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On ‘Coloring Book’ and My Faith

“T his is the sheep that ain’t like what it heard,” raps Chance the Rapper on his intro track “All We Got.” His newest project, Coloring Book, explores the conjunction of his personal life, his music career, and his Christian faith.

In 2016, this is a constant conversation many of us have with ourselves. In a seemingly more tolerant world with more aware and empathetic populations of youth, I’ve questioned my faith every day for a decade.

At 24 years old, I’ve spent over half of my life in the church as the “esteemed” preacher’s son. The more I learned and was taught about Jesus and Christianity (two separate entities), the more uncomfortable I became. I witnessed church folks commit the same sins they preached against, yet they condemned others to Hell for said sin. I even took issue with much of the theology. I needed a break. I needed to understand the religion for myself. I needed to explore the world and all it had to offer. I needed to engage in my own spirituality.

As young adults, what we love about Kirk Franklin is his constant use of language and instrumentation that speaks to our generation. Kirk’s production speaks to the lovers of Hip-Hop music. Chance’s musicality has definitely been inspired by that of Kirk Franklin. Chance’s album speaks in metaphors, often referencing everyday life, comparing it to elements of his faith.

His first track features Kanye West singing “Music is all we got/We know, we know we got it.” Recently, Chance spit a verse on Kanye’s intro track “Ultralight Beam,” a song desiring a safe place to create and be ourselves. Chance serves us arguably the best verse on that album. “Ultralight Beam” and “All We Got” are parallels. Chance’s track responds to Ye’s, stating “we know, we know we got it.” He’s alluding to us being our own safe places, saying God has trusted us with gifts and talents to create this space. That’s what the “music” serves as. For me, that safe place became my writing.

Then, while in college, I lost a dear friend.

I mostly blamed myself and God, alike. Well, my then current understanding of God. I stopped writing. I lost my safe space. I couldn’t create in the way I’d become accustomed to. All factors included, led to my depression.

He’s alluding to us being our own safe places, saying God has trusted us with gifts and talents to create this space. That’s what the “music” serves as. For me, that safe place became my writing.

On “Summer Friends,” Chance reflects on the dynamics of his childhood summers, his friends and his pain, and how they each relate to his new celebrity life. “None of my friends ain’t had no dad,” he says. Chance continues, “I was talking back so I had to stay at Grandma crib.” He finishes the verse speaking on the Chicago summers plagued by gun violence and therefore, “Summer Friends don’t stay.” He realizes that his current lifestyle resembles that of his father and how they both spend so much time on their passions and providing for their family, stifling their personal lives.

I felt ashamed that I couldn’t exert the kind of faith my father did. Growing up, I went with him to church all the time. I sat in the front row during his sermons. I even practiced being a preacher with my tiny black suit and whipping out my handkerchief for dramatic effect. I read the bible cover to cover so many times. But that was the closest I got to him, my father. He worked so much, mainly to provide for his kids. The majority of the time he and I spent together involved a church sanctuary.

Now that I’d turned my back to the judgment filled doors, I knew he’d feel like I’d done the same to him. As I grew older, I developed a faith on my own. I began to understand God as an ever-present energy involved in everything. I saw Him in Hip-Hop, in the streets and in my words. In that same token, I saw my father in myself. I worked so much towards my dream, I began to neglect my personal relationships. Often times, I felt guilty about having a father because most of my friends didn’t. I wondered what made me so special, especially since I felt undeserving.

Chance’s exploration of his life made me reflect on my own journey. In “Same Drugs” he personifies the city of Chicago and all that they once experienced together. “Don’t you miss the days, stranger!/We don’t do the same drugs no more.” Chance speaks on how everything has changed. The Chicago he knew as a child has morphed into something more adult-like, colder. Chance himself, has somewhat outgrown the world he knew as a child. He attempts to reconnect, “Don’t forget the happy thoughts/all you need is happy thoughts.” He begins the ending of the track with “When did you start to forget how to fly?” A nod to Peter Pan and Wendy, Chance’s emphasis on childhood nostalgia intersects his desire to heal and grow throughout this project.

I felt ashamed that I couldn’t exert the kind of faith my father did.

A native of Charleston, SC, She and I both forgot how to fly. Through friends dying, to Her nickname of the “Holy City” and Her deeply rooted relation of religion and oppression, I ran away. Between going to college and starting a film and writing career in Atlanta, I became deeply homesick. I missed the summers in Charleston. I missed being a kid, exploring Her rivers. I missed what we meant to each other.

To fly again, we had to learn together. I needed to come to terms with my experiences there. That meant addressing my father, my issues with the church, and my own insecurities.

“Wear your halo like a hat, that’s the latest fashion,” sings Saba, the featured artist on Chance’s “Angels.” Chance raps about the characteristics of angels and compares them to people in his life, including himself.

This speaks to the idea that we’re the angels in our own lives, meaning we have the ability to turn things around for the good and protect ourselves. For me, it means God just may have faith in us the way we’re supposed to have faith in Him.

Chance’s “sermon” track is “How Great” featuring Jay Electronica and ‘My cousin Nicole.’ Through the first half, Nicole sings a lyrical sample of “How great is our God” by Chris Tomlin, one of the most featured songs in the black church. Chance and Jay Electronica finish the track with words entrenched in Bible references, prophecies and rhythmic wordplay. Both verses also infuse said bible references with modern pop culture and personal memories. “I use to hide from God, ducked down in the slums like…” Chance finishes.

Jay Elect enters, “I was lost on the jungle like Simba after Mufasa died/…I spent my night time fighting tears back/I prayed and prayed and left messages and never got no hear back, or so it seemed/ a mustard see was all I needed to sow a dream.”

As I grew older, I developed a faith on my own. I began to understand God as an ever-present energy involved in everything. I saw Him in Hip-Hop, in the streets and in my words.

In my life, I’m creating the world I want to live in.

Somehow, life knew I needed a personalized word. I felt so alone at one point. I saw people around, but no one was there.

I got so down that I found myself in a McDonald’s parking lot one morning, ready to end it all.  At 3:11AM, I called my father and he answered. My words were indistinguishable between my screaming and the tears. But my pops knew all I wanted was his prayer. Not for the purpose of getting in touch with God, but I needed to know someone cared. He did.

That night felt like my actual baptism. Things weren’t anywhere near perfect following that night, but I began to notice a change. I could see the good in things. That small seed of hope was enough for me to find a new track to live my dreams. Little by little, I felt the need to return to church after so many years. Fortunately, that didn’t end my desire to explore the world, the differing beliefs, and new cultures.

Throughout the album Chance addresses the love of his life. She seems to be a major factor in the development of Chance’s style and creative art. Their baby daughter also plays a role in Chance’s positive outlook and his desire to be a good family man. “Trying to turn my babymama to my fiancé/ she like music, she from Houston like Auntie Yoncé/ My daughter could never have a better mother/ if she ever find another, he better love her!” Chance introduces her to us and alludes to her often throughout Coloring Book.

There’s someone who stood by me even in the darkest times of my struggle. She never pushed, but she often encouraged me to go to church or brought up bible verses we both grew up reading. All the while, my partner loved me unconditionally. In hindsight, of course, I realize this transition of my faith and development of my spirituality doesn’t happen without her. This culminated in our separation; that’s a lot to ask someone to bear. But I’ve learned to appreciate those who’ve been there regardless if they understood what I was going through or not.

I care to live in reflection of what Jesus and the church are meant to be, which is unconditional love and acceptance. My “Coloring Book” consists of ways to engage who we are as individuals and how to use that to actively help the world around me.

Between my own experience and Chance’s Coloring Book, I’ve found a safe space for myself to create and thrive. The church and I have yet to fully make amends with each other. But I do understand the importance of open church doors in the community. It’s a part of who I am.

Chance the Rapper’s Coloring Book finds the artist recreating the childhood he lost and living on his own terms.

In my life, I’m creating the world I want to live in. When I do return to church, hopefully soon, I’m going back with my own set of terms, my own understanding of God and my own spirituality. I guess that’s what my father meant when he told me when I was six years old that “it’s about having a personal relationship, son.” So much of what I learned about Christianity dealt with what the church was against and problematic theology steeped in oppression and bigotry.

Like Chance said, “this for the sheep that ain’t like what he heard.” I’m that sheep. I didn’t lose my belief, I just needed a different avenue to explore and express it. I didn’t want to limit all the possibilities of who God is and what he means to different people and cultures.

But like Chance, I care about hope. He finishes the project with “Blessings,” a Fred Hammond sample affirming that good things are in store if Chance is ready. The choir repeats, “Are you ready for you blessing? Are you ready for your miracle?”

I care to live in reflection of what Jesus and the church are meant to be, which is unconditional love and acceptance. My “Coloring Book” consists of ways to engage who we are as individuals and how to use that to actively help the world around me. I believe I’m ready for my blessing.

By Tyrell Jemison

Tyrell Jemison is a lover of all things artistic. With a passion for poetry and learning new things, he's always up for the next adventure. Tyrell works in the Atlanta film industry and is finding his voice for penning the next great story.