By: James S. Bielo (Miami University)
Eight young men gather on a Sao Paulo rooftop – surveying the city’s sprawling jumble of ramshackle houses, the periferia – writing rhymes and composing gospel raps. A congregation is divided as they hear and see a samba band perform: some uncomfortable with this being worship, others dance joyously yet careful not to sway too much. Hips don’t lie. Gospel singers view videos of U.S. gospel choirs performing in church, and talk excitedly about which techniques to emulate. Scenes like this form the ethnographic backbone of John Burdick’s The Color of Sound: a comparative study of how blackness, musical artistry, and evangelical Christianity intersect.
Burdick’s ethnography traverses ten poor and working-class neighborhoods in Sao Paulo: Brazil’s largest city and the world’s eighth largest. The book derives from nine months of fieldwork (2003-2005), and focuses on a particular racial-religious identity. Negros and negras: Afro-descendent Brazilians who are historically and structurally marginalized throughout the nation. Evangelicos: Protestant Christians from a variety of denominations, including millenialists (Seventh-Day Adventists), “classic Pentecostals” (8), and neo-Pentecostal prosperity churches. The core question that moves the analysis is this:
“To what extent may evangelicos develop black pride from within the ideological matrix of evangelical Christianity” (11)?
To answer this, Burdick concentrates on a certain kind of religious actor: music artists. It is in the musical lives of evangelicos, he argues, where a marked potential to develop racial consciousness exists. Burdick compares musicians in three genres: gospel rappers, gospel sambistas, and gospel singers. The striking differences among these three provide the book’s biggest yield. Ethnographically, Burdick does not limit himself to polished performances; instead, he tracks “rehearsals, backstage gatherings, and everyday transits…workshops, classes, seminars, and trainings” (16). The behind-the-scenes feel that results is one of the book’s shining qualities. Theoretically, the core argument is this: “in order to understand the role of music in the formation of collective identities, we must attend to how musical practices and discourses articulate and generate ideas and feelings about history, place, and the body” (19).
The central finding of Burdick’s ethnography is that the three genres – rap, samba, gospel – offer evangelicos very different sets of possibilities. To begin, as genres they carry different social meanings and histories. Rap in Sao Paulo bears much the same weight that rap bears in Tokyo (Condry 2006) or Nairobi (Ntarangwi 2009): urban hipness, youth agency, cultural critique, and a sense of locality. Samba, on the other hand, is dangerous for evangelicos. The genre is intimately associated with sexuality and party culture; it is the most difficult to redeem. In this way, gospel is samba’s ideological opposite: thoroughly and definitively spiritual, primed and ready for Christian ends.
Most important for Burdick, the three are divided in their potential to engage a project of racial consciousness. Gospel rappers are far less interested in blackness than they are the common plight of the urban poor. They rep (and seek salvation) for all the periferia’s down and out, not just those who are negro. Sambistas do care about race, but not blackness per se. They consider their art to be Brazil’s best evidence of ethnic mixture, inclusiveness, and the minimization of racial difference. It is in gospel where blackness surges to the fore. Gospel singers call attention to the distinctiveness of the black experience, both in Brazil and transnationally.
These diverging takes on blackness, Burdick argues, find expression in divergent political ideals and divergent senses of history. Rappers place themselves in a recent musical past: they stress affinity with the Bronx birthplace of hip hop and a shared urban marginality, but not a shared blackness. Sambistas have a deeper past in mind, but it is confined to their nation: they stress samba’s trajectory as a mirror for Brazil’s heritage of racial, cultural, and musical hybridity. Gospel singers, again, elect for black exceptionalism. The historical story they tell themselves about themselves begins in the Antebellum U.S. South, a story that remembers singing spirituals as the soundtrack for faith, emancipation and, eventually, racial progress.
In a closely observed and argued portion of the book, Burdick details the divergent ways in which rap, samba, and gospel construe “voice.” Here the analysis is in conversation with other ethnomusicology works that say, “the voice is a privileged medium for the construction of meaning and identity” (Fox 2004: 20). The rapping voice is constructed as universally available, something anyone can do. It is evaluated for its flow and speed (is the joint tight?), clarity (what’s the message?), confidence (did they bring it?), and earnestness (is it believable?). Sincerity is at stake. This poses a slight riff on the sincerity that anthropologists of Christianity are accustomed to (Bialecki and Hoenes del Pinal 2011). It is less a linguistic ideology that demands a proper relation between utterance and intention, and more a performance ideology where trust ensues from a proper relation between delivery and authenticity. The sambista voice is evaluated largely on how well it stays out of the way. It is minimized in favor of the beat. Melody trumps lyric and voice quality. As a result, “there is no corresponding need to think about what might explain spectacular singing” (108; emphasis in original). This observation becomes significant in contrast to the gospel voice. In gospel, voice matters supremely. A big, powerful voice carries the song, converts the listener, comforts the damaged, and reassures the faithful. Feeling trumps message. Or, more precisely, the effectiveness of message heightens through the emotive force generated by voice. And, most important, voice is racialized. For gospel singers, there is such a thing as the black voice, and it is this essentialized voice that lends their genre power.
For rappers and gospel singers, the training of their respective voices is crucial. Burdick demonstrates how the artists work diligently to sharpen their craft. But, voice is also reckoned as God-given, a gift. Gifted performers are “the anointed” (56). There is something here for anthropologists of Christianity. A theology of anointing is one way to make visible how Christians envision the human-divine relation. It is also a way to make visible how Christians across cultures differently construe notions of self, vocational calling, and responsibility. What social, moral, and spiritual expectations do Christians attach to being anointed? How do Christians distinguish between a gift from God and, say, a natural proclivity? How do Christians get trained in identifying giftings? And, how do they conceptualize the honing of giftings once recognized? What do these kinds of gifts have to do with other elements in a Christian gift economy (Coleman 2004)? Questions like these prompt me to think that a comparative interest in anointing can pay some dividends.
Burdick’s analysis is also instructive for the way in which it highlights creativity-in-religion. We see the creative process among artists through his ethnographic choice to focus on forms of backstage action (writing sessions, training, practicing, teaching). In seeing the creative process at work we witness acts of cultural production. If an ongoing aspiration in the anthropology of Christianity is to better understand the fashioning of Christian identities, then there is much to be gained from tracking how decisions are made, how ideas are generated, how some ideas are lauded and others shot down, how social products are brought into being, and how collaboration unfolds. In this case, who gospel musicians are becomes visible as they put themselves into the creative process and, through that process, they create possibilities for who they might become.
Ultimately, I heartily recommend The Color of Sound. It is well-composed and highly readable, which will make it a friendly text to teach. A consistent argument is carried throughout that examines the interplay between race and religion. It contributes uniquely to the thriving anthropological interest in global Pentecostalism, particularly in Latin America. And, the focus on creativity is refreshing for construing religion as something generative, open-ended, resource rich, and packed with potential.
Bialecki, Jon and Eric Hoenes del Pinal. 2011. Beyond Logos: Extensions of the Language Ideology Paradigm in the Study of Global Christianity(-ies). Anthropological Quarterly 84(3):575-593.
Coleman, Simon. 2004. The Charismatic Gift. Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute. 10(2):421-442.
Condry, Ian. 2006. Hip-Hop Japan: Rap and the Paths of Cultural Globalization. Durham: Duke University Press.
Fox, Aaron. 2004. Real Country: Music and Language in Working-Class Culture. Durham: Duke University Press.
Ntarangwi, Mwenda. 2009. East African Hip Hop: Youth Culture and Globalization. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.