‘The Act of Work Is Worship’ — Sho Baraka Talks Creativity, Vocation, and the Value of Narratives (Interview)

Hip-Hop Artist and Activist Explores Faith, Creativity, and Justice in Debut Book, ‘He Saw That It Was Good’

Sho Baraka
(Photo: Sophia DeNard)

Sho Baraka is a hip-hop artist, activist, and writer. A graduate of Tuskegee University and the University of North Texas, Baraka is a cofounder of Forth District and the AND Campaign. He has also served as an adjunct professor at Wake Forest School of Divinity. In his debut book, He Saw That It Was Good: Reimagining Your Creative Life to Repair a Broken World, Baraka explores “the intersection of faith, creativity, and justice.”

Faithfully Magazine spoke with Baraka about He Saw That It Was Good and the importance of narratives, creativity, and vocation for Christians. The transcript has been edited for clarity.

Can you talk about the backstory to He Saw That It Was Good? What made you realize that you needed to write this book? What did you want your readers to walk away with?

Well, first of all, thank you for having me and taking the time out to interview me about the book. People primarily know me as an artist, as a hip-hop artist to be more specific. Very similar to your first album, your first book is really just the culmination of your life and a collection of thoughts and experiences that you are excited about sharing with the world. The first album I did was pretty much all these ideas and concepts that I had been thinking through for many, many years, and I was just happy that somebody was giving me an opportunity to make an album. Similarly with writing, I think that there’ve been things that I’ve spoken on in the past, there’ve been lectures I’ve given, interviews I’ve done, and experiences that I’ve had that I thought were either applicable or just good anecdotes for people to wrestle with. And then there are people I studied.

So, at the end of the day, when I was approached about doing a book, it wasn’t as daunting for me. The task in itself wasn’t daunting because it’s really just an outpouring of my life. You’re just trying to communicate. Here are the things that I felt have helped me, the people, the movements, the ideas, and maybe if I can give you some of my own little spin to it, it could be a benefit for you as well. So it was really just a lifelong collection of talks, lectures, ideas that I’ve been thinking through. And so now, it was about being disciplined to sit down and actually make some cohesive sense of it.

The more interesting aspect of all of this is that I’ve always wanted to write fiction, actually. My initial desire for my first book was to be a fiction book. And, as you may know, the book has fiction in there. There are a series of short stories, but I’ve always wanted to write a novel. The pressure is that the next book, just like the next album, creates expectations. People read it and people listen to your music. Now there are expectations. Now, you put pressure on yourself to either be as good or better than the last album. It’s the same thing with this book. The [challenge] is trying not to live in any kind of expectation that other people may have for you, but just to create excellence, to challenge yourself, and be a thoughtful individual who can transmit good ideas.

When you were writing this book, was the audience in mind the same audience from your hiphop career?

I think there’s a lot of crossover. I think the type of artist I am is similar to the type of writer and thinker I am. I mean, I would like to think that I’m thoughtful. I like to engage culture from areas of academia, social thought, creativity, complex ideas, and try to take complex ideas and make them comprehensive for the consumer. And I even think in my music I’m a storyteller. So I think there is a lot of crossover.

However, you do also realize that there are a lot of people who love music who don’t love reading. As someone who loves reading, not just nonfiction but fiction as well — I love the “Toni Morrisons,” I love the “Flannery O’Connors” the “C.S. Lewises,” the “Hemingways” — when you look at those people as the “North Star,” the challenge is you [either] swing for the fences or you look at your work and you’re like, “This would never be as good as that,” and you begin to have this ominous cloud that hovers over you and follows you everywhere and this deep insecurity about who you are and how you write and how you create.

So, in some ways, you have to be able to shake the confidence that you developed as an artist and figure out how to bring that over as a writer as well, even though you haven’t developed the muscles quite as well as the writing for music. But that comes with repetition, that comes with affirmation, that comes with critique, that comes with challenge. That also comes with ultimately finding your voice and knowing who you are. And to your question, who you’re communicating to.

I know the people who love Hemingway and C.S. Lewis may not be the audience that I’m reaching out to, because if I’m honest, there’s still a large mass of hip-hop listeners, and I mean, true hip-hop aficionados who probably don’t like nonfiction and musing the way that I write it. And so, I’m trying to introduce this genre of writing in this mix of fiction and nonfiction to people who usually most likely consume their information through music or Audible, like lectures and things of that nature. So, it’s the same audience, but there are some challenges and some people on the fringes you try to get.

Sho Baraka Book He Saw That It Was Good

In He Saw That It Was Good you talk about the importance of narratives and how they shape our worlds. Can you talk especially about how Christians of color need to recognize the stories that are told about us and how they shape us?

It’s ultimately important because the Bible is a story. We often treat it like it’s an academic book, or we treat it like it’s this lofty treaty that descended from heaven. But it’s actually just a story. It’s a story of God’s redemption in His relationship with humanity and how He’s trying to reconcile all of that. And if people of color don’t see themselves properly in that narrative, then we ultimately don’t see God in the way that He truly is. We don’t see humanity in the way that it truly is. When people of color are omitted from the grand narrative of great contribution in the Christian faith, then ultimately they become individuals who have placed themselves in the margins.

It’s a beautiful thing to see God’s truth transcend cultures, ethnicities, and nationalities, and we see that through the scriptures. We see that played out throughout history. And what we have to do — and this is one of my grand challenges to not only people of color, but also folks who are majority culture within this country and who may guard some of the doors, if you will — is that we have to begin to expand the story intentionally. We have to put our place in particular stories and narratives and study, research people who have a different paradigm of the gospel, because that not only expands the theological understanding of who we are, but it helps expand the theological understanding to people who are different than us.

If we're only allowing the stories that come from the palace and not the peasants, then our theology is just really lopsided and it becomes a social club. Click to Tweet

When you go to a seminary and you read and study one type of person, when you go to churches and you hear pastors quote from one type of person, when your own personal library is filled with one type of people, then you you have a very homogeneous worldview, even if that’s not necessarily your primary culture, if you will. And there are great contributions from people of all colors, all nationalities, all backgrounds. And I think the greater we consume that content, the better not only students of the world we are, not only will we love people better and understand people better, not only will it expand our understanding of God’s great manifold wisdom, but will also make us better people. It also makes us better Christians, and it makes God that much more glorious, amen? It’s not just cultural, but I also think it’s class and status as well that we have to expand. If we’re only allowing the stories that come from the palace and not the peasants, then our theology is just really lopsided and it becomes a social club. The gospel has never been meant for it to be a social club that was only here to expand our social mobility. It is here to give dignity to all people, and a voice to all people.

Everyone has a faith journey and we mature and deepen our faith in different ways over our journeys. Can you talk about how your faith journey impacted your understanding of creativity and vocation?

I grew up in California and had an auntie who worked in Hollywood. My father played professional ball. So, I just felt like I was born to be an entertainer. I was born to be a clown, to just be on somebody’s stage and just make a mockery of myself. Fast forward many years, I become a Christian. And I think there was a deficiency in the spaces that I was in, a ubiquitous kind of deficiency that there wasn’t a lot of robust and thorough teaching on how to use the skillsets that God gave people outside of the four walls of the church. Like, how does someone develop and mature an individual or help come alongside to mature an individual to be effective in the marketplace, instead of consistently training people to be pastors and missionaries to go to some foreign country? There are a lot of spaces and institutions in this country that can use thoughtful Christians. If we’re constantly just teaching people how to be Bible study advocates or masters of exegeting texts, and then asking them to go to other countries to be missionaries because that’s where the “real Christian work” is, what we’re doing is we’re raising a bunch of immature, ineffective Christians who just go to work to collect checks so that they can give that money back to the church in order to do the “real ministry.”

When I became a Christian, I knew that primarily the Lord had given me all these gifts and he put me in all these positions, and people loved my talent. I was charismatic and endearing to folks. But for some reason, I felt like this was inefficient. I was like, “Well, this is not good for God. I can’t do anything with this. This rapping guy can’t do anything with all of it.” That was until God started to put people in my life, like the Cross Movement and other folks that I saw that were doing good work, and I was like, “Well, maybe there’s an incomplete story being told here.”

The other thing was that all the godly adults, especially the men, were working in full-time ministry. And so, sometimes the stories that we take on are not stories that are audibly communicated. They’re just implied, and sometimes the messages around us are. I live through the lives of people around us. And so, because I wasn’t exposed to Christians who were doing great work in the marketplace, I said, “Well, maybe I’m supposed to go into full-time ministry.” That was a struggle and a tension that I’ve had for many, many years. It wasn’t until I started to see people in hip-hop, people in Disney, people in the film industry, people who weren’t afraid of this “contagion” that the world had, and that it was going to jump on them. They were like, “The Lord said that I should be in this world, but not of it, and He would protect me, and that I have all the tools, all the resources necessary in order to be efficient for ministry, and actually watch my walk worthy of the calling.” It’s there in the Scriptures. So I just was like, “Well, I’m going to stumble through the darkness and hopefully find other people who are stumbling through the darkness. We’ll figure this out together.”

I’d love to hear you dive deeper about your exploration in your book about “clean art.” Can you talk about the importance for Christians to know the darkness and yet not be overcome by it? Why should we think twice about an overly censored life?

It’s one of my favorite chapters because I feel, as an artist, it really grinds my gears looking at Christian art and feeling like it is not an accurate depiction of the world. I was in a movie called “The Grace Card” (2010), and I appreciate the people who gave me an opportunity to be in that movie. God bless the folks who contributed. But when I look at that movie, I think that movie could be a much better movie because there’s two things that that movie deals with. And if we’re looking at 2020 and 2021, we see that race is a very prevalent issue in our nation. And the way that they deal with race in those movies is so contrived, it’s so trite. It’s like, there’s no “ni–ers,” there’s no “honkies,” there’s no strong language that nobody’s calling each other. The way that they resolve the racial tension is quite putrid.

...if God only dies for “darn” and a “heck,” that makes grace look extremely cheap, and then makes it seem like, “Well, God can’t redeem the messiness of my life!” Click to Tweet

When we talk about conflict in those movies, the conflict is bland. There’s no harsh language. And we know that not to be the real world. That is not the world we live in. That’s not only a disservice to the art; that’s a disservice to grace. Because if God only dies for “darn” and a “heck,” that makes grace look extremely cheap, and then makes it seem like, “Well, God can’t redeem the messiness of my life!” It’s almost like we have to be perfect before you even come to the Lord. And now the problem is that when you desensitize the world, you also make Jesus seem as if his grace is not powerful and efficient to save the most wretched and darkest sins in the shadows of our society. I think the more we actually expose the dark, the more we really talk about the dark, and we show how nasty and vile the dark is, when Jesus shows up in the scene or through a form of redemption in whatever art we’re talking about, it makes the “hallelujah moment” that much more glorious.

Our Christian art is so consumed with the consumer and not the message. We’re more concerned with how do we create a culture so that parents don’t actually have to investigate the materials so that it’s just easy, it’s family friendly. And look, we need some of that. We need a lot of that. Because the other side of this coin is that the world flirts with wickedness and vileness in a way that’s not honest as well. They don’t talk about the dangers of licentiousness. So, we don’t want to be flippant with wickedness. We don’t want to parade and romance the dark, but we also don’t want to be ashamed to enter into the dark.

You spend time in your book talking about how no one’s vocation is too insignificant to make a difference in their community. What practical steps would you advise someone who wants to connect their seemingly trivial vocation and the fight for social justice?

Yeah, I think there’s a couple of things. I think it starts with theology and how we teach. There’s two immediate components that I think we need to wrestle with.

One is, there has to be a better view of what work is in the Christian space. It’s not just busy activity. It is actually the contribution of cultivating a world that reflects our Creator. Many theologians have said this, and I’ll say it: the act of work is worship in itself. It was a task given before there was ever sin. So activity is a part of who humanity is. The fact that we work is a part of who we are. The first chapter of Genesis, God is working. His identity is “I create. I am a Creator, so therefore, I make things and those things reflect the goodness of who I am.” And as God creates us, we are a reflection of that. We are creators, and the creation that we make is supposed to be a reflection of what we believe and who we are. Hopefully, that thing is good, just as God said after creating each thing. So, as we work, no matter what we do, I think we should approach it as kind of like recapitulating this attribute of God. And hopefully, as I do this, this is good. This is something that people will look at and say, “That’s good.”

The other component that we need to do is get over this idea that everything we do has to be world-changing. And I think that’s the pressure not only in the way the “secular society” but even the Christian world talks. We’re often talking about impact. We use grandioso words. And the reality of it is that some of our work is just a simple contribution that is not grandioso in a sense that is going to change the world, but guess what it is changing? One or two people’s lives. You’re creating some sort of contribution to that person’s life that is going to affect them in a way, that’s going to propel them to some sort of flourishing. The problem is, we’re always like Instagram, and we’re looking for what’s great. Like, how can I curate my life in a way that makes it look like I am just doing the most great thing? And we all want platforms. The reality is, we all can’t be Einstein. We all can’t be the MLKs and Frederick Douglasses. Some of us are just people who hold up the arms of Moses, right? Some of us are Aarons and some of us are Hurs. And the problem is, we all want to be Moses. But guess what? Holding up the arm of Moses so that we win the war is a huge contribution to the community of God and to society at large.

And so, I think, one, a better theology of what work is and why your work is important, no matter what you do, [is] because it’s worship and that’s it. The fact that you work is an act of the Lord. I don’t even mean work in a sense like you have to clock in. I’m talking about activity in general cultivation. I say this in the book: anything from engineers to childrearing, you are contributing to an activity. That’s why solitary confinement in prisons is supposed to be one of the most heinous phases, because there’s nothing to do. You’re not contributing, you’re not working, you’re not doing anything. Then the second thing, like I said, is reevaluating the grandioso-ness, this idea of being extremely significant in all we do.

In He Saw That It Was Good, you mentioned several points in your hip-hop career and life where you’ve had pivots and changes of emphases. If you could go back in time and talk to yourself when you first started off your career, what words of wisdom would you give yourself?

Absolutely. I would say, “Don’t start off as a Christian artist.” That would be the first thing. Just be an artist! And I am not shaming anybody who goes into this wanting to be a Christian fill in the blank. I just realize that the type of individual I am and the type of engagement that I desire, I probably should have not introduced myself to the world as a Christian hip-hop artist. Once you put that label on you, it’s hard to evade it.

Then, with that, I would have told myself, “Make the art that you desire to listen to from day one, not the type of music that you think will sell or get you into particular spaces. Make your music, make your art, and be extremely content with that.”

I would also tell myself to start writing a lot sooner, like fiction and nonfiction. Write much sooner. Build your confidence as a writer and a storyteller. I think that there can be a national transition [for rappers] into literature because of their way with words. There are a lot of literary devices that you see in Shakespeare that hip-hop artists use, but they may not know that they’re doing, you know, double entendres and [peripeteias] and all these different things. But the reality of it is, is that these are literary devices that naturally are being picked up by artists because of how they consume art and music. And they use these devices in ways that you’ll find a Milton and all these great writers in the past using. The more muscles we build as writers, I think we can become better communicators, not only in hip-hop, but just in general. So I would tell myself to write much sooner.

Lastly, who are your biggest influences who used their creativity for good and why?

The main person that I just always, always go back to is George Washington Carver. I talked about him in my last chapter. There’s so many reasons why, because he’s such an anomaly. One, I went to Tuskegee University and he was a professor there and he contributed a lot to the university. So I had a grand opportunity of learning a lot about him. His life is just compelling. I think about somebody who integrated his faith, science, and art. He wasn’t trying to be this revolutionary, but he was. I think that’s the kind of default activist-revolutionary that we all can be — somebody who doesn’t seek to be known as an activist in the form of their vocation, but everything they do is for the benefit of other people.

So I think about George Washington Carver, living in Jim Crow, segregated South. But yet, so many people came to him for his inventions and his patents, not only for health reasons, not only for economic reasons, but he saved the southern economy by teaching farmers how to use different types of plants and soils and whatnot. You cannot separate his great work from his faith. That’s the other element about him that I love is that his faith was so mysterious in the sense that this man literally used to talk to plants. He would talk to plants because he believed that that’s how he got the secrets of how to grow and contribute. It’s a very mystic thing, but I love it because it’s quite compelling. I think when we talk about “What does faith look like to certain people?” sometimes it’s strange, sometimes it’s different. The way that I commune with God may not be the same way in which you commune with God, Timothy.

Going back to your very first question — the beauty of diversity expands who we are and how we live and how we think. George Washington Carver used his skillset not just to bless Black people, but to bless all people. And he was a medicinal counselor for Mahatma Gandhi. Here we even see how people connect in not just racial differences but in religious differences. So, I think he’s a wonderful example of how once we expand our perception of people, we become better human beings. And our work can be a great contribution for the good of society.

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Written by Timothy I. Cho

Timothy Isaiah Cho is Associate Editor at Faithfully Magazine. Timothy’s bylines have appeared in Religion News Service and Reformed Margins, and he has been interviewed for several podcasts including Truth’s Table and Gravity Leadership Podcast. He also runs a personal blog on Medium. He received a Master of Divinity from Westminster Seminary California and a Bachelor of Arts in English Literature from U.C. Berkeley. Email: timothy.cho (at) faithfullymagazine.com

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