Last July, Chance the Rapper headlined Pitchfork Music Festival in Chicago. It was a coronation of sorts, the hometown hero making good. In three short years, Chance had gone from favored child of the city’s thriving independent hip-hop scene to a major festival headliner, all on the strength of two free mixtapes and a collaborative album with his influence all over it.
Toward the end of the night, Chance announced that he had a special guest. He had been teasing one all weekend, with a consensus among fans pointing to Kanye West. Instead, as Chance’s backup vocalists, newly clad in white robes, began to sing “Rain! Rain! Rain!,” out jumped a diminutive man in a tight shirt and beige pants from the wings of the stage. It was Kirk Franklin, gospel superstar, and composer of “Melodies From Heaven,” the song the backup singers were belting out with full force.
The Pitchfork audience, largely white and secular, didn’t quite know how to react, as Franklin, winner of seven Grammys, with a fanbase that stretches from Houston to Lagos, began to command the audience to wave their hands, in his signature gruff baritone. He helped Chance lead a stirring rendition of “Sunday Candy,” the standout track from last year’s Surf and an ode to Chance’s churchgoing grandmother. It was a surreal moment, a profound mingling of the sacred and the secular.
The number of Americans who identify as Christians has declined (down from 78% in 2007 to 71% in 2014, according to this expansive Pew Research Center survey). The demographic driving the decline? People between the ages of 18 and 35, also known as millennials. These are folks who left the church, often for valid reasons, disenchanted with the hypocrisy, the condemnation, the guilt. They’re the “nones.” But while all Christian denominations have seen some decline, black Protestant churches have seen the least percentage drop among millennials. Black Americans, generally, are much more religious than the larger population. It’s a fact that perhaps explains the recent deluge of overtly spiritual, and specifically Christian music — from D’Angelo’s Black Messiah to Kendrick’s To Pimp a Butterfly — music that speaks to and is precipitated by the recent spate of highly publicized acts of state violence against black people. In a time when justice is nonexistent, black artists, as they’ve done before, call upon a salvation that this Earth cannot give us.
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