Carlton Turner illustrates how Caribbean hymnody and music have become both a mode of healing and a critique of oppression and injustice.

Let me put this scenario to you. Imagine for a moment that your region and your nation were historical accidents. They were always meant to be places where labour was hard and rights were few, particularly for you. Violence shaped everything about your life. The religion that taught you about God and God’s ways in the world only reinforced the idea that you were born to be justifiably punished, brutalized, criminalized, and vilified. This violence has been so endemic that it spills out on the streets, always, and everywhere. Imagine, also, that you have had no power to challenge the status quo, except with your voice, your music, and your creativity. 

If you can grasp this, then you are somehow close to understanding the African Caribbean context where this scenario is not imagination, but reality. The region called the Americas that Christopher Columbus encountered in 1492 has persistently been plagued by violence. The sub-region of the Americas where he first landed, what we now called the Caribbean, was the first to have its indigenous peoples enslaved and then exterminated through forced labour and disease. These were exploits motivated by European imperial expansions into new territories with a dual purpose – the conquest of land and wealth, and the evangelization and civilisation of non-European people.  

Modern day Caribbean people continue to wrestle with these two realities. With the large shaping force of African enslavement in the British empire, and the continued process of colonization, contemporary African Caribbean Christianity still negotiates societal norms and Christian theological hermeneutics steeped in empire and Black oppression. What makes this most insidious is that it is deeply internalized. So much so that one of Bob Marley’s most famous songs insists: “Emancipate yourself from mental slavery; none but ourselves can free our minds!”1 

This brings us to the point of this post. There is, nonetheless, within the African Caribbean psyche, a particular way of navigating these deep realities. Hymnody, or the hymnic and lyrical traditions of the region have always been ways of critiquing oppression while simultaneously creating healing spaces of affirmation for the oppressed. In my most recent book, Caribbean Contextual Theology: An Introduction, I argue this point.2 In agreement with Caribbean theologian George Mulrain, we insist that the region’s musical genres such as Calypso are the voice of God and the vehicle for articulating theologies that are rooted in the concrete lives and desires of the people.3 Furthermore, looking into the popular music scene of the region there can be no sharp distinction between popular and religious music. One might easily mistake the violence in the music of dancehall, for example, as too explicitly and sexualized.4 However, on closer observance, there is more to uncover. Carolyn Cooper states:  

sex and violence, however primal, are not the only preoccupations of Jamaican dancehall culture. There is a powerful current of explicitly political lyrics that articulate the struggle of the celebrants in the dance to reclaim their humanity in circumstances of grave economic hardship that force the animal out of its lair. Indeed, Jamaican dancehall culture celebrates the dance as a mode of theatrical self-disclosure in which the body speaks eloquently of its capacity to endure and transcend material deprivation.5 

She does not leave it there. She also reminds us that much of what is articulated is an exposure or critique of the kinds of Christian discourses existing within the society. In analysing the work of Lady Saw (a famous Jamaican female dancehall artist) she notes: ‘The flamboyantly exhibitionist DJ Lady Saw epitomizes the sexual liberation of many African-Jamaican working-class women from airy-fairy Judeo-Christian definitions of appropriate female behaviour.’6 

Perhaps Bob Marley’s music is an even better example for us. Cooper also does an analysis of Marley’s musical output. She notes that Marley uses ‘biblical allusion, Rastafarian symbolism, proverbs, riddle, aphorism and metaphor’ in his artistry.7 He employs a range of melodic, liturgical, poetic, and literary devices all steeped within his African Jamaican cultural heritages. He is prolific with his use of the Psalms and other parts of the Hebrew Bible, or his allusions to ‘Babylon’, or the deep desire for ‘Redemption’, across his music. For Cooper, ‘Bob Marley’s chant against Babylon is both medium and message’, Babylon is described as, ‘the oppressive State, the formal social and political institutions of Anglo/American imperialism.’8 Concerning ‘Redemption’, the theme in iconic songs such as Exodus, and Redemption Song, Cooper states:  

The religious and commercial resonances of ‘redemption’ suggest both divine grace and the practical justice of freeing a slave by the payment of ransom money. Liberation becomes much more than the freeing from physical chains, for true freedom cannot be given; it has to be appropriated. Authenticity comes with the slave’s reassertion of the right to self-determination. Emancipation from ‘mental slavery’ thus means liberation from passivity – the instinctive posture of automatic subservience that continues to cripple the neo-colonized.9 

What we find in African Caribbean musical traditions, which always blur the line between sacred and secular, is a deep critique of colonial violence and anti-Africanness, but also a healing and affirming space for the African oppressed. To borrow the terminology from Walter Brueggemann, I understand Bob Marley as igniting a ‘prophetic imagination’, one that functions to both criticise dominant and oppressive culture, but also energise the oppressed.10 In this regard, what we are talking about are deeply healing theological devices, employed by people who know trauma only too well.   

The Revd Dr Carlton Turner, a native of the Bahamas and an Anglican priest, is a Caribbean Contextual and Practical theologian working as a tutor in Contextual Theology and Mission Studies, and as Deputy Director of Research at the Queen’s Foundation, Birmingham. He is the author of Caribbean Contextual Theology: An Introduction (SCM 2024) and Overcoming Self-Negation: The Church and Junkanoo in Contemporary Bahamian Society (Wipf & Stock, 2020). 

[1] Bob Marley, Redemption Songs.
[2] Carlton Turner, Caribbean Contextual Theology: An Introduction (London: SCM Press, 2024).
[3] See for example, George Mulrain, “The Music of the African Caribbean,” Black Theology: An International Journal 1, no. 1 (1998). George Mulrain, “Is There a Calypso Exegesis?,” in Voices From the Margin: Interpreting the Bible in the Third World, ed. R. S. Sugirtharajah (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1995).
[4] Dancehall is a contemporary Jamaican musical form known for its explicit lyrics, ostentation, and dance styles, not only at home but also in the diaspora. It, like Reggae, has become a global phenomenon.
[5] Carolyn Cooper, “Sweet & Sour Sauce: Sexual Politics in Jamaican Dancehall Culture” (The Sixth Jagan Lecture, 2005, York University, ON Canada, CERLAC, November 2007 2005).
[6] Cooper, “Short Sweet & Sour Sauce: Sexual Politics in Jamaican Dancehall Culture.” 3.
[7] Carolyn Cooper, Noises in the Blood: Orality, Gender, and the “Vulgar” Body of Jamaican Popular Culture, 1st U.S. ed. (Durham: Duke University Press, 1995), 118.
[8] Cooper, Noises in the Blood, 121.
[9] Cooper, Noises in the Blood, 124.
[10] Walter Brueggemann, The Prophetic Imagination, Second ed. (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2001).

Works Cited.  
Brueggemann, Walter. The Prophetic Imagination. Second ed. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2001. 
Cooper, Carolyn. Noises in the Blood: Orality, Gender, and the “Vulgar” Body of Jamaican Popular Culture. 1st U.S. ed. Durham: Duke University Press, 1995. 
———. “Sweet & Sour Sauce: Sexual Politics in Jamaican Dancehall Culture.” The Sixth Jagan Lecture, 2005, York University, ON Canada, CERLAC, November 2007 2005. 
Mulrain, George. “Is There a Calypso Exegesis?”. Chap. 2 In Voices from the Margin: Interpreting the Bible in the Third World, edited by R. S. Sugirtharajah, 37 – 47. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1995. 
———. “The Music of the African Caribbean.” Black Theology: An International Journal 1, no. 1 (1998): 35 – 45. 
Turner, Carlton. Caribbean Contextual Theology: An Introduction. London: SCM Press, 2024. 

As with all guest blogs, the views expressed in this blog post may not represent the views of the CSBV.

Hostility, Healing, and Hymnody in the African Caribbean
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