Afrobeats v. “Secular Music..”

Recently, a friend of mine on Facebook asked this question. It occurred to me that this was a good opportunity to write a proper post on something that combines Christian faith, music and culture in a very integrated manner.

“A question I’ve never got an answer to: why is it ok to not listen to secular music, but still listen to Afro beats? The content is the same (sometimes worse in Afro beats)…I really don’t understand…!”

Some clarification is needed. This is about the fact that there are African Christians (in the UK) who hold that no one should listen to what they describe as ‘secular’ music. In this community and context, ‘secular’ is taken to mean the commercial popular musics of Western origin – right across the genre bandwidth. R’n’b, hip-hop, nu-soul, pop, dance music forms of the modern club-craze variety and the rest.

Somehow, one is not sure whether many of these good people have considered whether secular classical music, jazz, folk music and other music genres should also be avoided on the grounds of their being ‘secular.’ Not for the first time in the history of language, a word has been taken and appropriated by a community, whose grasp of the word may not have been all that it might have been – and confusion reigns. As some who is black, Christian and a longtime church member here in the UK, I speak to my own community when I say that we African-Caribbean Christians specialise in these types of madness.

One of the consequences of this is the fact that many such Christians who speak against ‘secular’ music have decided that it really is OK to listen to artists such as Wiz Kid and D’Banj. Now, as someone who a) studied musics in and of Africa whilst an ethnomusicology student; b) had a professional performing career that has included playing African music of many types both here in the UK and in Africa, I am aware of the history of Afrobeat. As such, I asked my friend exactly what they were referring to; presuming that the Afrobeat-inspired sounds I have noticed recently would be what I would simply describe as ‘contemporary Afrobeat.’

But no, I am behind the times, it seems. For some reason, in recent times the Guardian (possibly the leading serious daily newspaper in Britain) has become a home for lovers of ‘music of black origin’ who write about music. That’s another story, but the relevance: this article (click here).

Here’s what you need to get: this word ‘Afrobeats’ (or neologism) came into existence somewhere around April 2011, courtesy of one of the hottest DJing properties in the UK: DJ Abrantee. Guardian columnist Dan Hancox writes:

Most people are familiar with the Afrobeat styles of Fela Kuti – Afrobeats is something different; with the addition of the letter “s” comes a whole new chapter in global pop music.

Abrantee’s neologism describes a new sound – a 21st-century melting pot of western rap influences, and contemporary Ghanaian and Nigerian pop music… “For years we’ve had amazing hiplife, highlife, Nigerbeats, juju music, and I thought: you know what, let’s put it all back together as one thing again, and call it Afrobeats, as an umbrella term. Afrobeat, the 60s music, was more instrumental – this Afrobeats sound is different, it’s intertwined with things like hip-hop and funky house, and there’s more of a young feel to it.”

My friend soon went on to clarify their position in various ways as people responded on their wall. It was understood that people were eschewing ‘Western’ popular music styles, but then listening to an ‘African’ version of exactly the same music and seeing nothing wrong with this – a position with no logical basis whatsoever, and yet a position held by many people in this community.

One of the respondents (whom from now I will refer to as “R” for ‘respondent’) pointed out that Afrobeat music used to be ‘clean’ – songs about life and so on, the kind of thing made famous by Fela Kuti. But it is an unfortunate truth that Western commercial popular media (with music and film being the biggest and most widely exported) has taught the non-Western world that there is a literal fortune to be made in selling the basest and most corrupt morality a human being can imagine. Singers and actors don’t stay in work by keeping their clothes on for too long these days, and now it has never been harder to remember the days when even pop music was more about music than it was about wanton, destructive self-glorification.

This Guardian article also points towards the fact that this new music is acting as a game-breaker for the generation gap in the diasporic African community here in the UK – the fact that British-born West Africans are going out to party to music that is indelibly linked to West African music of their parents’ generation(s) has led to a positive groundswell of pride in these communities, all the more so as youngsters begin to ask their parents about the ‘old music.’

Many British Christians of West African extraction are members of church communities that subscribe to a supremely parochial, rigid, heavily moralistic framework of external behavioural output that forbids the consumption of secular music (that previously was restricted to the sounds of Western commercial pop). This is in stark contrast to contemporary Anglo-European Protestant Christianity (of all denominations) which in general terms has embraced modern popular culture with more warmth than might be ideal at times. Therefore, there is a major, unspoken spiritual class war taking place across the culture gap but both parties try very hard to keep their real feelings about these sorts of things on absolute lockdown within their respective bunkers. However, Afro-Caribbean Christians who evangelise tend to proselytise towards a highly conservative position in life (but not always in theology) – whereas Anglo-Europeans who proselytise towards a rather more liberal framework for life-practice (but their theology is sometimes much more conservative).

As one wise man said, “where the world goes, the Church goes.” Suddenly, this new-wave African music is exerting such a tug on the emotions (and passions) of many African Christians that even those who genuinely have forsaken Western commercial music do listen to Afrobeats – with ‘vulgar’ lyrics, and they know quite well what the songs both ‘mean and imply.’ Many seem to think that this is acceptable – but my friend simply cannot see how this can possibly work.

My friend is absolutely right (along with R and others).  This position has more holes than a sieve – even more so when one considers the very origins and raison d’être of Afrobeats. Dan Hancox again:

According to Abrantee, the funky party sounds now emanating from Ghana and Nigeria are providing an injection of new energy into UK urban and US hip-hop. “The floodgates have opened. Music is always evolving, and everyone’s always looking for the next drug. Funky house has died out, grime is still there but it’s gone back underground, electro-pop’s got UK urban music in the charts, but that’ll die out too, it’s got a short shelf-life. So everyone’s looking for the next thing, the next hype – and people are finally noticing I’m getting 3,000 people coming out to dance to Afrobeats.

R (who is also a member of this community) commented thus:

“…really and truly anybody can fool themselves, and if it’s trending and there are so many others around them who think the same, then there’s nothing that will ever question that logic.. I also honestly think it boils down to a culture thing, you can get away with preaching for instance to your white friends about why they shouldn’t listen to western secular music, but those same white friends would never question Afrobeats, because they don’t understand it. It’s pretty much a safe zone.”

Having now visited Nigeria for myself and observed different dimensions of Christian culture first-hand, I was interested to see how for so many people the external religious fabric of Christianity was interwoven and integrated with all manner of other ideas (and ideologies). It seems to be altogether too easy for many people to take the bits of Christianity that suit them and ignore the rest. However, that’s one thing if you keep your faith to yourself. For at least fifteen years, Nigerian churches have been sending missionaries into the West – and Britain and Europe have been very important to these missions. The Redeemed Christian Church of God is one such church which has broken into the ecclesial scene in the UK and is now systematically trying to crack Europe, learning some extremely painful lessons about how European minds process the relationship between theory and practice and how the West African cultural mindset is uniquely unprepared for long-term evangelistic success here in Europe when there is no diasporic African community to tap into.

There is a type of latent hypocrisy at work here, driven by pride and self-absorption that leads people to literally abuse the grace of God who takes us as we are, and still loves us even when we refuse to grow and change to be more like Him – but whose heart breaks because He knows that if these are the choices we make now, we could never be free – and therefore never be happy – in heaven.

My friend went on to say this:

“During my church Bible study today we spoke about how the present church doesn’t call out sin anymore giving rise to situations where people now say,”Well I’m sorry, this is how God made me; accept me or leave me” when actually God DIDN’T make you stubborn, and your sin is pride and stubbornness which you must repent of and ask God to change your heart…. Another one is “I’m just so focused” when the truth is you’re just so selfish!

As this post concludes, there is one major issue to address. My friend offered up a spiritual definition of the word ‘secular’ – and here is how R responded:

“I think the whole secular thing is interesting, because I have been to churches where when the youths are mingling in the evening, or events for unbelievers and [at] the dining at the end etc secular music is played. Clean might I add, but secular none the less. I’ve also found that only really the black church talk about this whole secular music scene, and generally white dominated churches don’t care. Secular music that is [not] sexual/vulgar/foul is just not an issue. And the other [thing] I’ve heard is people saying that even in the Bible, during banquets etc music/instrumentalists played for the occasion so then what’s the difference between that kind of music and music that is non sexual/vulgar e.g. ‘feel-good’ music?”

We need to ensure that we understand what ‘secular’ means. In general parlance, and within the context of music, the semantic distinctions are between ‘sacred’ and ‘secular.’ To help us with that, here is www.thefreedictionary.com:

1. Worldly rather than spiritual.

2. Not specifically relating to religion or to a religious body: e.g. secular music.

3. Relating to or advocating secularism.

4. Not bound by monastic restrictions, especially not belonging to a religious order.

~

Under this definition, Afrobeats is a secular genre – so it seems that there are a number of people who may need to get their heads around this fact. That said, my friend and R would quite likely point out that deep down, many people in this community would not need to read a post such as this in order to know that. Some may never have thought about it – especially when the language is a mixture of Yoruba and English and they may have failed to grasp the nature of the lyrics. However, others have made a choice.

Christian music that uses Afrobeat rhythms is a complex area, but there is an argument to say that this music is not secular. In lyrical content, it points towards the gospel message – but the real issue is the spirit and manner in which it is played and sung. This is a massive technical issue needing its own post. However, any music that does not EXPLICITLY point to Christian faith is secular by definition!

That said, there is some secular music that has real depth and content and musical integrity, but it is not what we would call ‘confessional’ sacred music, so it has to be called secular. There is so-called Christian music that offers no Scriptural or theological depth (and sometimes rank heresy) that we might want to call ‘secular’ because it is so unspiritual – but it offers itself as Christian music, so it has to be assessed in that category. So in the past, when I played secular music, I had a scale of values that I used to determine if this was the kind of music I should be playing as a Christian. You know how it worked out? I found more depth of musicianship and commitment to integrity in the secular music world (outside the commercial sector, unsurprisingly) than I did in the professional Christian music world.

The seriousness of this matter of culture cannot be overstated. The vituperative attacks on secular culture that emanate from Afro-Caribbean Christianity in the UK are utterly reprehensible in light of the sheer rampant materialism that bedevils many black people inside and outside the Church and the wanton lasciviousness that takes place behind closed doors. It is one thing to be a hypocrite, but quite another to hector others loudly when you are less than clean in your own spiritual life before God. Even in writing this a post such as this, I am keenly aware of the areas in which I remain a work in progress. However, God has called some of us to speak up and speak out, and so I write this not in my own strength, but also knowing that I am not who I used to be and I am on a journey to becoming more than I am at this moment. Culture is one of the areas in which Bible-believing Christians are further down the road than ever before, but still nowhere near where we are supposed to be.

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