Social Justice and CHH Part IV: Sho Baraka the Griot
In last week’s article on “Social Justice and CHH,” I considered the portraits of Christ painted in the lyrics of Propaganda, Lecrae, and KB. I suggest that artist commitment to social justice is primarily a commitment to Christ. It is through a theological interpretation of placing Christ among the oppressed that these artists level a concern for social justice.
In this article on “Social Justice and CHH,” I focus on the legacy of Sho Baraka who I liken to a griot. According to Flora Bridges, “In African culture, the storytellers, called griots, were elders in the community who remembered the history and wisdom of the tribe” (Resurrection Song, 47). Baraka’s impact on CHH has similarly functioned in this way.
Baraka’s influence on CHH is long-standing. A founding member of the 116 Clique, former recording artist with Reach Records, co-founder of High Society, a previous signee to Humble Beast, and now founder of Lions & Liars Productions, Sho Baraka holds an impressive resume as an artist, influencer, and creator in and outside CHH. In many ways, his impact on CHH is unmatched, and his devotion to social and racial justice is consistent throughout his music spanning the past fifteen years.
Sho Baraka’s debut album, Turn My Life Up, appeared in 2007, and without reserve, he addresses issues of social justice. In his track “Rebuild the City,” Baraka details the disconnect between the church and underprivileged neighborhoods, and he traces the problem to early missionaries:
Missionaries came through and preached revival
They took the land and left the hands with the Bibles
No direction, no vision, no disciples
Years later the church has become an idol
(“Rebuild the City,” in Turn My Life Up, Sho Baraka, 2007).
Baraka outlines the questionable past of missionaries proclaiming revival while also exploiting communities. In addition to pointing out the actively exploitive role of the missionaries, Baraka highlights the passive role of the church. There the church sits, awaiting praise, honor, and accolades, but it provides nothing for the community.
In the second verse of this track, Baraka asserts that individuals need to take ownership of communal problems:
My man moved to the projects
Invested in the projects
All for the promise
To offer needs to the jobless
Hope to the homeless
Escape from the bondage
For Baraka, it’s not enough to simply talk about these problems; one must act. The individual must involve themselves in the social ills facing the community. But Baraka is not merely concerned with societal dilemmas, he is also concerned about the deeper issues of the soul. According to Baraka, “this is not just a speech. We will rebuild the souls along with the streets.”
Baraka has used his music since 2007 to do just that, and he has pursued this “rebuilding of the soul” in a unique and important way.
Sho Baraka is unapologetically Black, Christian, and a lover of stories. Stories are central to his creative outflow. In his most recent track “Their Eyes Were Watching,” he opens the first verse with a telling truth:
Hello America, please stop with the eulogies
I wrote my own narrative, you don’t know what to do with me
(“Their Eyes Were Watching,” Sho Baraka, 2020).
Baraka indeed wrote his own narrative, but he started writing that narrative long before his 2016 project.
In his 2010 album titled Lions and Liars, Baraka begins his narrative with a short story of his own life. On the track “My Life (Nice Aim),” Baraka chronicles various stages within his life, and he refers to each verse in the song as a different chapter. In the first chapter of this four-minute story, Baraka describes his early years and how he struggled with his own identity:
I hated the mirror ‘cause I struggled with my race
Every day I would wish I was white. I’m such a disgrace
(“My Life [Nice Aim],” in Lions and Liars, Sho Baraka featuring Derek Minor, 2010).
Baraka begins his narrative by contextualizing himself within a fractured identity. Instead of rebuilding the souls of others, he identifies himself as a soul in need of reconstruction, and part of that rebuilding process is the unapologetic affirmation that God created Baraka Black:
So it’s a reality
Propagated by society
Setup not biblically to define you and me
But embraced by Christianity
Continuing on this insanity
Distorted as this world’s perception may be
Who I am and what I am
I thank God because
(“I’m Black [A Word from Tom Ason],” Lions and Liars, Sho Baraka, 2010 in 2010).
Baraka’s mission to rebuild the soul through the power of narrative is further developed in his 2015 album Talented 10th, which follows the format of a book rather than an album. Each song title includes a “chapter” designation, and the album ends with two “epilogues.” In the first chapter, “Bethesda,” Baraka stirs the waters by immediately speaking to issues of race:
To talk to God they told me to climb a mountain
I’m thirsty for his revelation
Where is the colored fountain?
His grace rains on the concrete garden
I guess it’s common sense now
That that’s water for chocolate
(“Chapter 1: Bethesda,” in Talented 10th, Sho Baraka featuring JK and L.I.B.E.R.T.Y., 2015).
In the above, Baraka references the need for a “colored fountain.” Referring to the Jim Crow era and the separate drinking fountains, he suggests that segregated fountains of God’s revelation persist. Baraka climbed the mountain, realized there was no colored fountain for him to drink from, and returned to his context, the “concrete garden.” It is here, within his own social location and community that he found a wellspring of refreshment.
Central to Baraka’s “narrative” for the rebuilding of the soul is the affirmation of Black culture, history, and spirituality. However, as he outlines in “Chapter 9: Jim Crow,” this is nearly impossible at times:
I am the invisible man
Though I have a soul
I am from the invisible land
They gave me a slave pen
For my freedom of speech
Yeah I’m trying to leave the island but swimming through bleach
(“Chapter 9: Jim Crow,” in Talented 10th, Sho Baraka, 2015).
In this song, Baraka powerfully describes the struggle that Black people engage when asserting their unique identity in an ocean of white supremacy. The ocean of “bleach,” according to Baraka, maintains the borders to this island of identity. Calling himself the “invisible man” from the “invisible land,” Baraka vocalizes the ongoing devaluation of Black culture, and he later states in the song, “we fight for blackness but we don’t know what Black is.”
In 2016, Baraka released his album The Narrative, a masterful work that encapsulates Black history, culture, and spirituality. As he raps in the opening song “Forward, 1619”:
Don’t close the book, I got more to write
You can change the story, that is my advice
I read in color, they see black and white
You just saw the cover, but there’s more to life
(“Forward, 1619,” The Narrative, Sho Baraka, 2016).
Baraka’s album the Narrative is the way off of the desolate island described in “Jim Crow.” As he puts it, “you can change the story.” And this is precisely what Baraka achieved in his music. He rebuilt the soul by affirming the body, the history, and the culture of Black people in America. He changed the narrative.
In Baraka’s music, the listener is introduced to the beauty and complexities of Black culture. From Sojourner Truth to Fredrick Douglass, from the Buffalo Soldiers to the Black Panthers, from the Harlem Renaissance to the Civil Rights Movement, Baraka points to the powerful legacy of Black history:
Yeah I’m schooled in the ways of runaway slaves
I’m brave, I’m unchained, I’m Frederick Douglass with a fade
I kidnapped greatness and left no ransom
I’m the grandson of Muhammed Ali, but more handsome
(“Soul, 1971,” in The Narrative, Sho Baraka, 2016).
Baraka’s journey to rebuild the soul along with the streets began with a story about himself. In the genesis of that story, he struggled to understand himself as a Black man in America. Before helping others, he first looked to God to affirm his humanity. From there, he turned to the identity crisis within the culture. He identified the harmful narrative that defined Blackness, but it was a narrative he denied. In order to move forward, he looked back. He looked at the people and communities that went before. He saw that those past narratives and stories told by Black intellectuals, leaders, and survivors held power for asserting one’s identity and understanding one’s place in the world and in America. Like a griot, he knew that the stories from the past provided the tools to build a beautiful future.
Baraka told his story. He affirmed his humanity. He raised the eyes of weary souls swimming against an endless tide of white supremacy. But in it all, he never strayed from the Savior who walks across those boisterous waves to help the weary and oppressed. For Baraka, Jesus is always the answer to every problem we face. He already made that point clear at the beginning of “Chapter 1: Bethesda.” But maybe you dismissed him because he spoke in a language you didn’t understand.
Thanks for reading this fourth and final part of Rapzilla’s series “Social Justice and CHH.” While this series covered numerous artists and themes pertaining to CHH and its engagement with matters of social justice, it is by no means exhaustive. There are many additional topics, artists, and avenues to pursue. Although this is the end of this series, there is much more to be said about CHH’s impact on history, culture, and Christianity. This is not the end. The conversation continues. Stay tuned.