Tuning Into the “Happy Am I” Preacher: Researching the Radio Career of Elder Lightfoot Solomon Michaux
Welcome to the second installment of our Thursday series spotlighting endangered radio archives across the United States, promoting the work of the Radio Preservation Task Force (RPTF), which is part of the National Recording Reservation Plan of the Library of Congress. Our series kicked off two weeks ago with this post by Josh Garrett-Davis exploring both the history of Native American radio and new ways of thinking about it, and the series will conclude with a piece next week by the University of Michigan’s Derek Vaillant about radio recordings in immediate need of preservation in Detroit.
Between possible archives and endangered ones, we have an article about an archive that has begun to speak after long years of silence. Below, Professor Suzanne Smith of George Mason University gives us a preview of her research into a radio evangelist who was among the most prominent African Americans of his day, yet has been largely forgotten. Smith’s fascinating work not only revisits Elder Michaux as a historical figure, but also gives us a clear sense of how a project in radio reservation relies not only on institutional resources, but also on personal outreach. As many of us who are part of the preservation project are learning, media history lives on in storage units, basements and lockers, preserved by collectors, churches and communities that only individual connections can truly reach.
— Special Editor Neil Verma
In October 1934, the Washington Post published a feature about Elder Lightfoot Solomon Michaux in which it boldly declared that the “radio evangelist extraordinary, is the best known colored man in the United States today.” At the time, Elder Michaux, known as the “Happy Am I” Preacher, had a national radio show on the CBS network that broadcast his ministry of happiness and holiness to over twenty-five million listeners each week.
Like many popular evangelists of his era, Elder Michaux promoted his image as one of God’s prophets, presciently envisioning that radio could revolutionize the purview of modern evangelicalism. Michaux first used portable radio equipment to broadcast his holiness revivals in the mid to late 1920s in his hometown of Newport News and these religious programs were among the first of their kind in the United States. By 1929, Michaux moved to Washington, D.C. in the hopes of expanding his mission.
As an African American, Michaux initially had difficulty convincing local D.C. radio outlets to put him on the air. Eventually, he persuaded James S. Vance, local owner of WJSV, to broadcast his weekly revivals. When the CBS network bought WJSV in 1932, the budding evangelist achieved a national audience in the millions.
The key to Michaux’s success was his ability to combine his preaching with snappy, upbeat gospel songs that reminded listeners that a holy life leads to a happy life, a message that resonated with Americans navigating the economic trials of the Great Depression. By the late 1930s, the BBC invited Michaux to broadcast his program on its network and listeners around the globe soon began to tune into his WJSV broadcasts in via shortwave hookup. These opportunities allowed the charismatic preacher to reach a vast international radio audience that extended from Europe to Africa, South America, and the Caribbean. That Michaux’s broadcasts, like his story, have disappeared from radio history has impoverished our sense of the role of race in the soundscape of the era.
My current book project examines Michaux’s extraordinary life and career as a radio evangelist. For this post, I want to explain both Michaux’s significance to the history of religious radio as well as African American history; and how my research has led me to join the Radio Preservation Task Force in an effort to preserve the surviving recordings this important figure, but understudied, figure.
In spite of his many accomplishments, Elder Michaux has been largely overlooked in the histories of religious radio and African American religion. Scholarship on religious radio from the 1920s and 1930s tends to focus on figures such as Father Charles Coughlin and Aimee Semple McPherson with only passing mention of African American preachers such as Michaux. In the history of African American religion in the 1930s, Michaux tends to be overshadowed by scholarship on other major figures such as Father Divine and his Peace Mission Movement and Sweet Daddy Grace and his United House of Prayer. Although Michaux’s ministry was often categorized as a religious cult in the popular press of the time, his Gospel Spreading Radio Church of God was firmly a part of the black Holiness movement and continues to have ten active congregations today.
Throughout his career, which began in the late 1920s and extended until his death in 1968, Elder Michaux defied the odds and challenged boundaries of race, theology and politics to become one of the most successful religious leaders and media celebrities of his time. As early as 1926, Michaux, whose Holiness ministry openly welcomed all races, was arrested for baptizing whites and blacks together. Once established in Washington, D.C., Michaux led annual mass baptisms in the Potomac River and later at Griffith Stadium that drew tens of thousands of followers. At the height of his fame, from the 1930s through the 1950s, Michaux was regularly invited to the White House to consult with Presidents Roosevelt, Truman, and Eisenhower about the racial issues of the day. By the early 1960s, Michaux engaged in public debates with both Martin Luther King Jr. and Elijah Muhammad, leader of the Nation of Islam, about the direction of the civil rights struggle.
My book argues that Elder Lightfoot Solomon Michaux is critical to our understanding of how religious leaders used the mass medium of radio to literally “sell” evangelical faith movements in modern America. Elder Michaux was the first to fully develop the concept of a “Radio Church,” which offered official membership to followers and created one of the first, if not the first, virtual religious communities in modern America. A true evangelist, Michaux sought to reach believers and potential converts wherever they were and knew that the radio could facilitate his mission in revolutionary ways. In an interview in 1938, Michaux explained, “I wanted to give people religion over the air so they might have it at home. Then they couldn’t have an excuse for not going to church. They couldn’t say that they were tired or didn’t have the right clothes. They could get God and his teachings right in their own parlor.” Most significantly, Michaux’s entrepreneurial skill at marketing his Gospel Spreading Church of God through the radio was simultaneously in service to his race and racially transgressive in ways that complicate our understanding of how modern religious movements navigated Jim Crow segregation.
So how can we actually give an account of Michaux’s contributions? Researching radio programming from the 1920s and 1930s presents a number of challenges for any historian because recordings of broadcasts from this period are rare. Fortunately, Elder Michaux began his career on WJSV, one of the most powerful stations in Washington in the 1930s (which became WTOP, the most popular local news radio station in Washington, D.C. today). The first director of WJSV under CBS ownership was Harry Butcher, who had the foresight in September 1939 to record an entire day of programming, which is remarkable considering this was accomplished without the use of magnetic recording tape. Although this collection does not include Elder Michaux’s program, it is a valuable audio snapshot of the radio era in which he thrived.
My quest to locate recordings of Elder Michaux’s broadcast has led me to destinations as far away as the BBC archives in London, which houses two recordings of Michaux’s first British broadcasts; and as close as the main branch of the current Gospel Spreading Church of God here in Washington.
In the past two years, I have also developed meaningful relationships with congregants of the church, who have begun to be willing to share their private archive of recordings. During one oral history interview, one church member, who is 92-years old, gave me a reel-to-reel tape from Elder Michaux’s funeral service, which was broadcast in October 1968. Another elder member from Newport News sent me recordings of Michaux preaching at Lorton Prison in Lorton, Virginia in the 1950s. Most significantly, I recently met the current sound engineer at the church, who has been a member since the 1940s and has a large archive of reel-to-reel tapes of Michaux’s radio broadcasts from the 1950s and 1960s. At the height of his fame in the early 1930s, Elder Michaux broadcast his religious services daily and never missed a week of broadcasting until his death in 1968. The church has only kept a fraction of these broadcasts. Nevertheless, a significant number of them exist and are housed in the church’s private storage. I am currently trying to assess the scope of the church’s collection, which has involved reaching out to church members in Philadelphia, New York City, and Newport News, Virginia. I am also trying to investigate grants that might support my efforts to digitize the tapes as soon as possible since they are at risk of deterioration in the church storage facilities.
My research on Elder Lightfoot Solomon Michaux’s career has convinced me that more work needs to be done to pursue the preservation of African American religious radio broadcasts in general. The work of the Radio Preservation Task Force can support this mission, but it will also involve grassroots outreach to established African American churches. Many of these churches regularly broadcast their services and may have their own private archives of recordings that can offer us an invaluable glimpse at the aural history of African American religious practices in the twentieth century.
Moreover, through my ongoing relationships with the congregants of Elder Michaux’s Gospel Spreading Church of God, I have developed a deeper appreciation for the importance of personal outreach to African American religious communities in the service of preserving the history of religious radio. The efforts of the Radio Preservation Task Force are critically important in terms of identifying existing institutional archives, but only through individual connections with these vital, but often overlooked minority communities, will we be able to discover and preserve these treasures of our radio past.
Suzanne E. Smith is Professor of History in the Department of History and Art History at George Mason University. She is the author of Dancing in the Street: Motown and the Cultural Politics of Detroit (Harvard University Press, 1999) and To Serve the Living: Funeral Directors and the African American Way of Death (Belknap Press, 2010). She is currently working on her third book, tentatively titled The ‘Happy Am I’ Preacher: The Extraordinary Life and Times of Elder Lightfoot Solomon Michaux.
All images courtesy of the author.
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Pentecostal Song, Sound, and Authentic Voices — Ashon Crawley
Sounding Out! Podcast Episode #5: Sound and Spirit on the Highway — David B. Greenberg
Calling devotees to prayer, preaching on the subway, broadcasted pre-recorded sermons from a moving car, organizing drum circles in the park, resounding church bells through the city – expressions of faith to some, a nuisance, or even a personal offense (or outright danger), to others. Must religion be so noisy? Must it also be so publicly noisy?
Religious studies scholar Isaac Weiner portrays public loudness as but one of many exigencies of the religious worldview in his recent publication, Religion Out Loud: Religious Sound, Public Space, and American Pluralism (New York: New York University Press: 2014). Weiner argues that the substantive content of religious doctrine – moral claims, theological arguments, etc. – both constitutes and is constituted by how its ideas are given expression. This might seem unremarkable. However, the claim allows Weiner to re-frame religious pluralism as not only a “matter of competing values, truth claims, or moral doctrines, but of different styles of public practice, of fundamentally different ways of using body and space.” (200)
So, according to Weiner, yes: Some religious groups must be so noisy, and must be noisy publicly. If they weren’t, their religious beliefs and doctrines would be deprived of the expressive forms that imbue them with significance.
Weiner is Assistant Professor of Religious Studies in the Department of Comparative Studies at The Ohio State University. Weiner is not a card-carrying sound studies specialist. Nonetheless, his output is representative of a quickly accelerating interest about religion and spirituality within studies of sound and culture. Religion Out Loud is his first book, and builds from themes explored in his previous publications, including articles such as “Sound” (Material Religion 7, no. 1 : 108-115), “Sound and American Religions” (Religion Compass 3, no. 5 [September 2009]: 897-908), and “Displacement and Re-placement: The International Friendship Bell as a Translocative Technology of Memory” (Material Religion 5, no. 2 [July 2009]: 180-205). Forthcoming are several chapters and articles that closely relate to topics investigated in Religion Out Loud.
The text ranges from America’s colonial period through the early 2000s. It largely attends to legislative efforts seeking to circumscribe the practicing of what Weiner calls “religion out loud” – public, and perceivably exorbitant displays of sonic religiosity. On the other hand, Weiner also details the various ways in which religious practitioners have resisted legal containment. Weiner thus adds to an already copious literature about how contestations over sonic space reflect broader contestations over meaning and power, that includes texts such as Brandon Labelle’s Acoustic Territories: Sound Culture and Everyday Life (New York: Continuum, 2010), Karen Bijsterveld’s Mechanical Sound: Technology, Culture, and Public Problems of Noise in the Twentieth Century (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2008), and other religion-related work like Philip V. Bohlman’s “Music Inside Out: Sounding Public Religion in a Post-Secular Europe” (in Music, Sound and Space, ed. Georgina Born, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013). This tension between the embodied practice and legal-discursive regulation of sonic spaces throws into relief what Weiner calls a “politics of religious sensation.” However, readers with an interest in the experiential dimensions of the “religious sensorium” should look elsewhere, perhaps the recent volume, Senses and Citizenship: Embodying Political Life, edited by Susanna Trnka (New York: Routledge, 2013). Religion Out Loud appeals more to readers with an interest in the political histories of religious rights and noise abatement policy, and the ways in which “religious sensation” has been regulated according to unstable conceptions of liberalism and pluralism in American jurisprudence.
In order to span such a long temporal trajectory (essentially the history of the United States!), Weiner anchors Religion Out Loud in three historically disparate case studies. Each is preceded by a chapter of historical and theoretical contextualization. This forces Weiner to rapidly chronicle decades of developments in noise abatement policy. Yet he does so with both scrupulousness and concision, leaving remarkably few holes left unfilled. This gives the reader the benefit of charting the long-term effects of the policy changes that Weiner more focusedly interrogates. His approach thus differs quite markedly from some other important sound/religious studies literature, such as Leigh Schmidt’s Hearing Things: Religion, Illusion, and the American Enlightenment (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2002), which investigates a single historical period in more concentrated fashion.
From chapter one’s onset, I was struck by the impressive depth of archival research Weiner has infused into his arguments. As a result, Weiner’s more speculative conclusions – generally modest in scope – have no shortage of evidence, and are altogether convincing. In chapter one, for instance, Weiner details shifting perceptions of church bells in colonial and postbellum America, an area well tilled in sound studies by the likes of Alain Corbin (Village Bells: Sound and Meaning in the Nineteenth-Century French Countryside, trans. Martin Thom, New York: Columbia University Press, 1998) and Richard Cullen Rath (How Early America Sounded, Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 2003). Weiner furthers this conversation by revealing how religious sounds such as church bells – what had receded to the background of what R. Murray Schafer called the “historical soundscape” – faced unprecedented scrutiny as the symbolic status of noise began to change. Likewise, city governments challenged congregants’ rights to occupy acoustic territory. In the burgeoning clamor of the modern city, noise meant progress and prosperity, for some listeners, but, for others, the stylized noise of religion practiced “out loud” signified a kind of regressive primitivism. Noise thus occupied both sides of the evolutionist coin that Weiner suggests ideologically underpinned religious self-understandings of the time.
Weiner further explores the progressive/primitive duality in his first case study – Harrison v. St. Marks of 1877– in which Weiner quite brilliantly unravels how both perspectives were articulated in legal discourse. According to Weiner, complainants challenged the long-presumed public-acoustic prerogatives of Philadelphia’s fashionable St. Mark’s Protestant Episcopal Church. The main takeaway from the chapter is that St. Marks’s complainants voiced a formulation of suitable, modern, and thus normative religious practice as “properly disentangled from various forms of materiality and mediation, carefully circumscribed and respectful of its bounds, interiorized and intellectualized, invisible and inaudible.” (60) From the complainants’ perspective, noisy religion signified backward, immature religion. The court sided with this position, treating church bells as it would any other “extraneous” public noise. Yet in so doing, it ironically reinforced the cultural dominance of Protestantism. That is to say, by silencing St. Mark’s bells, the ostensibly secularized legal system set a precedent that legitimated the “subjugation” of all forms of religious practice to “proper modes of acceptable piety” – including “religious ‘others’” who lacked the pervasive influence that Protestantism could exercise in the public and political spheres, including the courts. (74)
In the second section, Weiner shifts his focus from acoustic territorialization to noisy religiosity as a form of dissent. He details how noise abatement legislation in the early twentieth century harkened a “new regulatory regime” that suppressed the activities of religious practitioners for whom “making noise was not merely incidental to their work; it was their work” (80). The Salvation and Army and the Jehovah’s Witnesses, Weiner shows, aggressively challenged norms of community outreach through provocative exhibitions of religious devotion in public spaces. However, while exercising freedoms of speech, religion, and public assembly, such groups turned unsuspecting citizens into “captive audiences,” and thus infringed upon rights to privacy. The style of practicing some liberties, as many scholars and critics have suggested, has throughout history limited the enjoyment of liberties by other parties.
Moreover, as Weiner rightly suggests in his second case study, Saia v. New York of 1946, civil liberties have always been carefully regulated by the state. Samuel Saia, a Jehovah’s Witness, drove around the city of Lockhart, NY, and used loudspeakers to broadcast inflammatory sermons from his car. He loudly exercised his first amendment rights through what Weiner calls “sound car religion.” Yet the city managed to treat the sermons’ noisiness as extraneous to Saia’s religion, rather than acknowledging the practice as partially constitutive of it. Lockhart’s noise abatement ordinance thus infringed upon his right to religious free exercise. To that end, Weiner repositions McLuhan’s famous “the medium is the message,” framing religion as media, as opposed to religion and media as separable concepts. Saia spread God’s word, and in doing so loudly fulfilled a core tenet of the Witness creed.
Throughout the case study, Weiner critiques the “liberal inclusionary ideology” that has come to characterize the Judeo-Christian tradition of American jurisprudence. But he curiously softens his otherwise pointed critique at the end of the chapter. Saia ultimately won the case, yet the Witnesses’ devotional style gradually became unmarked in the ensuing years, as they seemed to assimilate voluntarily to normative expectations of religious devotion. As such, Weiner suggests that dissenters in general often find that they can “afford to quiet down once they feel that their voices have been heard.” (135) While it is “important not to exaggerate the coercive effects of American law,” I would have nonetheless appreciated a more critical take on how the legal system had its cake and ate it too – that is, how it satisfied the demands of the Witnesses and also managed to keep them quiet. Indeed, Weiner’s mild conclusion may unsettle those readers who enjoyed the previous three chapters of incisive and nuanced analysis.
In the last section, Weiner shows how a controversial 1990 Supreme Court decision – Employment Division v. Smith, spearheaded by Justice Antonin Scalia – enacted into law a conception of religiosity as interiorized, intellectualized, and privatized. It favored majoritarian notions of religious free exercise such that dissenting – or noisy – religious practice by minority religious subjects risked criminalization. As a result, the granting of religious exemption from preclusive noise ordinances was left not to the courts to decide, but rather to the political arena. Potentially disruptive religious free exercise was no longer constitutionally protected. It now required approval from a political body. The last case study, then, does not deal with legal proceedings. Rather, it examines the public debates and media spectacles that surrounded al-Islāh Islamic Center’s petition to broadcast the call to prayer in Hamtramck, MI, in 2004. Al-Islāh was ultimately granted exemption from the local noise ordinance. But over the course of an exasperating six months of debate, Weiner demonstrates, formerly unvoiced identity politics that residents invested into the city’s sonic territories were brought to light in highly contentious ways.
Weiner identifies three rhetorical-discursive tropes that various parties used to debate changing the city’s noise ordinance to accommodate the call to prayer. One of them, pluralism, will likely be of most interest to readers (the others are exclusivism and privatism). The pluralist debaters envisioned the public sphere as a neutral space in which the particularities of religious difference were accommodated, but only according to an ideal of “agonistic respect.” Against this idealistic backdrop, pluralists interpreted the call to prayer not as broadcasters intended it to be heard, but rather as a symbol for the “potential for interfaith harmony.” (186) Weiner argues that the hearings refigured – effaced, even – the call’s meaning, since the Muslim community’s political recognition was achievable only by way of the discourse of pluralist forms of tolerance. In other words, if pluralist discourse takes the form by which Muslim faith can express itself, then Muslim faith itself risks effacement as a result of such “accommodation.”
Surprisingly, Weiner largely omits Muslim perspectives from the chapter. How did pluralist assimilation change the meanings of religious practice as the Muslim community saw it? How did the Muslims feel they had to modify their rhetoric of self-representation? Moreover, how did Muslims perceive – or perhaps even challenge – displays of Judeo-Christian devotion? Perhaps pursuing such questions exceeds the scope of Weiner’s project, as could the inclusion of many other issues that readers might think warrant consideration. For instance, Weiner gestures toward the sonic interpellation of Muslim and Christian subjectivity, but does not pursue the topic. Further analysis could productively complement recent work on religious acoustemology such as Charles Hirschkind’s The Ethical Soundscape: Cassette Sermons and Islamic Counterpublics (New York: Columbia University Press, 2006), Andrew J. Eisenberg’s, “Islam, Sound and Space: Acoustemology and Muslim Citizenship on the Kenyan Coast” (in Music, Sound and Space, ed. Georgina Born, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013), Jeanette S. Jouli’s “Beat-ification: British Muslim Hip Hop and Ethical Listening Practices,” and Ashon Crawley’s “Pentecostal Song, Sound, and Authentic Voices.” Additionally, Weiner glosses over counterculture in the 1960s. How might a treatment of the Nation of Islam, for but one example, complicate his conclusions about the accommodation of religion practiced “out loud” in the period?
That notwithstanding, Weiner accomplishes his proposed task with great nuance, insight, and lucidity. Religion Out Loud skillfully unites archival research with ethnographic methods, a history of sound with a history of ideas. It will appeal to those with an interest in the “politics of sensation,” as Weiner suggests, and even more so to readers with interests in the contradictions of noise abatement policy, the legal history of religious rights, and ways in which they have contributed to religious soundscapes in the United States. And of course, it provides an emphatic—and important—affirmative to that longstanding question “must religion be so noisy?”
Jordan Musser is a graduate student in the musicology program at Cornell University. He has a primary interest in the social practice of musical aesthetics, with a focus on roles of the avant-garde in popular culture. Using theoretical frameworks from media, performance, and cultural studies, his recent projects have investigated virtuosity in 19th-century Europe, musical reenactment, the sonic imaginary, and politics of musical mythologization. In 2012, Jordan earned the M.A. in the Humanities from the University of Chicago. Before arriving at Cornell, he was an editorial assistant with Grove Music Online, and held teaching positions from the early childhood to high school levels.
Featured image: “Microphone inside Al-Azhar Mosque” by Flickr user John Kannenberg, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
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“Sounding Out! Podcast Episode #5: Sound and Spirit on the Highway”-David B. Greenberg
Guest writer Marcia Alesan Dawkins’s new book on rapper Eminem, Eminem: The Real Slim Shady is now available. We here at Sounding Out! are thrilled, so for this week’s post we asked Dr. Dawkins to give us a glimpse into a side of the notorious rapper that few may have heard: the intersection between artist and spirituality. This comes just in time too, considering Kanye West’s latest release, Yeezus, not to mention Touré’s recent biography of Prince, I Would Die 4 U: Why Prince Became an Icon (2013), which examines the confluence of celebrity and spirituality for a generation of Prince fans. Without further ado, give it up for Dr. Dawkins! Pump it up pump it up pump it up! —Liana M Silva-Ford, Managing Editor
Eminem caught my ear a year before The Slim Shady LP hit record stores in 1999, when I came across a single released by Rawkus Records called “5 Star Generals” (1998) on which he made a guest appearance. I would later learn that this was an old track the rapper recorded for cash while he was unsigned and then forgot. Nevertheless, Em’s first lines about sinning boldly, shooting nuns in Bible class, and damning hell itself hit me like a ton of bricks. I knew that lines like his, which were sure to enrage anyone within earshot, would make him (in)famous.
To my surprise, I learned a year later that my 89-year-old Cuban American grandfather, a poet and a reverend, had been listening to Eminem too. This struck me as strange for two reasons. First, my grandfather wasn’t fluent in English. Second, he’d never expressed much interest in rap music other than commenting that he noticed kids rapping in the parks near his house in Hollis, Queens every now and then. Of course, I knew that many of those boom-box-toting kids were now superstars like Run-DMC and LL Cool J, but my Grandfather didn’t.
When I entered the living room to the sound of Slim Shady, my grandfather sat transfixed. After the song ended, I asked him if he knew what he was hearing. Sitting up in his blue La-Z-Boy recliner he said, “I’m listening to some guy who calls himself Eminem. I can tell he’s probably a heathen and I don’t care. I love what he’s doing with his words.” I was shocked. My grandfather went on to tell me that despite the obvious language and experiential barriers that stood between him and Eminem, he was in awe of the way the rapper was using his voice and his words as instruments. What really got me was when my grandfather said that Eminem’s unapologetic tone reminded him of many preachers’ fiery delivery over the years. I could not believe it. Grandpa’s encounter with Eminem was not just sonic. It was spiritual.
Fifteen years later I am still listening for what my grandfather heard. In the process, my ears have been captivated by Eminem’s sonic spirituality, open to its every sound. So open, in fact, that I dedicated three chapters in my forthcoming book to understanding how his music can be seen as a dynamic sphere of spiritual activity in terms of guilt-purification-redemption, love-hate, and relationship-awareness. While paying attention to Eminem’s sonic spirituality began as a personal exercise, it now represents an important part of understanding how spirituality operates culturally and is just like sound: recognizable, uncontainable and elusive.
In other words, I’ve finally understood what my grandfather was trying to tell me — how, rather than simply what, he heard in Eminem’s music. Here’s the revelation: sonic spirituality is a listening attitude, a personalized relationship with music that allows us to mark time, experience the intangible, track movement, engage otherness and, in the end, encounter more honest versions of ourselves. Sonic spirituality, then, might be characterized as open instead of closed, exploratory and experimental rather than static. Eminem’s spiritual themes play out in terms of solidarity with the supernatural, a mistrust of organized religion due to its inherent hypocrisy, a desire for redemption from guilt through purification, and an intense personal battle between love and hate. Following are two potent examples of what I’ve found in Eminem’s oeuvre from 2009’s Relapse: Refill, examples that showcase the development of his sonic spirituality over the decade since my grandfather first introduced it to me.
In “Beautiful” (2009), Eminem poses a powerful question: What would you think if you saw someone important, like a government official or celebrity, digging around in the trash? The answer: you’d probably think that this kind of behavior was suitable for beggars only and certainly not for yourself or someone very important. But this is exactly what the rapper does in “Beautiful.” He looks for himself, others, and their fallen world or Eden (aka Detroit, Michigan) and finds everyone and everything in the garbage. In this way, “Beautiful” is a lovely parable. As with any parable, its objective is to illustrate a moral or a spiritual lesson using a simple human relation. The lesson in this case is looking for something or someone that has been lost. In Eminem’s parable, there are seven ideas expressed about how to find what we have lost and develop our spiritual selves along the way: loss (the starting point of humanity’s spiritual condition), light (a force created through words), movement (standing in another person’s shoes), discovery (finding what’s lost in low places), salvation (anyone can be redeemed), connection (exchange traditional religion for a new culture of communication with the supernatural), and celebration (that everyone can be made beautiful again).
These seven images are evoked by the lyrics and music. The slow and deliberate beat invites listeners to connect the subject and object; the song and themselves, the song and the rapper. The release provided as Eminem sings the chorus doesn’t just change the course of the song, but converts the shared loss into an opportunity for discovery, salvation, connection and celebration. Just as the discovery begins, the drums suddenly increase in volume; the bass and guitar begin to cry out as a background harmony in a major key builds and adds to the intensity. The sounds remind us even if we choose to shield our eyes, we cannot shield our ears from the plight of our fellows and that this is a call to action, salvation and celebration. In “Beautiful” Eminem listeners become aware of others’ oppression while remembering that they are no stronger or more beautiful than anyone else. In this way listeners are engaged not just with the sounds, but also with the spirits of the people who produce them in active relationship.
The experiences and encounters inherent in Eminem’s alternative spiritual portrait, “My Darling” (2009), still emphasize the same spiritual themes I pointed out earlier: personal struggles between light and darkness, finding a purpose in suffering, and seeing a connection between societal and supernatural powers. Only this time, the supernatural power belongs to the Devil. Yet, unlike other songs in which Eminem does battle with the Devil or suffers for his sins through eternal damnation, “My Darling” is about a soul living in hell on earth. In this way, “My Darling” is both a lamentation and a dark parable whose moral complements that of “Beautiful.” Eminem shares this moral in “My Darling” through six ideas about what happens when a person is losing his or her battle with the demons he or she carries inside. These ideas are uncertainty (never being sure about redemption), possession (selling one’s soul), darkness (force maintained by the absence of words), harm (effects of love turning to hate), wholeness (spiritual relationships based on labor and exchange rather than on salvation and forgiveness), and lament (mourning one’s losses of self and loved ones).
As in “Beautiful,” the lyrics and the music evoke spiritual elements. The song is set to a minor key, which communicates penitential lamentation, intimate conversation with the Devil, and echoes with sighs of disappointment, divorce and disillusion. Possession, darkness and harm are communicated through call and response between Eminem and the Devil, who hears and accepts Eminem’s invitation and appears in his mirror where he whispers seductively for Eminem to draw close. The increasing intensity and harm of the spiritual exchange between Mathers and the Devil is reflected in their verbal back-and-forth. Their “souls, minds and bodies” are increasingly connected as they exchange more and more words. And the words become more desperate and cruel. At the end of the song, Eminem submits. Listeners come to understand that Eminem and the Devil are one and whole as the Devil’s final solo becomes the pair’s solemn duet. The two have become one spirit through a relationship of exchange and possession.
The recurrence of spiritual themes in Eminem’s soundscape suggests that music is a way to communicate with the other who is both present and hidden. Sometimes the other is God. Sometimes the other is the Devil. Sometimes the other is other people. Sometimes the other is the other within. The tones, rhythmic patters, key changes, intensity and release patterns combine with Eminem’s lyrics to create an experience within which listeners can be still, in which their souls can take refuge, and the other can be encountered. However, though sonic spirituality exists in Eminem’s music, and rumors abound regarding his “born again” status, it cannot be argued that Eminem adheres to a particular religion. Rather, the sonic spiritual element suggests that Eminem communicates a genuine awareness of supernatural powers, guilt-redemption-purification and love-hate that allows him to relate to the world at large. In this way Eminem is one of many artists whose pop culture content carries a strong spiritual dimension that is sonic, confirming results of Chris Rojek’s study, entitled “Celebrity and Religion,” which argues that “celebrity culture is secular society’s rejoinder to the decline of religion and magic” (393).
As “Beautiful” and “My Darling” demonstrate, the spiritual reflections heard in Eminem’s music are not just harmonic, they are also discordant, revealing how conflicted we often are about ourselves and the supernatural. Just as Eminem walks with God in “Beautiful” and dances with the Devil in “My Darling,” audiences listening to his music are able to escape from their own worlds and find temporary refuge in sonic spirituality. This idea didn’t start with Eminem, or with the Judeo-Christian tradition, as many faiths across time and space utilize the power of music to evoke higher powers and acquire spiritual insight through prayers, storytelling, meditation, chanting, mantras, singing, silent vows, etc. But Eminem has added his own unique touch by using his personas Slim Shady and Marshall Mathers to speak with demonic and godly authority, respectively. As Peter Ward writes in Gods Behaving Badly, the spiritual power of Eminem’s music for audiences lies in its representations of a “conflicted and complex self clothed in the metaphors of the divine and reflected back to us” (107). In other words, sonic spirituality is about engaging with something beyond the world around us while grappling with the personas and situations into which we’re immersed. As the music plays we are challenged to develop a listening heart.
The popularity of Eminem’s music supports the conclusion that his brand of sonic spirituality is set to the same rhythm as the hearts of fans that buy and listen to his messages. But his work can also speak to those who consider themselves spiritually committed, even if that commitment is often not manifested in traditional religious activities. In this way the dynamic nature of sonic spirituality manifests as a way of listening that allows for communication and communion through music and language. If the above is true, then we can take Eminem’s claim, expressed via tweet, that “music has the power to heal” as a spiritual declaration. And we can also take a fan’s response to this tweet as an Amen: “All Eminem songs has [sic] a spiritual connection… you have to have the ear to find that for yourself.”
Featured Image: “Slim Shady” by Flickr user Walt Jabasco, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
Marcia Alesan Dawkins, PhD is an award-winning writer, speaker, educator, and lecturer at the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism. She is the author of Clearly Invisible: Racial Passing and the Color of Cultural Identity (Baylor UP, 2012) and Eminem: The Real Slim Shady (Praeger, 2013).
Marcia writes about racial passing, mixed race identities, media, popular culture, religion and politics for a variety of high-profile publications. She earned her PhD in communication from USC Annenberg, her master’s degrees in humanities from USC and NYU and her bachelor’s degrees in communication arts and honors from Villanova. Contact: www.marciadawkins.com
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By July of 2009 dozens of pitch-black videos began to appear on YouTube. Documenting ambient noise, in some cases narration and, most prominent of all, impromptu collective outcries of “Allah-o-Akbar,” these videos resonate with an urgent gusto, punctuated with an eerie sense of desperation through faint echoic reverberations. By the level of desperation audible in every voice, at once dulcet and melancholic in tone, there is a distinct sense that Allah very well may be called forth. While most of these videos received scant attention, one entitled “Inja Kojast”](translated as “Where is this Place”) received over 174,000 hits (as of writing).
It was dubbed with English, Spanish, and Japanese subtitles, was sampled by a music producer (“Tehran’s Roof Tops _Remix”) and also played a prominent role in the 2010 French film Fleur du Mal. What is enabled, invoked, and signified by the layering of these multiple and disparate incantations? What is affectively evoked in the widespread circulation of these chants by YouTube and in Fleur du Mal? Why was this video circulated so widely and deemed so affectively resonant by disparate audiences?
Due to the fact that the Iranian government had barred entry to representatives of foreign media and systematically jailed Iranian journalists accused of being hostile to the regime, the disputed 2009 Iranian elections and ensuing protests were largely reported on by a new breed of “citizen journalists”. Filling in the information vacuum, citizen journalists tweeted and uploaded to the Internet raw video footage of protest marches and confrontations with Basiji militiamen by day – and the voices of dissent performed on Iran’s many rooftops by night. Donning the cloak of darkness, residents of Iran’s major cities climbed to the rooftops of their buildings to chant “Allah-o-Akbar” in numbers – a brief reprieve from the violent suppression of their street protests by Basiji militiamen.
As Negar Mottahedeh has written in her online essay “Allah-o-Akhbar”: “The cry of “Allah-o-Akbar” was the defining sound of the 1978 protests against the Shah of Iran, during a revolution that toppled the Pahlavi monarchy and established the Islamic Republic of Iran.” This earlier revolutionary context is represented in the video for “Allah o Akbar, Khomeini Rahbar”, which hailed a politically diverse citizenry to stand behind this “rahbar” or new “leader.” The chanting of “Allah-o-Akbar” was further exploited as a nationalistic call-to-arms during the Iran-Iraq war in the music video for the anthemic “Allahu Akbar Iran, Iran.” The chant’s versatility and instrumentality in this immediate post-revolutionary period is due not only to its capacity to appeal to the pious and patriotic backers of the newly formed Islamic Republic but also because of its power as a performative political rallying cry. Mottahedeh’s essay title employs a pun: the addition of ‘h’ to the word “Akbar” in transliteration changes the word to “Akhbar” or news. Although she does not elaborate on this, her title suggests that this chant is itself a form of citizen journalism, a broadcast calling forth the revolutionary spirit that Iranians pride themselves for always having at the ready. But what kind of journal is “Allah-o-Akbar”? Is it a call to arms, a rallying cry, a collective sound of suffering or all of the above?
Despite its pious provenance and deployment as the paradigmatic cry of the revolutionary uprising against the Shah, the Islamic Republic currently led by Ali Khamenei and Mahmood Ahmadinejad–which was inaugurated by these earlier revolutionary calls–has interpreted the post-2009 chanting of “Allah-o-Akbar” as blasphemous and an affront to their authority. Journalist Jalal Hosseini argues that this is due in part to the fact that opposition candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi called upon his supporters to remember the revolutionary history of this performative chant in an open letter, stating “Let’s not abandon the green colour which is a symbol of spirituality, freedom and religious mentality and moderateness and the Allah O Akbar slogan that tells us of revolutionary roots.”
As Hosseini has written, “In a religious state, where religion is present in every aspect of life, Iran’s protestors have managed to turn religion against their government…Allah-o Akbar is perhaps the single most symbolic phrase in the Muslim world, yet Iran’s current rulers, who themselves employed this slogan in their struggle against the Pahlavi regime in the 1979 Revolution, did not tolerate the protesters’ cries of Allah-o-Akbar after the 2009 presidential election. Allah-o Akbar has essentially become a forbidden phrase.” Hosseini goes on to quote numerous Tehranis who testify to their disparate intentions behind the chanting, highlighting the ambivalence inherent to the slogan, which makes it available to Iranians of many stripes, and, as he argues, allows the calls to resonate even beyond the nation by appealing to other Muslims globally. But the widespread circulation of these videos and their popular impact on global YouTube audiences also suggests that the chanting has had an impact on non-Muslims as well.
Susan Moeller, who penned a Huffington Post piece right around the time of “Inja Kojast’s” semi-viral circulation, argues that this most recent phase of the chant’s resignification has helped to win Americans over to the protesting Iranian’s cause, writing, “watching Americans are learning to reframe the meaning of ‘Allah O Akbar’ and re-imagine the people of Iran. The pictures from Tehran are showing that Iranians are not monolithic in their beliefs.” Moeller suggests that this collective chanting has somehow cut through the status quo Islamophobic representations of a fundamentalist Iran to create an affective and empathetic pathway through which Americans can “re-imagine the people.” Moeller’s argument echoes the sentiment of the comments written on the YouTube page for “Inja Kojast,” comments like “This breaks my heart!” left by Annabanana23663 or “I have listened to this so many times already that you would think I would have moved on BUT I continue to listen and will continue to listen for there is truth in that voice of pain. And only by embracing pain can we love truth. And truth not only will set us free but without truth we cannot be free. Go you beautiful Persians. The people of the USA love you for your defiance” (by YouTube viewer HulkSmashPunyHumans).
Not only were YouTube users impacted by “Inja Kojast” but the video’s representation of Iran’s rooftop chants inspired the narrative arc of French filmmaker David Dusa’s Fleur du Mal (Flowers of Evil, 2010), a film that explores the precarity and instability of Iran after the 2009 elections. Through a chanting scene in which the two main characters, Gecko (Rachid Youcef) and Anahita (Alice Belaïdi), vociferously call out “Allah-o-Akbar” on the edge of a rooftop in the avowedly anti-Islamic nation of France, they thumb their noses at both nation-states at once while also sealing their romantic bond. Perhaps in an ironic play on Khomeini’s exile in the same city, the beautiful, educated and upwardly mobile Anahita is incubated in Paris for a time while the political instability following the 2009 elections settles down. Completely obsessed with the post-election struggles that she and her friends were actively engaging in on the streets of Tehran, she daily follows every new tweet and YouTube video. She bides her time in Paris by convincing Gecko, the bellhop at her swanky hotel, to give her a tour of the city and the two soon become lovers.
Despite the somber context of the film’s main narrative preoccupations with Iran’s botched 2009 elections, this plot point, I argue, enables the cathexis of an Orientalist drive that is shared by Western audiences: a drive to consummate the desire for the feminized Muslim woman seen to have suffered under the despotic rule of Muslim masculinity. It is this same desire that gets sublimated in a consumption of feminized Muslim suffering which has led to a reductive popular reading of “Inja Kojast” that eclipses the ambivalence of and disparate intentions behind the chanting it documents. In particular, it is through the cries of the narrator’s own female sounding voice that “watching Americans are learning to…re-imagine the people of Iran” as finally available to and eligible for their empathy, attention and yearning.
Fleur du Mal weaves narrative scenes with YouTube footage of Iranian post-election street protests and, in one scene, an image of Neda Agha Soltan’s assassination. Viewed over 1,200,000 times (as of this writing), there has been a wide-scale promotion through documentary films, video diaries, songs and various other imagery of what has been called Neda’s martyrdom for Iran’s “green revolution”. This representation of a feminized Iranian suffering at the hands of an Islamic fundamentalist Iranian masculinity has become a privileged symbol for Iran’s Green Movement outside of Iran. This has enabled an affective attachment to be made which has, quoting Moeller yet again, enabled Americans to “re-imagine the people of Iran.” This time, somewhat counter to Moeller’s claim, it is not only “pictures” that are functioning to transform perceptions of Iranians; sound operates as a critical conduit to an interiority characterized by pain and suffering that has particular appeal.
I argue that the suffering sounds of “Inja Kojast” resonate within what I have elsewhere termed an “aural imaginary” through which Americans and the West “re-imagine[s] the people of Iran.” Through the suffering sounds of an anonymous feminine-sounding voice–reflecting upon and poetically translating the suffering sounds of a nation’s nightly chanting of “Allah-O-Akbar”– a direct link has been made to the feminized victim of Islam.
As US-backed Israeli war-drums are beaten, and as conspiracy theories regarding Iran’s hand in the recent spike in oil prices resuscitate decades-long antagonisms, we must be mindful of the multi-sensorial cooptations of empathetic and affective attachment that have constructed feminized suffering as justification for military intervention and the instrumentalization of sound in support of this. The old Orientalist desire for a feminized opening through which to re-imagine and know the radical other that is Iran has been found through a new gateway: aurality.
Featured Image: “Iran 06” courtesy of Flickr User Chong Head
Roshanak Kheshti is Assistant Professor of Ethnic Studies and affiliate faculty in the Critical Gender Studies Program at the University of California, San Diego. She is currently completing a manuscript entitled “Modernity’s Ear: The Aural Imaginary and the World Music Culture Industry,” which theorizeshow an other to the listening self is racialized and gendered within the world music listening event. She has published in American Quarterly, Feminist Studies, Hypatia and Parallax.