One of the most interesting CD’s I purchased recently was by the soul/funk vocal group The Relatives called Electric Word. The were a group that combined heavy retro styled funky soul with sometimes fire and brimstone Christian values. On the other hand when I was observing the new album by the acappella band Under The Influence at the local record store Bull Moose,my father informed me that he’d heard that were a Christian oriented group. I put the CD down,yet shortly after had deep reservations about what I’d done. I felt like a prostitute,or a bigot. Now I’ve never considered myself bigoted towards anything. Some cultural discomfort about certain sociological topics of course. But not outright prejudice. However I am a deeply agnostic secular humanist by nature. My personal views on contemporary religion can be summed up with Robert Downey,in the film Chaplin, when a Nazi agent at a Hollywood reception asks him what he has against the Nazi’s and Chaplin/Downey responds “what have you got against everybody else?”. That in a word sums up my view on modern day religious conservatism.
Personally I’m more than aware of the interesting duality of the spiritual and the very secular sexual energy that is at the core of the gospel and blues hybrid that is part of the nucleus of all soul,funk and everything connected it to it. Al Green and The Staple Singers are among my very favorite artists-along with listening to my fathers Andrae Crouch records growing up. The gospel end of soul never bothered me. Even the Bob Dylan album Slow Train Coming-he even linked his debut Christian album with funky soul music. Marvin Gaye preached his own variation of the gospel on his What’s Going On by chanting “father father” on the title song and evoking a similar spirit on “Holy Holy”. Stevie Wonder used Christian ideals very well to evoke a social point he made-in both cases regarded drug abuse on both 1973’s “Jesus Christ Children Of America” and 1991’s “Chemical Love”. Earth Wind & Fire has a similar approach on the excellent and more Unitarian type spiritual anthems such as 1972’s “They Don’t See” and 1974’s “Devotion”,one of their standards.
On the other side there is a darker side to this that comes when righteousness starts clouding clear judgement. A good example is Prince. While spiritual themes were present on his album Lovesexy and evoking the bible in his rock anthem “The Cross”,Prince became a Jehovah’s Witness in 2001. He began exercising self censorship-for example going as far as changing song titles such as “Sexuality” to “Spirituality” and “The Cross” to “The Christ” in concert. This went far beyond Al Green’s decision to become a reverend. The most upsetting probably had to be someone in fact related to Prince’s conversion: Larry Graham. His post Sly band Graham Central Station always had strong gospel overtones. In 1976 they released one of their very strongest albums instrumentally with the album Mirror. Yet on the title song,very much a Stevie Wonder style Moog bass funk exploration they chose to include some disturbingly homophobic lyrics that went as follows: “I see a jacked up world/with freaky boys and girls/men who go with men and girls with girls/you have to change your ways my friend/ if you want to survive”.
In the end religion in soul and funk basically functions best when it is a personal aspect of it helping those who gravitate towards its stories and messages as a source of inspiration. It runs into trouble when it starts personalizing that religious faith with hateful and bigoted statements that only create controversy and wrongly hurt people’s feelings. People come into music of any sort in order to be entertained and enlightened,not to have a doctrine forced upon them. That goes for all religions-western and non western as well. There is a school of thought that any sort of science and history talked of outside a spiritual context is in itself a type of philosophy and/or doctrine. Its an age old conundrum I suppose. On the other hand,a secular humanist who is an admirer and devotee of soul and funk such as myself is often put in a conflict of interest. Today most people often claim Christian faith in the name of the most despicable types of hatred and bigotry. Even though it helped the black community immeasurably during the Civil Rights Movement,it is no longer the source for all human morality. And though I still love soul and funk,I would love to see the message in the music begin to again reflect this new and more humanistic moral ground as well.