It’s strange to think in our move away from institutionalised religion, you know the church on Sunday ritual of generations past, that we would replace it or mimic it in another form. Let’s think about how we approach music; regardless of genre, we idolise artists, we adopt a habitual approach where music feeds into all that we do and to a greater extent we create spiritual bonds to ‘our’ music. Lifting the power of a playlist to all but godly heights. What purpose is there for religious undertones in music? Because although it may unsettle some atheists we’re not switching off.
The first overtly religious track that comes to mind is the masterful Hallelujah by Leonard Cohen in 1985 and the widely popular cover from Jeff Buckley in 1994. And if you look a few years either side of that classic, you’ll find religious themes littered throughout popular music. Whether it’s Prince and his struggle with religious identity, Bob Dylan’s brief conversion to Christianity in 1970 or Madonna’s Catholic roots feeding into her music, you could easily find religious influences in popular music. Today, its presence seems more nuanced, perhaps to avoid fans boycotting an artist’s music. Or in the way of rap music, the song’s audience having a somewhat complicate relationship with religion than their predecessors.
A piece published in Wired explored this connection more broadly looking at the brain’s activity while listening to music and how it attributes to the sweet release of dopamine. A tune induced wash of happiness as the vocalist croons and the bass strums. But beyond that many of us have a spiritual tie to the music we love; it compels us to act, evokes fierce emotion and is an essential part of our everyday routines.
Feeding into this idea of spiritual connection Michael Graziano stated
“My brain is treating the music like a universe of complexity and investing that universe with its own deity, for whom I feel some measure of awe and reverence.”
We can acknowledge the chemical reaction to music but what drives our connection to music is the spiritual elements we draw from it. The hidden meaning tucked beneath delicate chords and artful melodies.
It isn’t surprising to see that music lovers have many similar traits to someone of faith. We take the word of artists as gospel (having their sound shape our actions), we congregate at every opportunity we can to see them (basking in their presence) and when we can’t see them we surround ourselves with their sound. And that’s across genres, rap fervour is even more mobilised in it’s movement, like worshippers celebrating together in the pews. Whether you look at them as prophets or single out one artist to serve as your messiah, they feed into this idea that religious mannerism has migrated into popular music.
Who is keeping the faith alive? Now more than ever the inspiration and motivation behind many a popular artist is rooted in godly pursuits. And although it’s not overt or off-putting, any discerning listener would pick up on it.
In his latest mixtape, The Colouring Book, Chance The Rapper embeds pro-Christian themes of faith, praise and love – offering something that is starkly different to a majority of artists right now. We may see Kanye’s Life of Pablo as trying to cover the same ground but the focus seen is more on the hardships people of faith may encounter. An intersection where many a rap fan stands, at a crossing of religion and music.
Even UK grime artist Stormzy is no stranger to grounding his music in his faith and you’ll only need to look at the cover of Gang Signs & Prayers to see that; here the iconic Last Supper scene is recreated with Stormzy in the centre, poised in the middle just as Jesus Christ was. Look into his music from Blinded by Your Faith Pt.1, and Pt.2 to see Stormzy recreate the idea of your stereotypical Christian by plainly expressing that if he can be accepted by faith then who isn’t redeemable. A powerful position to take for a man that draws a crowd of raucous fans with each new bar.
Now, you would think that as religion is a contentious topic, any mainstream artist who openly accepts their religion would face major backlash against their decisions. Well, The Colouring Book was the first album to top the Billboard charts as a streaming only release and helped Chance become a Grammy award winning artist earlier this year. As for Stormzy, The Guardian hailed him as London’s grime lord and he’s the first artist of his kind to have an album atop the UK charts. Anecdotally, it looks like their faith hasn’t dampened their success just as it had little impact on popular artists of the past. As long as their faith is Christian of course.
Perhaps music is now an alternative faith of secular society and yes as hyperbolic this may come off, it might not be too far from the truth. We immerse music into all that we do, feel a spiritual connection that is beyond what we’re hearing and actively seek community with those who share a same obsession.
Image source: BBC, Thunderstruck, Buzzfeed.