Review: Sho Baraka’s ‘The Narrative’ Is Both a Sermon and a Confession

Is “The Narrative” socially conscience or Christian? Is it protest against racism or celebration of black culture? Is it a sermon or a confession? Or both?

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Is The Narrative socially conscience or Christian? Is it a protest against racism or a celebration of black culture? Is it a sermon or a confession? Or Maybe it is both?

The Narrative is Sho Baraka’s long awaited follow up to the groundbreaking “Talented Tenth” (2013) album which was a turning point for him as an artist and a milestone for fans of hip hop that explore spiritual and social themes. The unique artistic direction that inspired The Talented Tenth contributed to his decision to depart from the wildly successful Reach Records empire (led by multi Grammy™ Award winning artist Lecrae), and cost Sho many of his fans who were uncomfortable with the racial and historical critiques the project addressed. Ironically though, after it’s release, the controversial police shootings of Michael Brown, Alton Sterling and others, along with the emergence of the Black Lives Matter movement brought these themes to the forefront of relevance. Now, many who rejected the socially conscious lyrics of The Talented Tenth eagerly yearn for the insights that The Narrative offers. Sho’s social justice advocacy (see The And Campaign) and unashamed declaration of his faith is a path increasing numbers of millennials seek to travel upon. And what better guide than one who led the way years before it became cool to talk about justice?

The Narrative tells the story of the metaphorical character James Portier who symbolically represents the plight of the African Americans in the American experience. It’s a journey that involves spiritual insights, social commentary and personal reflections. To help place the narrative in its historical context, a specific year is included in the song titles which reveals a milestone in Mr. Portier’s life.

The journey starts with the “Foreword, 1619”. The year is significant because in 1619 Africans were first bought and sold by European settlers in North America – so it’s natural starting point for James Portier, and the listener.

Sho manages to tackle serious topics such as systemic economic racism in My Hood, USA, 1937 (the year when the Federal Housing Authority established redlining – a practice that legalized housing discrimination and the lost of untold amounts of black wealth) while still maintaining his characteristic, playful wordplay. At one point chiding copycat emcees:

“How you sound outdated when you copying The Future?”

So while this project is deeply committed to addressing social issues, Sho doesn’t take himself too seriously. The catchy, dance jam 30 & Up, 1986 (30 years ago) features Grammy™ award winning artist Courtney Orlando (formerly known as JR), a live band and reveals that Sho Baraka can still be the life of the party! The video reflects Sho’s fun-loving, romantic and comical streak. 

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Sho creates a narrative that seeks to make room for a faith and culture integration that embraces complexity. In Maybe Both, 1865, Sho seeks to add nuance to the overly simplistic view of American history that sees the founders solely as inspirational revolutionaries while ignoring their slaveholding legacy and role in enshrining discrimination in our system of governance (such as the 3/5th Compromise in The Constitution). He also questions the popular dichotomy of viewing Jesus Christ as either an exclusively otherworldly Savior or merely a radical social activist.  Maybe America is a great nation of opportunity, yet also greatly flawed due to its historic failure to live up to its own vision. Additionally, maybe Jesus is a spiritual Savior and the iconic model for righteous resistance against injustice. Sho challenges us “Maybe it is both”.

The spiritual undertones of the album pushes back against the anti-supernatural bias in a post-Christian and secular age. That bias reveals itself in how people discredit Christianity because of the atrocities that (so-called) followers have done in its name. Sho reminds the listener that though those with an atheistic worldview have also been responsible for evils and racism in the world yet their worldview is not rejected because of it. He asks:

“Is God to blame for our intentions?/Like scientists didn’t bless the world with eugenics.”

Conversely, Sho highlights the contributions of activists inspired by the Bible’s appeal for social justice. Names like Phyllis Wheatley, Frederick Douglass, Sojourner Truth, Marcus Garvey, Mahalia Jackson, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and others are woven into The Narrative to give honor to these faith-inspired activists and challenge us to walk in their footsteps. In the tradition of C.S. Lewis, Sho employs a defense of the Christian faith by arguing, among other things, that the very concept of truth and morality insists on a transcendent Truth Giver. At the same time Sho warns the faithful of the perils of ignoring God’s mandate to do justice: it leads to hypocrisy, suffering and a lack of effective Gospel witness in the world.

The Narrative doesn’t just take aim at major historical and theological themes, either. In what has become his signature, Sho is brutally honest in sharing his own struggles to live out his convictions and vision. He unflinchingly reveals his personal battles with the allure of fame, the frustration with his financial struggles, and – perhaps most vulnerably in Words, 2006 – the challenges of caring for his autistic son. Sho turns a sound booth into a confessional and bears his soul. Vulnerability like this is a rarity. Hardly a track goes by without some reflection of a personal shortcoming. This helps prevent The Narrative from being preachy but more of a memoir not only of James Portier, but also of Sho Baraka. And it’s difficult not to be impacted and inspired by such self-disclosure.

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My favorite tracks:

The Road to Humble, 1979 not only is melodic and poetic, but is a insightful journey into Sho’s development from birth (1979) to the present as an artist on Humble Beast. It is one part testimony of a sinner who was saved, one part reflection of his growth as an artist, and one part declaration of his new direction as an artist, Christian and a man.

Piano Break, 33 A.D. concludes the album with a live piano and a urgent testimony that takes us to church. It responds to Jay-Z’s No Church In the Wild, confesses personal struggles, and critiques moral relativism. The thesis of the track “He’s been good to me” appeals to the hope of Jesus Christ as the solution to resolve all of the brokenness in the world and within Sho as well.(33 A.D. is when Jesus is believed to have resurrected)

The Narrative is a musical journal entry, not only of the fictional James Portier who embodies the black experience, but also of Sho, a very well read, creative and daring artist who refuses to allow the current music industry narratives – Christian or secular – define him or what his art should be. This is a narrative that relates and connects with not only Mr. Portier or Sho but with all of us who seek to break free from the expectations and limitations people attempt to put on us. It’s genre-bending content and musicality makes it an important contribution to music and to those who seek to live with a divine sense of purpose in these complex times. That’s a story worth telling and sharing.

Review: 4 stars out of 5.

Tracklist:

  1. Forward, 1619 (feat. Adan Bean & C. Lacy)
  2. Soul, 1971 (feat. Jamie Portier)
  3. Kanye, 2009 (feat. Jackie Hill Perry)
  4. Love, 1959
  5. Here, 2016 (feat. Lecrae)
  6. 30 & Up, 1986 (feat. Courtney Orlando)
  7. Profhet, 1968 (feat. Jamie Portier)
  8. Maybe Both, 1865 (feat. Jamie Portier)
  9. Excellent, 2017
  10. Road to Humble, 1979
  11. My Hood, U.S.A., 1937 (feat. Vanessa Hill)
  12. Words, 2006
  13. Fathers, 2004
  14. Piano Break, 33 A.D.

Rasool Berry serves as the leadership development pastor with the Bridge Church in Brooklyn, New York. This album review was first published on his blog, rberryblog.wordpress.com.

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