‘Hell You Talmbout?’ Protest Music Meets the Church in the Streets

This article originally ran on Sojourners blog.

Last week’s public release of “HellYouTalmbout,” a newly revised song by six-time Grammy nominated performer Janelle Monáe and her team of artists, Wondaland, caught on like spirit-fire in the soul of the Black Lives Matter movement and has swiftly propelled Monáe — a young, gifted, and socially conscious artist — to the forefront of the voices and faces in the public square.

“HellYouTalmbout” is both anthem and war chant to Afro-Caribbean drum beats that elicit the sounds of throbbing hearts as each name of murdered black men and women is called with the driving command to “Say his/her name.” It is not a love ode, but a protest anthem for freedom. After her Eephus tour August 12 in Phildelphia, and leading a protest march there against police brutality, Monáe posted on Instagram:

“This song is a vessel. It carries the unbearable anguish of millions. We recorded it to channel the pain, fear, and trauma caused by the ongoing slaughter of our brothers and sisters. We recorded it to challenge the indifference, disregard, and negligence of all who remain quiet about this issue. Silence is our enemy. Sound is our weapon. They say a question lives forever until it gets the answer it deserves… Won’t you say their names?”

My first listen to “HellYouTalmbout” raised emotions of tearful sadness, anger, and determination. It has the profound draw of an anthem, a battle cry — the rhythmic, pulsing music of protest with strong male and female voices shouting a death chant of remembrance. “Hell YouTalmbout” is a tool of defiant signification, a refusal to forget those cut down by systemic violence of militarized policing and racial profiling long embedded in the social fabric of urban, inner city life as a “ground-zero” battleground of survival.

At the August 17 Black Out festival in Millennium Park, Chicago, Monáe said, “We don’t come here as artists, as celebrities. We come here as people. I come here as a black woman. We come as a black man, black human beings.”

She was joined at the festival by Geneva Reed-Veal, mother of Sandra Bland — a victim of an arrest for an alleged traffic violation that resulted in her brutal death while in police custody, whose name is among the roll call of the martyred in the anthem.

Protest anthems are not new, from field slave chants like Wade in the Water, with Underground Railroad calls of freedom, to the message of resistance in a church favorite, I’m On the Battlefield for my Lord.

But unlike those infused with the sacristy of church hymnody sung during the civil rights era led by Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King in the sanctuaries of Southern congregations, there is street cred in “Hell YouTalmbout” and other millennial anthems of the Black Lives Matter movement.

These artists have undeniably adopted protest tools that speak to the gritty life of being poor with limited opportunities for survival in the streets, of life-threatening avenues of risky commerce, and of too-frequent monitoring, if not manipulation, by police as modern-day overseers meting out extrajudicial death sentences.

Anthems as hymns crafted for the public square raise challenging lyrics that are no less spiritual, yet are intended for civic conversion of societal systems and strictures rather than individual conversion of internalized salvation.

And just as young celebrities increasingly have come forward to add voice to the injustice of egregious brutality by police, Monáe also invokes a Christian profession of God as just judge against human injustices of racism, violence, and supremacist ideologies.

A furor arose after Monáe’s live performance August 14, when NBC’s Today Show edited and cut her expressed sentiments on the anthem.

She began, “Yes Lord! God bless America! God bless all the lost lives to police brutality. We want white America to know that we stand tall today. We want black America to know we stand tall today. We will not be silenced—”

The rest of her message was interrupted inexplicably. In the re-broadcast, the omission of the entire performance sparked the wrath of social media networks, because this censorship — the act of preventing disquieted voices — was tinder to the fire of the anthem’s message: Protest the disregard for black bodies unseen and voices unheard.

Monáe’s lyrics in her original 2013 song of a similar title state:

Red, white, and blue. Here come the sirens only to dance with the little girls on the corner. There’s a war in the streets. Nobody speaks and now a boy laying on the ground

Now what the hell – Hell you talking ‘bout?…

“We’re laughing together right – right when the shooting comes

Baby what the hell you talking ‘bout?”

A conundrum arises for traditional churches that resist the comingling of sacred and secular — what songs of Zion can reach the populous of disenchanted generations that fill the streets, and what actions can be taken without threat to ecclesial respectability?

Perhaps some will continue to turn deaf ears to the rallying cry for public theology as incarnational gospel of church without walls. Others will prefer to close doors on dwindling numbers rather than turn from a Hallmark-a-cized Christ to a radicalized Jesus.

But those questions are not posed in the prophetic public theology among theologians and church leaders who increasingly embrace the prophetic call-to-action. These leaders are joining the crowds to enact a radical gospel that demands love, dignity, peace, and equity. The numbers of faith leaders in the public square continue to grow, and by their actions, demonstrate that Christ and street cred are both public sanctuary where black lives must be held as sacred.

In the public square, the power of Jesus’ outcry to “take up your cross and follow me” is fueling public theology. Today’s rallying cries are not heavily centered on proselytization but on positive social change. Likewise, the chants — “Black Lives Matter“, “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot“, “We want freedom, freedom“, and “Say His/Her Name” — joins unified voices of multi-racial and multi-generational protesters whose beliefs propel them to solidarity in allied disruption.

At the core of these anthems is the premise that God created one human family — that God’s movement as liberator holds an ethical foundation for the equal right to be free. Here in the streets is where both church and community will continue to demand: Hell you talmbout?

Rev. Dr. Valerie Miles-Tribble, DMin, PhD, is Assistant Professor, Ministerial Leadership & Practical Theology for the American Baptist Seminary of the West.

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