‘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.

Sacred Lessons in Resistance

Black History Month arrives as a difficult reminder that core ethics of human equality espoused by Dr. Martin Luther King in his DREAM, and called for in the BIBLE, still have not been realized! From Ferguson to Queens to Cleveland to Berkeley, streets are filled with young, angry black protesters joined by brown, white sisters and brothers compelled to mobilize resistance against increased militaristic behavior of police, against loopholes in legal systems, and against a pervasive societal ideology of ‘othering’ that marginalizes based on race, class, sexuality, and faith tradition. These national resistance movements expose this country’s systemic structures of discrimination.

In his provocative 2011book – Punished: Policing the Lives of Black & Latino Boys, Victor Rios’ ethnographic study revealed that poor inner-city kids are targeted, stereotyped, and falsely accused from grade school until anger at such demoralization become self-fulfilling prophecy – demons that provoke bad choices and fuel society’s fear. In reality, by Michael Brown’s age, embedded suspicion of law enforcement, regulatory systems, and a life of economic disparities result in tensions that almost are insurmountable. Across our nation, the land of the free and the brave is far the promise land of human equality–WE’RE NOT THERE YET! Killings increased exponentially since the 2012 assassination of Oscar Grant and the vigilante killing of Trayvon Martin. Albeit marred by violent outbreaks, the clamor for justice drew clergy leaders and people of faith to join in overwhelmingly peaceful demonstrations of RESISTANCE. They invoked God’s will to resist injustice, amplified by chants and prayers that sustained a call for SACRED RESISTANCE.

Crucial for our self-reflection is to recognize that this landscape of unrest and tension between those with power and those unduly burdened is not a new phenomenon. We are reminded that righteous indignation and RESISTANCE are Biblical. Jesus knew what it felt like to be ‘othered’ – the Nazarene rejected and critiqued for speaking hope into lives of prostitutes, robbers, demoniacs, invalids, and tax collectors. The Messiah proclaimed his prophetic purpose to “ bring good news to the poor, proclaim release of the captives, and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free”- words in direct resistance to Roman imperial occupation and a Jerusalem power structure designed to maintain the status quo. Jesus spoke against undue burden on impoverished and powerless masses under militaristic enforcement. All the Gospels report SACRED LESSONS in RESISTANCE and mode of leadership development: anointing disciples with sacred authority over unclean spirits to cast out evil; teaching with sacred power to speak life into broken spirits; and taking action to change lives.

The first sacred lesson of resistance was to SHAKE IT OFF and keep moving! “If anyone will not welcome you or listen to your words, shake off the dust from your feet as you leave that house or town”… The act of dust-shaking is the first century parallel to a 21st century act of protest; it is an externalization of a reality of hardened hearts in folks intent to preserve a status quo or afraid to push for change! Jesus’ taught such action was sacramental – revealing or manifesting a spiritual reality that ALL won’t accept the truth that the Kingdom of heaven had come near. The disciples were to mobilize a message of sacred justice and deliverance anyhow and, if rejected by folks, have nothing else to do with them, not even to carry the dirt and grime of close-mindedness any further… BUT SHAKE IT OFF! That very physical action was sacred resistance – Racism, classism, sexism – forms of rejection that ignore God’s love for ALL creation – SHAKE IT OFF!

The second lesson of sacred resistance was to recognize the socio-political landscape aims to silence. “See I’m sending you out like sheep into the midst of wolves; so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves…Beware of them for they will hand you over to councils, flog you… persecute you… and put you to death.” Today’s context is: we might be outnumbered but not outwitted. They will beat you with billy clubs, use tear gas, media-manage your story, while DAs and Grand juries acquit their own in ridicule of you! Is it any wonder that young people of color across the nation reject sound bites and political propaganda that say we live in a post-racial society, while overt and subtle discrimination confront them daily? Is it any wonder that some are disillusioned by silence of the church universal until MSNBC AND CNN cameras appear – and as the ragtag rebels caught national attention, then celebrity clergy arrived with rules and caste systems of who “qualifies” for screen time. Jesus said to be wise as serpents – organize, rally, discern true agendas as you proceed gentle as doves!

Jesus knew that principalities and powers did not WANT change that transformed lives – especially sacred change for those so long oppressed, blinded, and imprisoned in systems of disparity. He knew that his words and deeds led to hateful persecution on the Cross; yet, his third lesson assures us that the POWER IN US is greater than any power that opposes us! “When they hand you over, do not worry about how you are to speak or what you are to say; for what you are to say will be given to you at that time: for it is not you who speak, but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you!“ Today, as young disciples strategize and pray, clergy colleagues first-hand in Ferguson, New York, and Berkeley affirm that an abiding power of Holy Spirit anointing is evident when young and old courageously assemble and march.

RESISTANCE to injustice is a necessary action and sacred right… No municipality can stop or silence so many voices. Our foremothers and forefathers in Selma and Montgomery believed the sacred message cannot be quelled: ALL are created in God’s image! ALL lives Matter! Black Lives Matter, Asian Lives, Latino Lives, Muslim Lives – ALL Lives Matter! So today, young disciples still ask: Will we go together with divine authority from community to town to city proclaiming sacredness of life for the least and left-out? Do we still have faith to cast out demons of ‘isms’? As 21st Century disciples, will we challenge normative systems of privilege and share the prophetic message of One who was NOT? Sacred resistance shouts GOD’S demands for JUSTICE. It disrupts routines and sacrifices comfort. It respects and dignifies those different and diverse, yet in whom sacred breath of the Creator flows! To resist injustice, WIPE THE DUST OFF our FEET – and keep moving!

Rev. Dr. Valerie Miles-Tribble  is Assistant Professor of Ministerial Leadership and Functional Theology at American Baptist Seminary of The West. A womanist theologian, she is also a consulting leader in the PICO National Prophetic Clergy-Women Network.