Somebody Is Listening: Music as a Gesture to God of Rest and Repentance
Julian Davis Reid
Julian Davis Reid is an artist-theologian, writer, speaker, and musician who plays as part of the musical outfit The Juju Exchange and is the founder of the contemplative-musical program Notes of Rest.
Baraka showed us that in a world where Black folk were/are routinely denied home, they created a portable one through music. But I took Baraka further: this creation of Black folk for themselves became a home for the nation.
If people were to ignore my analysis and simply listen to the lulling way I played these love songs, they might have heard an uncomplicated invitation to sit back and relax. But because the songs were framed by my analysis of Baraka, I hoped to communicate the tension in Black beauty.
Whether you think the rain was actually from God (I think it was), the gesture towards God was achieving its intended purpose. I did not manufacture the rain, just like the Hebrew slaves did not manufacture salvation.
When God commissions Moses to lead the Hebrew slaves into rest from their enslavement and to exhort Pharaoh to repent from his wickedness, God identifies as YHWH: “I Am That I Am,” or “I Will Be What I Will Be.” The name is ironic, for it conceals as much as it delivers. The name is intrinsically infinite with meaning—what will God be? But the name is also so holy as to never be used directly in Jewish tradition, only gestured towards. Throughout the Old Testament, the writers use circumlocution to reference it, using other names with unique spellings (e.g., Elohim or Adonai) to allude to God’s name. With this self-naming gesture, God and the Spirit-inspired biblical writers leave Moses, the people of Israel, the outsiders of Israel, and us readers with as much an invitation as an assertion.
The drama of the Exodus narrative reaches into today. The anxieties of pharaoh still run us ragged, no matter our political persuasion. We do not rest, nor let others do so, as we erect monuments to ourselves—material wealth, social media follower counts, degrees, and so forth.1 And when our pharaonic ways are confronted, we resist repentance (thus the rarity of a politician’s simple apology). We need an end to our enslavement as much as ancient Egypt and Israel did.
This much may be clear, but what is not clear is the agent of that liberation. Some suggest that in our human capabilities we can save ourselves—be it through voting, education, or even regulation of capitalism. But the story of Exodus resists confining our problems to the immanent frame: Moses is not the ultimate actor, God is. To be sure, I am not advocating for a theocracy. But I am pessimistic that any actions of the state absent attunement to God’s Holy Spirit will solve the perennial issues plaguing and fueling modernity. The biblical imagination, in Exodus and otherwise, shows that faith cannot be ancillary to any human endeavor. We need human activity in participation with God to redress the deep evils of colonial modernity. In giving God’s personal name, God invites Moses, his followers, and now us to contend with the identity of our liberator and our relationship to this God.2 Such contending is what is at stake in any meaningful theological discourse.
The theological discourse we sustain within church contexts does the important and vital work of articulating our relationship to God, but the rise of religious “nones” and the shuttering of church doors indicate that such explicit conversation is of waning interest in the public square. This data is causing us to reassess our tactic. If we as followers of Jesus want the world to know of the God who liberates and saves, how shall we share? The burning bush episode offers an avenue: alongside theological discourse within the church, we can offer winsome witness beyond the steeple that invites people into conversation with I Am That I Am, the God who condescended to free us from our cosmic bondage. That is, we can gesture towards the God of rest and the God of repentance.
This is why I am an artist-theologian. I play and speak to bring listeners—Christian and otherwise—to the edge of their own capacities so that they might stare inwards and upwards and consider the need for help beyond their own capability, to receive a future yet to be. I do this from the deep conviction about the life of the Holy Spirit. As Makoto Fujimura articulates: “[T]he word ‘Christian’ used as a mere label does not mean anything to the Holy Spirit, who hovers near people who authentically, earnestly wrestle with truth, beauty, and goodness.”3 I foster this wrestling through my piano playing, composition, and production. Through these I name the deep restlessness in society, offer balm amidst it, and enjoin us to turn from our pharaonic ways. And as a Black musician, I stand within the rich lineage of using music as a way to signify deeper messages of hope, survival, conviction, and faith as we wait the fullness of God’s salvation.4
What follows are vignettes that sketch the theological discourse I have cultivated beyond church doors. Through my contemplative-musical ministry Notes of Rest and my band The JuJu Exchange, I try to follow the Holy Spirit into the work of holding together gesture, rest, and repentance. My prayer is that as you read my testimony, you will see more of how your life with music can bear its own witness to the God of Exodus who longs to save and be known.5
Notes of Rest at Grace Farms6
My first story comes from my ministry Notes of Rest. Notes of Rest is a spiritual formation ministry grounded in Scripture and Black music that invites members of the body of Christ to receive God’s gift of rest. Typically I offer this experience in churches and seminaries, helping households of faith move from the restlessness of this world towards the restfulness that God has given us in Jesus. However, in March 2022 I had the opportunity to host a session at a humanitarian foundation in Connecticut called Grace Farms that showed God providing rest in a new context.
The evening focused on the theme of home, the research topic for the foundation that year. My good friend Dr. Matthew Croasmun from the Yale Center for Faith and Culture had invited me to craft an experience guided by this thesis: home is where we rest. I centered our conversation on the book Blues People: Negro Music in White America by Amiri Baraka (Leroi Jones), a music and culture critic from the twentieth century. He argues that the failure of Reconstruction in the nineteenth century taught Black folk that an enduring “chasm” stood between them and white folk. Black folk responded to this realization by creating new music grounded in resources “African, subcultural, or hermetic.” Nursing their pain in this way gave rise to Blues People and birthed the genre we know as the blues. This musical response to their enduring subjection became the “logic and beauty” of Black music moving into the twentieth century.7
I made Baraka’s explanation of Black music’s reckoning with Black homelessness the centerpiece for this gathering of hedge fund investors, architects, and academics in New Canaan. Baraka showed us that in a world where Black folk were/are routinely denied home, they created a portable one through music. But I took Baraka further: this creation of Black folk for themselves became a home for the nation. The music became an inviting space where all, regardless of social standing, could come rest. (We see this with how warmly received Stevie, Beyoncé, and Michael are by white as well as Black folk.)
I then analyzed and played famous Black music about home—“A House Is Not a Home,” written by Burt Bacharach and Hal David and sung by Dionne Warwick, and “Home” by Diana Ross from The Wiz. These two Black women address the problem and love of home. Warwick insists that love makes a home, but because she is missing her lover, she mourns that her house is not a home. Her song sounds the pain of loss: “But a room is not a house and a house is not a home, when the two of us are far apart and one of us has a broken heart.”8 This is a loss that is relatable to anyone in love, but a deep kind of loss when read through the eyes of Baraka’s account of Black music.
By contrast, Ross learns by the end of her journey through the remix of The Wizard of Oz that the home she was seeking outside of herself was actually to be found within. “And I’ve learned/That we must look inside our hearts/To find a world full of love/Like yours/Like me/Like home . . .”9 On the surface, this song is simply rejoicing about discovering self-esteem: we can find home in ourselves. But I interpreted this song in light of Baraka’s framing of Blues People because of the pain, strain, and acceptance I heard in Ross’s performance. In the song’s lyrics, Ross is crying out to God, grappling with where to root herself and find home. For the sake of our group at Grace Farms, I interpreted the song as an anthem for Black people living in these lands that we now call the United States. Ross puts it well: “This brand new world might be a fantasy.” The fantasy of a life of being equal to a white person’s in this country was another way to describe Baraka’s chasm. However, Ross’s search in The Wizard of Oz taught her a core lesson for Black people in the midst of this anti-Black world: we can love and find home ourselves, and thus find rest.
If people were to ignore my analysis and simply listen to the lulling way I played these love songs, they might have heard an uncomplicated invitation to sit back and relax. But because the songs were framed by my analysis of Baraka, I hoped to communicate the tension in Black beauty. After I finished playing, I charged the audience to create a different ecology of home, one where we listen more carefully to the questions these Black musicians pose. The participants in that room controlled major economic and political levers in society that give rise to the “Kind of Blue” Black folk experienced daily. Can we have a home not built on the homelessness of Black folk? We can receive these songs for their beauty while mourning their existence in the first place. We can embrace these universal feelings of heartache and displacement while interrogating and resisting the underlying factors that lead to the existence of rhythm ’n blues as a genre. I made this charge to the mostly non-Black crowd in order to invite them to a place of deep wrestling with their own social location, to help them reflect on their participation in the ways of pharaoh and the ways of Israel, for we enslave and are enslaved in the patterns of life that make Blues People. We need help beyond ourselves, from a future that is not yet.
While the participants were discussing my challenge, I played “Give Me Jesus,” the Negro spiritual with which I conclude every Notes of Rest experience. I do so because it speaks to the deepest kind of rest we can have, an inviolable relationship with Jesus that gives our souls rest even when the body is not granted it. If my antebellum southern Black ancestors could fathom singing this kind of song while they endured hell on earth, then soul rest in this way should be possible for anyone! And in the context of the Grace Farms evening, the song spoke to the Blues People’s mentality that post-Reconstruction Black America inherited from pre-Reconstruction Black America.
I did not share my reasoning for playing this song, in part because I knew that the event was not expressly religious. But part of the winsome witness of Black folk is to let music work subversively. This has been known as “signifying” in Black music, where we layer meanings in our expressive culture in order to transcend the limits that the defining power structures impose.10 Though this term was coined for use in the African American embrace of modernism in the twentieth century, its antecedents stretch back far before, including to the spirituals. For instance, James Cone notes that “‘[S]teal away’ referred not only to an eschatological realm, but it was also used by Harriet Tubman as a signal of freedom for slaves who intended to run away with her to the north, or to Canada.”11 And so even though I could not preach plainly about the significance of “Give Me Jesus,” I played it in order to gesture to the liberating God who took on flesh, died at the hands of our pharaonic ways, and rose over them. The call to repentance always stands within the assurance of grace.
Two remarks after the event showed me that people experienced Notes of Rest as theological conversation. Right after the event ended, someone came up to me and told me she had sensed Jesus during my session. This remark delighted yet mystified me, because I had eschewed explicit mention of religion throughout. Perhaps she had recognized “Give Me Jesus” or perhaps she had sensed my ministerial presence. I am not sure why, but I got the sense in the moment that it was not for me to know. All I needed to know was that someone was receiving the gestures I was making towards God.
The other comment came during the dinner afterwards. Various participants got up and publicly thanked me for my program. But one of the architects gave a different remark. He thanked me but then said that the event writ large and the questions raised had left him feeling unsettled in a good way; he was going to have to sit with them. I remember how red his face was as he shared about his unsettled spirit.
That night showed that engaging the complexities of addressing anti-Black modernity brings us to the edge of our own human capacity. Anti-Blackness is so difficult to root out because forms of response to it, like beautiful music, become so desirable, which can make Black pain palatable. “A House Is Not a Home” and “Home” are beautiful expressions of a resilient Black expressive culture, but they have a trace of sadness in them that belies the ethos of Blues People that Baraka outlined. To truly listen to this Black music, therefore, is to listen for the call to action associated with it. When we listen to the blues (Warwick), or to songs of triumph (Ross), we should hear our own responsibility in there. How are we responsible for the conditions that led to the creation of that song? This is a question that gestures us towards repentance, repentance we need to embrace in our church and nation.
Too often Black music is ghettoized as offering mere entertainment, uplift, or respite. While it does provide those, it also has the capacity to offer conviction if the audience dare wrestle with its truth, beauty, and goodness. Notes of Rest at Grace Farms was a space for me to be a musical vessel for the Holy Spirit to engage people in that good wrestling. And my work with The JuJu Exchange did the same.
The JuJu Exchange’s Price of Peace12
In 2018, I led my jazz-electronic fusion group, The JuJu Exchange, in creating an oratorio for peace in Chicago. Every December the orchestra Fulcrum Point New Music, led by Stephen Burns, gives a concert for peace in the city, and for their twentieth anniversary they commissioned us to write an oratorio for them in partnership with the Chicago Children’s Choir and Young Chicago Authors. It was a welcomed chance to provide a vision of hope for the city during the holiday season.
Though it was an honor, I approached the task with some trepidation given my Blues People disposition. Large multiethnic/multiracial musical productions run the risk of presenting facile hope, of ignoring the reality that we live in the wake of the slave ship—that is, in the wake of the gun, the wake of a funeral home. As Christina Sharpe says, “The past is not yet past.”13 Moreover, not only does there remain a chasm between Black and white that sentimentality does not address (Baraka), but these productions can reproduce the chasm by calling for superficial change that does not interrogate the ever-malleable roots of whiteness. I did not want to present to a largely white audience a feel-good production that suggested we can be the Moses of our own deliverance. I believe that only God can save us from the wake of the slave ship. And to turn towards God is to repent.
And so, like at Grace Farms, I wanted to ask introspective questions of the audience about the limits of our genuine commitment to move towards peace. And because I believed that the only one who could ultimately bring peace was Jesus, I titled the oratorio Price of Peace, a play on the cost paid for peace and Isaiah’s prophetic language about the Messiah: “Prince of Peace” (9:6). The questions and the music together would be a gesture towards God, an allusion towards the kind of theological discourse that, for me, matters most.
Price of Peace is an oratorio about the history of Chicago, comprised of three movements with a Greek chorus a cappella moment for the Chicago Children’s Choir following each one. The first movement mourns the removal of the peoples that once occupied the place we now call Chicago,14 including the Ojibwe, Odawa, and Potawatomi.15 That piece was a somber ballad called “What Loss.” Following that, the children’s choir sang their first set of questions to the audience.
For peace to come, who had to pay?
For peace to come, what was the price?
For peace to come, who did they lay down?
For peace to come, what was sacrificed?
The purpose was to get the people to think about the hidden costs paid for Chicago to become a city.
Following that came the second movement called “Streets of Division,” which was about the contestation for the city throughout the 1900s. During the first half of the twentieth century especially, there was a collision of immigrants, migrants, and refugees meeting in the Windy City as they negotiated who lived where.16 The lyrics and shape of “Streets” therefore sounded the young peoples’ dissatisfaction with having inherited the evils of segregation from generations past.
The Greek chorus moment after “Streets of Division” was about the personal responsibility for which the audience must account for peace to come.
For peace to come, what should I pay?
For peace to come, how high’s my price?
For peace to come, what must I lay down?
For peace to come, what’s sacrificed?
These questions presumed that there was need for personal repentance in order to address the issues plaguing our city. If the first movement underscored the importance of remembering a past of death we have inherited, this second movement underscored the importance of a call to turn from the wicked ways for which we as individuals are responsible.
The third piece is called “Live Here” and centers on twenty-first-century Chicago. It takes the melody of lament from “What Loss” and speeds it up, suggesting that any vision of hope the city might have for the future must enfold ongoing lament for the “past that is not yet past.” Even still, the audience was so happy to clap as that last E-flat Major 7 rang out. However, their clapping had to decrescendo quicker than normal because the singers had one more set of questions.
For peace to come, what should we pay?
For peace to come, who sets the price?
For peace to come, what can’t we lay down?
For peace to come, what’s sacrificed?
As the vocalists walked offstage singing the refrain “For peace to come,” the congregation picked up the line and kept singing it well after the house went dark. I had never seen anything like this at a show. This last chorus invited the audience to account for our collective history. To end the piece with the question about what we are and are not willing to forego in order to pursue peace allows us to grapple with our limits. Will the Chicagoans who can afford a show like Price of Peace actually give up comforts and excesses in order to redress the quotidian and spectacular violence its Black residents experience daily? What would such a reckoning actually mean for those in comfort in the wealthy, “safe” parts of the city?
The oratorio gestured towards the gospel without ever announcing it. The music was preparing the hearts of listeners to interrogate their own souls to see what the limits of their capacity to pursue peace are. Pharaoh would not relinquish power without a fight, and ultimately had to confront the God of Israel in order to repent. Similarly, I maintain that the state on its own cannot engender the love necessary to address the horrors of anti-Black and anti-Indigenous death that underpin modernity. But by encouraging the audience to wrestle with the truth of our motives and our comforts, it draws people to contemplate the price of peace. And my hope is that it can make space for the Holy Spirit to encounter people who recognize they are sinners. It reminds me of the Prince of Peace’s question to the blind man in John: “Do you want to be made well?” (5:6).
Out in the lobby afterwards, my public relations colleague on the project approached me and took a picture of me, saying that she wanted to document this moment. I was confused and asked why, and her response was that she wanted to document the start of my ministry. I was thankful for that moment but again remained curious as to why she read the night as such, given I had never explicitly framed this as ministry. Of course, I had my private theological framework for the event, but it was never made explicit to the working team during the creation of this piece. In retrospect, her comment confirmed for me the power of gesture, to let music move people to a place of holy wrestling with the sins of our past and present. I am prayerful such wrestling can help my city look towards the future with sober hope.
Look into the Sky17
The third vignette comes from a project four years later, also in partnership with the Chicago Children’s Choir (led by the great Josephine Lee and now known as Uniting Voices Chicago). In this case I had the honor of co-creating a piece about environmental justice with my dear colleague and Chicago Children’s Choir’s Ayanna Woods, who was able to feature The JuJu Exchange for the premiere performance.
The piece provided a platform for the young people to voice their feelings about the degradation they were inheriting and about the possibilities for a different kind of future. In short, it was a chance to encourage citywide repentance for the ways we do not let the earth, and thus vulnerable human populations such as children, rest. Ayanna and I held listening sessions with the young people where we helped them drum up ideas about the earth, and then we wrote this piece based on key themes the young people gave us, such as “My innocence is lost” and “Look into the sky,” the latter of which became the title.
We premiered the piece in an outdoor pavilion in downtown Chicago in May as part of the choir’s year-end gala. The day was overcast, and we were worried about the rain. But thankfully, the weather held through most of our show.
As we neared the end of the piece, we settled on the words of the title, “Look into the sky.” It was a charge and invitation to the audience. If we look into the sky, we see both air pollution and beautiful clouds, both reason for fear and reason for hope. For me, this phrase (and the song writ large) was a gesture toward the heavens, or as the Hebrew imagination framed it, “the waters above” (hashamayim in Gen. 1:1). I hoped the gesture would communicate a posture of faith where, like in Price of Peace, we realized our own limitations and sought help from beyond ourselves.
But God had more than that for us. As the choir began singing “Look into the sky,” the skies opened up and it began to rain. And when the song ended, so did the rain! The synchronicity was so noticeable that someone in the crew came up to me afterwards and said: “I’m not religious, but somebody was listening.”
Whether you think the rain was actually from God (I think it was), the gesture towards God was achieving its intended purpose. I did not manufacture the rain, just like the Hebrew slaves did not manufacture salvation. Though the contexts were different, the coming of the rain that day brought visions of the parting of the Red Sea. Both point to the I Am, to the presence of a God who is near and gracious, who hears our cries in our lands of captivity and bids us follow.
These three vignettes encourage me to continue creating space for theological discourse with my music in and beyond the church. Let us use music as a means to communicate God’s nearness and conviction to a world that needs grace and mercy as much as ever before. As you discern the shape of your own winsome witness, be encouraged that somebody is indeed listening.
1. Walter Brueggemann, Sabbath as Resistance: Saying No to the Culture of Now (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2014), 19.
2. R. Kendall Soulen, The Divine Name(s) and the Holy Trinity, vol. 1 (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011), 13.
3. Makoto Fujimura, Art and Faith: A Theology of Making (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2021), 34–35.
4. Samuel A. Floyd, The Power of Black Music: Interpreting Its History from Africa to the United States (New York: Oxford University Press, 1995), 33.
5. This language comes from the work of Theological Education between the Times, a project around the future of theological education led by Dr. Ted Smith and housed at Candler School of Theology at Emory. I am thankful to be one of its fellows.
6. This event was not recorded, but here’s a solo piano performance version of music from Notes of Rest. “Give Me Jesus” is at the end: https://youtu.be/MYCKGmf5bLM/.
7. Leroi Jones (Amiri Baraka), Blues People: Negro Music in White America (New York: Harper Perennial, 1999), 80.
8. Dionne Warwick, vocalist, “A House Is Not a Home,” Make Way for Dionne Warwick, Scepter, 1964.
9. Diana Ross, vocalist, “Home,” The Wiz, 1978.
10. Floyd, The Power of Black Music, 91–99.
11. James H. Cone, For My People: Black Theology and the Black Church (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1984), 63.
12. This performance is not yet recorded as of the publishing of this article, but here’s an instrumental version of it: https://youtu.be/ozL7mPFf5ck?t=1005/.
13. Christina Sharpe, In the Wake: On Blackness and Being, reprint ed. (Durham: Duke University Press Books, 2016), 9–21.
14. Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States (Boston: Beacon Press, 2014), 110–11.
15. Tara Kenjockety, “Indigenous Tribes of Chicago,” American Library Association, December 2, 2019, https://www.ala.org/aboutala/offices/diversity/chicago-indigenous.
16. The South Side by Natalie Moore describes in harrowing detail how Black segregated life emerged on the South Side. Natalie Y. Moore, The South Side: A Portrait of Chicago and American Segregation (New York: St. Martin’s Publishing Group, 2016).
17. You can view the performance here: https://www.instagram.com/p/CeB_FBCJ-LK/.