the things you produce can be detrimental to the world because now you’re just producing for producing’s sake. You’re not producing for good. You’re producing so that you can just stay relevant.
And last example, I love Marvel. I have a daughter who’s a Marvel Comics fanatic. And if you watch any Marvel film in the last 10, 15 years, you know who Iron Man is. Iron Man is this amazing hero who flies all over the world and saves souls. But Iron Man is also Tony Stark. Tony Stark is a billionaire philanthropist. But the reason why Iron Man has to put on a suit and save the world is because Tony Stark creates all these problems in the world. So my framework is, well, if Tony Stark didn’t have such a bad theology of work, if he didn’t create such bad things, he wouldn’t have to put on a suit to fly across the world and save people. In a sense, I feel like the Christian culture wants to give them planes and we want to go do missions and we want to go to these needy communities and we want to go to these particular organizations, institutions, and change the world. But I feel like we can subsidize or we can we can alleviate a lot of that pain and hurt if only we just worked a little bit better.
Cherie Harder: That’s great, Sho. So we’re going to turn to questions from our viewers. And if you have joined us in the last, say, 20 minutes or so, you can not only ask the question in the Q&A feature, but you can also like the question. And that helps give us a better idea of what some of the most popular questions are. And I see that there are quite a few that have come in. So we’ll start with one from Dave Sexton with a very interesting question. He mentions that you, Sho, mention us at times as either heroes or villains. But is there a danger of stories where we are always at the center?
Sho Baraka: Amen. So if you get real biblical and the theological, I would say that we are role players. I love sports, you know. Greatest team of all time, the Lakers. Just to make an analogy, Kobe Bryant is the center player, but Kobe can’t win unless he uses the role players around him. And so, I think, though we are not the center and we are not the main characters, the reality is that we are used in a way that is valuable. Oftentimes we look at David and Goliath as a story of us being David versus Goliath. And the reality is, we are not David. We are the Israelites who are seeking somebody to fight the battle for us. And Jesus is that individual who steps up and says, “OK, I will be the advocate that you that you need.” And so, in a sense, I think one of the greatest detriments of what I communicate in this book is that the problem with storytelling, especially in American history, is that we always censor ourselves as the the main character. And then when you do that, you make your affections or affinities, your sensibilities, the most important, and then when other people come into the story, what happens is they get marginalized. And so how about we approach this as we are all role characters, ancillary characters, who are here to participate in making the story of God more brilliant and beautiful? So that was a great point. Great question.
Cherie Harder: So our next question from Anna Dufeck sort of follows on exactly what you said. And she asked, how do I speak to things like institutionalized and societal racism as a songwriter when these things are not part of my personal experience? And how similarly do I begin to honor those suffering around me through using my art?
Sho Baraka: So the first thing I will say is that everybody doesn’t have to be the activists, if you will. I think, in our society today, we feel the pressure to have to speak up on every single thing that comes across our feet, and I think that—very similar to the rest situation—that you don’t have the capacity nor the bandwidth to address every single issue. But I think the concern is great. I think the desire is there. And what I will say is every community of people you have people who are marginalized. So even if you grow up in the the Appalachians, and there are not many minorities in that community, well, guess what? I’m sure there’s a community of people who can feel the pain. Maybe not— I’m not making a false equivalency here—maybe not like African Americans, but very similar in a way that you don’t necessarily— Basically everybody has privilege. I remember on many trips to Africa, I was hanging out with some friends from Zimbabwe and South Africa, and they told me that I was privileged. And during the time I was there, that’s like one of the most offensive things you can say to a Black man. What do you mean I’m privileged? Do you recognize I live in America, my friend? But the way that they explained it is that no matter if I’m from America or not and I am Black, the reality is— I mean, no matter if I’m Black, the fact that I’m from America, a country of wealth, influence, and privilege, when I go places, I get better treated than they do as individuals from that country because of the way I speak or the way that I carry myself.
I’ll never forget, I was on a plane from Ethiopia to I think Nigeria, and the flight attendant was passing out—I don’t remember what it was, the pamphlets. And it seemed like they were only passing out pamphlets to either the European passengers or people who looked Ethiopian. And then I spoke and she heard my English accent. She stopped and then she gave me one. And I was so confused. I was like, why are she passing up some of the darker skinned Africans? And it just made me realize that, oh, there’s a prejudice here. And because I speak English and I’m from the West there is a privilege here. All that to say that people have privilege and they have power that they can will for the benefit of other people. And so know that when you write songs and when you make music, you can speak to a particular issue that is close to your heart and close to your community. It doesn’t necessarily have to be about issues that are that are miles away from you. But you can write about injustice in your backyard, you can write about opioid epidemics, you can write about—there’s so many things you can write about in people, I think, that creates bridges for people to concern themselves with other issues that may be far-reaching. Because the more I care about the communities and the people around me, then that local concern becomes national concern, then becomes a global concern. But before you jump to national and global issues, I say find the issues that are in your backyard and how can you create art that that touches on those particular disparities and injustices, if you will.
Cherie Harder: That’s great. So our next question comes from Nathan Casper and Nathan asks, what have you found helpful in encouraging people to enter into what’s uncomfortable as part of their story and pursue their gifts in order to live them out, as God has called them, within his story for them?
Sho Baraka: Amen. So one of the things that I try to talk about, and I know this is quite challenging, and can be pushed back, is what does it mean to be called in general? I’ve spent some time in some faith- and work-spaces where calling and vocation can oftentimes we communicated in a very poetic and romantic way. And one of the things I like to say, though, is I find that it could be—not all the time—but sometimes it can be quite elitist. Because we talk about calling as if the best place to be is where your gifting matches up with opportunity. What are you good at? And if you’re good at something, then find a way to utilize that gift. And I think that’s great, and if that can be the opportunity, if that can be the road for people, amen. However, I think there’s another way to look at calling and how to enter into spaces, and that’s by need. Because oftentimes what I look at the scripture, what I find is that people didn’t have the luxury of doing what they were just gifted at. God saw that there was a need before them; he put them in very uncomfortable situations sometimes. And then he said, I need you for this. For this, I need you. And there were times when the individual was like, well, Lord, I don’t think I’m adequately equipped to do this. And then God would be like, I don’t care what you think you’re equipped and adequate to do.I’ve asked you to do this because I need my will and narrative to be played out.
So there are needs in front of us and sometimes engaging in that need— Moses gave all the great excuses on why he couldn’t do something. And God was like, “Look, look, my friend, I didn’t ask you. You know what, OK, Aaron, help Moses out. You know what I’m saying. So now what’s your excuse, Moses? I mean, you were raised in the palace. You are perfect for this.” And so sometimes entering into spaces that we feel may be uncomfortable are probably the best places for us to be because now we know we have to depend on Jesus, on the Lord. And hopefully you enter in with, as we said before, a humble disposition. You enter in with knowing that only by the spirit of the Lord will I be successful in this space. And so where is the need? If there’s need, how can you position yourself in a humble way to be a learner and not just someone who’s bringing solutions, but being a learner? I started writing the best music of my life when I stopped speaking at people. And when I start opening myself up for conversations and saying, hey, this is what I think, let’s dialogue, let’s reason. And so I would say don’t overthink it. Pray unto the Lord and if the Lord has revealed to you needs around you, address it, enter in, and be a honest observer, but be a humble observer as well.
Cherie Harder: So our next question comes from Annie Barnett, and Annie asks, she says, I really appreciate your emphasis on telling the whole story. The gold and the uglier, painful, even traumatic stories. Are there practices you would recommend to other artists both to tell through our art, but also to live a whole and integrated life? Big question.
Sho Baraka: In Chapter Six of my book, I think I give some pretty practical things, especially to people of faith. I’d say you have to in some ways embrace, as I said with Flannery O’Connor, embrace the grotesque, embrace the darkness of the world. I’ve been into movies, I’ve watched a lot of Christian movies, and oftentimes—not all—oftentimes some of those movies I feel do a disservice to what is evil and what is grotesque. It’s like, oh, the greatest thing you struggle with is pride, my friend? OK, well, you know. Oh, when you when you when you’re mad at somebody, you say frick and filth? There’s no expletives? There’s no bad words that come out your mouth? Oh OK. This is an interesting struggle here. And the more we’re honest about the darkness and the more we can engage the darkness without celebrating the darkness, if you will, I think those are good practices to engage and to begin to tell the whole story.
Sho Baraka: The other thing I do is I love reading a bunch of, I guess you can say, either faith-adjacent or non-faith-based work. Like, for instance, I’ll read Toni Morrison’s Bluest Eye. And there is incest in that book that happens. She’s not glorifying incest. She’s not saying like this is something that we should do. But the reality is, incest is something that happens. It’s real, it’s prevalent. And how does a family live after an act of incest and the child is pregnant from that incest? Like these are the types of stories that may not happen in every community, but it happens in some communities. Drug addiction. How do we talk about that in a way that doesn’t glorify drug addiction? But it brings it to the front and it tells a real story about addiction. Sex and and desires that people have. Rather than avoiding these things we have to engage in them. We have to write about these things and not put on the veneer of perfection. And so I just like to read and see how the greats are talking about the tensions of the world, because I think that helps inform me on how to do it from a worldview that I think brings a greater—I would like to think a greater—observation of redemption. And not feeling like I have to tie up every story and every song with a wonderful conversion at the end. Sometimes truth is hard and people wrestle with it for years.
Cherie Harder: Well, that sort of tees up a question from William Robinson who ask—I guess in addition to Toni Morrison and Flannery O’Connor—what are some of the novelists who have most shaped your vision of vision of the world and artistic style?
Sho Baraka: Man, artistic style. Some of my favorite novelists are— I love Chinua Achebe. Things Fall Apart. He doesn’t feel this pressure to have to write in linear, like a linear story. That’s given me the freedom and the liberty to not feel like everything has to be A to Z. So, yeah. And sometimes there’s an organized dysfunction, if you will. You’re like, OK, now what’s happened? Where are we? And it gives the the reader and the listener some— keeps them on their toes, if you will. But of course, I love Toni Morrison. Toni Morrison is my favorite of all time. She is brilliant. I love the historical fiction. I love Gabriel Garcia Marquez and his magical realism.
Sho Baraka: But the one person I feel like I love her, Zora Neale Hurston, because of her hermeneutic of human beings. I love the way she tells, I think, honest stories about humans, especially Black culture. One of the things that we have to understand about Zora Neale Hurston is she came to prominence doing the Harlem Renaissance. And the Harlem Renaissance was a time where Black culture was trying to propagate its exceptionalism. Like, OK, racial propaganda is saying that Black people are slow and stupid and we are violent and all of these things. Well, Harlem Renaissance was trying to push against those stereotypes. Here’s the exceptional of our culture. Here’s the exceptional thinkers, here are their exceptional art, exceptional music, the exceptional movement that we offer to the world. And these are the folks that they propagated. Zora Neale Hurston went the other way. Rather than talking about the exceptional of the Black culture, she said, I want to go to low culture. I want to focus on folklore, and I want to show that these people here are extraordinary as well. And a lot of people looked at her, they chided her for kind of like showing off what was low culture, because during this time it was like, these are not the people we need to spotlight. This is not the kind of culture we need to spotlight. But she brought great dignity, I believe, to low culture, as they would call it. Storytelling through folklore and children’s stories and interviewing of slaves and spotlighting women as protagonists in her stories. And so I think the way that she viewed human beings is something that I just I would hope to get an honest capture of when I write and when I talk about people and not just talk about the exceptional, but to talk about the people in the margins, if you will, and give great dignity to those folks so that they can be honored as well.
Cherie Harder: So, Natasha Douket asks, you brought up two Catholic writers, Flannery O’Connor and Henry Nouwen, and yet you’ve been sharing your own ecclesial background is evangelical Protestant. Could you please speak about the role of ecumenical charity in creating spaces of hospitality where Christians with varying theological convictions can gather?
Sho Baraka: I think I am that. I am a hodgepodge of all kinds of— I am evangelical because of— It’s just by default, if you will. If you have to pin me down, you ask me what I believe, I—and I’m not doing that just to to be difficult. I honestly struggle with where I land. And I think because I can vacillate from, you know— In 2012, I had a kind of like a crisis of faith and I started to actually move towards Orthodoxy.
Orthodoxy with a capital “O”?
Yes. Or Eastern Ethiopian Orthodoxy. And so I moved towards Ethiopian and Eastern Orthodox. And honestly, the only reason why I didn’t consistently participate is because the church service is way too long. I thought Black churches were long. Well, I was like, I don’t know if I could do this. But the polity, kind of like the liturgy, was something that I admired. And so I kind of went from like Black Baptist Church to kind of like reformed theology to kind of like Orthodox. Then now I’ve kind of explored like Catholicism. And so now I can see the neat and the— And I think art, honestly, is one those places or is that place where, if anywhere, should be ecumenical, where people can just kind of descend and doctrine shouldn’t be the catalyst for what is good art. I mean, you’ll hear doctrine come through, but when you start with doctrine, I think that automatically starts with bad stories, in my personal opinion.
Sho Baraka: I think when you when you say, hmm, what is the doctrine that I’m trying to communicate? I think you should be a preacher. I think you should be a priest. But when you’re an artist, I think what you’re trying to do is, what is the story I’m trying to tell? And how can I bring the different beliefs and different processes to this story and and give them all a fair assessment, if you will? And use my imagination to create unity where there may be dissonance and et cetera, et cetera. And so I think it’s very necessary. I think it’s important. I think the moment I began to explore outside of not just a particular type of Christian, but especially non Christian thinkers—and didn’t feel guilty about engaging in those—I became not only a better artist, better thinker, better writer, but a better human in general. Because I started to understand that the people who are within my tribe, whatever tribe that was at the time, they weren’t the progenitors of all that is good and true. And so I can go outside of this particular tribe and and get things and bring it back to my particular tribe and say, hey, you guys, have you ever thought about forks and knives instead of chopsticks? And they’re like, no, get those forks and knives out of here. And I’m like, OK, cool, we’ll stick with the chopsticks then, you know? But it’s about the dialogue, at least.
Cherie Harder: Well, there have been so many good questions, and I regret that we won’t get to more of them. We’re going to take one more. And this is from Charlotte Donlon, and Charlotte asks, How does making and engaging art deepen the ways that we belong to ourselves, others, God, and the world?
Sho Baraka: It is brilliant, I think it’s brilliant how she asks “God, ourselves, others, and the world.” Because I think about Genesis 1: God creates. We are a reflection of his creation. We are to reflect him in how we not only fellowship with him, fellowship with others, fellowship with ourselves—AND with the world, with the creation. And so the better we understand that we are creators in every aspect of the word and we are made to create in every aspect of it, and how that was corrupted and how Jesus is redeeming all those things, then the more intimate we’ll become with our work, the more intimate we’ll not only become with our God, with others, ourselves, but then we’ll also understand that there was a great command to create and cultivate and then we’ll become deeply intimate with that work. And it won’t just be something that we do. It will be something that is a part of our identity as worshipers that we create, not just an activity that we do to pass time. No, this is worship. And this means deep intimacy with not only God and others, but with our work. George Washington Carver was a perfect example of this. This man literally spoke to flowers, and he said his speaking to flowers is what gave him the secrets of creation. It sounds ridiculous, but I think that’s an aspect of intimacy that you have when you have a great relationship with God and work. You feel like you can commune with the immutable. And when you do that, you become so intimate with the work that you do, that you end up creating good for other people. As George Washington Carver did. I think the more intimate we are with God, the more intimate we are with other people, ourselves, and work, the better creators we become.
Cherie Harder: That’s great. It’s a vivid word picture to end on: speaking to flowers. Sho, thanks so much. As promised, Sho, the last word is yours.
Sho Baraka: All right. [rapping] Where do you stand? What’s your standard? What’s your view? What gives you the right to think the things that you do? Is school? Is it news? Is it man’s wisdom? Is it religion? Why listen, when you making your decisions. It’s funny how some people, they see the Lord. Some see him as a pacifist, some see him with a sword. The Lord who hated sin showed grace to the thief, saved the lowly prostitute from being stoned in the street. He was holy, but he hung with the sinful, drove the wicked out by flipping over tables in the temple. He took a wrongful death and yet he remained silent. But he said he’s coming back and he is bringing violence. Many people isolate him just to make them fit their cause, but never to involve the greater context at all. So are the two Christs totally unrelated? Or maybe it’s one Christ and it’s pretty complicated.
Cherie Harder: Sho, thank you so much.
Sho Baraka: Thank you.