Blessings:Reprise–Chance the Rapper, Religion, and the Senses

Students in Dr. Richard Newton’s Signifying Religion: An African American Worldview course were invited to employ tools and theories from religious studies to explore how meaning making works. Miriam Balasundram took a phenomenological approach to consider religion and the senses. She was taken by the rhythms of Chance the Rapper and reflected on what led her to be so moved.

Humans perceive physical sensation as an essential facet of life. However, many people in the world are either born or become paralyzed. Paralysis has dramatic ramifications in that all sensory input is not perceived by the brain. While these individuals may still have their vision, hearing, taste, and smell, being unable to feel must greatly impact how they perceive their world. However in October of 2016, The Washington Post released an article saying that doctors have developed a system to allow a man to feel “pressure in the fingers of his paralyzed right hand, effectively bypassing his damaged spinal cord.”[1] This is an incredible development within the scientific community. For someone to be able to feel pressure and sensation in a previously paralyzed limb is life altering. Plate argues “without the senses there would be no religion, for religion is founded on a relation between embodied beings and the world around them.”[2] Thus, religions employ music to sharpen and deepen the sensory experiences of life.

Recently, one of my favorite artists, Chance the Rapper performed a song on Jimmy Fallon from his latest mixtape. This song is called “Blessings: Reprise” and while it is on his seemingly “secular” album, it is full of sensation in a very heartfelt and emotional way that might come to mind when thinking of religion in terms of Rudolf Otto’s mysterium tremendum et fascinans[3]. Chance the Rapper raps in a way that is moving much like “spoken word” poetry, not in the “make you cry” way, but moving in the sense that there is a visceral understanding that is felt when watching him perform this song. One of his lines in the song is, “the people’s champ must be everything that the people can’t be.”[4]  I relate Chance the Rapper’s song to religion as he is trying to be what his audience needs him to be. This “religion” can most similarly be expressed through John (Fire) Lame Deer’s perspective that “everyday things…are mixed up with the spiritual.”[5] Charles Long would have us “see what kind of images and meanings lie behind the religious experiences of the black communities in America,” in Chance the Rapper’s music.

When I listen to Chance the Rapper, I am overwhelmed with sensations of joy mixed with gratefulness of what I have been blessed with, appreciation for talented musicians, and physical senses as well. The Washington Post has an article about Chance the Rapper and eloquently verbalizes these sensations, the “trumpet runs that tickled the spine…[while] it caused an ecstasy that seemed almost religious.” [6] The take home message is that music is a sign that we can signify, but also reads us back, almost like scripture.[7] This is exemplified by the sensations that “tickle” us and cause “ecstasy” when we listen to music. The sensations we experience are the music’s way of reading us; the words play on our current social location and thus make us feel certain ways.  Chance the Rapper uses this concept and makes his lyrics relatable to his audience; there are songs for every type of vibe, so he can touch his listeners. He is a socially conscious artist who in addition to being the “champ” his listeners cannot be, provides his music to the world for free.[8]

Religion is a mode for people to interpret and sharpen the sensory experience of life. As Charles Long says, religious experiences have signs and meanings that relate to them.[9] I believe that religion is a way for people to give themselves a hope-filled community to rely on and that music can elicit these feelings. The Nation of Gods and Earths (NOGE), also known as the Five Percenters use their way of life and community to give meaning to their lives and daily activities. For me, the most important thing I gained from their group is that there can be deep meaning in the simple daily facets of life. For the NOGE, hip-hop music among other things holds meaning in its teachings and symbolism.[10][11] They use music to reach their members with the ideals, messages, and expressions that they want to have effects within their community. Their religious experience is enhanced through this hip hop music that may seem like any other song to other religious individuals. The sensory experience that listeners have when listening is dependent on their social location and religious convictions. The artists who create NOGE-inspired music are like Chance the Rapper in that they cater to what their audience needs them to be. They are the “champs…the people can’t be.”[12]

Essentially, our senses are incredibly vital in understanding the world around us and religion can enhance this experience as evidenced by the case study about the Five Percenters and personally, Chance the Rapper. Religion is a human activity and it relates to all other human activities that we perform, including sensation.

[1] Amy Ellis Nutt, “In a medical first, brain implant allows paralyzed man to feel again.” The Washington Post (October 13, 2016).

[2] S. Brent Plate. 2009. Introduction to Religious Studies. Edited by Paul O. Myrhe. (Winona, MN: Anselm Academic).

[3] David C. Ratke, 2009. Introduction to Religious Studies. Edited by Paul O. Myrhe (Winona, MN: Anselm Academic).

[4] Chance the Rapper, 2016. “Blessings: Reprise” Lyrics. http://genius.com/chance-the-rapper-blessings-reprise-lyrics

[5] John (Fire) Lame Deer and Richard Erdoes, Lame Deer: Seeker of Visions (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1972), cited in John Lyden, Enduring Issues in Religion (San Diego, CA: Greenhaven Press, 1995), 154, cited in Introduction to Religious Studies. Edited by Paul O. Myrhe.

[6] Chris Kelly, “The pure and joyous uplift of Chance the Rapper,” The Washington Post. October 7, 2016.

[7] Richard Newton. Identifying Roots: Alex Haley and the Anthropology of Scriptures. (Equinox Publishing: 2018(forthcoming)).

[8] Jimmy Fallon interviews Chance the Rapper. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YlwNzIf1GmE

[9] Charles H Long, “Perspectives for the Study of Afro-American Religion in the United States,” History of Religions 11:1 (August 1971), 54-66

[10] Ted Swedenburg, 1996. “Islam in the Mix: Lessons of the Five Percent.” American Anthropological Association Annual Meetings (University of Arkansas). http://comp.uark.edu/~tsweden/5per.html.

[11] “Five-Percent Nation,” Wikipedia: last edited 10 October 2016.

[12] Chance the Rapper, 2016. “Blessings: Reprise” Lyrics. http://genius.com/chance-the-rapper-blessings-reprise-lyrics

resized_58d4981343e62Miriam Balasundram ’17 is a senior at Elizabethtown College. She is a Biology: Pre-Medicine major.

One thought on “Blessings:Reprise–Chance the Rapper, Religion, and the Senses

  1. Miriam, you have revealed an interesting cross-section between music, the senses and religion. I like the treatment of Chance the Rapper’s style and its significance to developing a more sensational connection to faith and religion in this post.

    Chance the Rapper has clearly connected with a large audience. Many of his new fans, myself included, may have never paid attention to a rap mixtape, but the emotional connection heard in his music draws us in to listen more closely to the message he conveys so freely in his music. That freedom to create a memorable and unique connection with his audience, I think, is only possible because he is “post-label” as he pronounces in Blessings: Reprise. By building his career and producing his art outside of the industry, he is free to break all of the commercial generic boundaries and create authentic music counter to predominant rap culture.

    Thanks for sharing your post. It certainly led me to think about the music in a different way.

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