I hadn’t heard of Mali Music before the Gospel Music Channel started incessantly airing Deitrick Haddon’s debut feature film, Blessed and Cursed, which I LOVE for reasons that could probably fill a whole other post. Another day. But yeah, Mali Music played Deitrick’s cohort who “backslides” because he experiences a betrayal as a member of Deitrick’s choir. He then becomes instrumental in setting Deitrick’s character up, inviting him to a club where he encourages him to get completely smashed, while someone tapes the whole drunken mess and takes it back to the Bishop who employed him as a worship leader.
Mali Music doesn’t have very many lines. His most memorable one is something along the lines of, “I’m sick of church. I’m sick of gospel. I’m sick of Bishop. I’m done.”
While I’ve never been there, I understand.
My mother’s marriage fell apart while she and my stepfather were serving as part of our church leadership staff. At the time, I was writing and performing a lot of Christian spoken word—this was before it was en vogue; it was almost unheard of back then, in 1999 and 2000. Arts ministries are relatively new and while drama and liturgical dance were in full bloom, poetry was just becoming a viable ministry medium.
So our family was high profile at our local assembly. My parents were well-liked, sought after, even, when congregants had problems they wanted discussed with discretion, compassion, and respect. And I was kind of this retreating enigma–as soon as church dismissed, I tended to duck out to the car and hide while my parents spent an hour or more post-church-socializing–until I was behind a microphone on the pulpit, rapid-fire reciting admonitions and observations about the crumbling state of the church. (It was your typical fare: get right, we’re too judgmental, be who God made you, don’t conform… but it was delivered so quickly no one caught that it was kind of critical.)
I got a lot of, “When you gon’ write me a poem?” and a lot of requests for performances–at weddings, children’s birthday parties, and funerals. I even did a housewarming once. I felt defined by what people called My Gift, as though I wasn’t much more to anyone than a performer–and a niche one at that, only marketed to church groups and youth conferences.
So I stopped.
My parents left our church. A year or so later, they broke up altogether. I felt like I couldn’t discuss that with anyone at church—it would’ve been a betrayal to my parents, who were still held in high regard by the congregants—but it was a really difficult time for me. Their whole 11-year marriage had been a difficult time for me. And though I enjoyed church–the hallowed way I felt upon entering, the utterly cleansed way I felt walking out, the warm embraces of people who didn’t know my secrets and didn’t need to, to be warm and welcoming–I was always quietly recoiling from it.
I didn’t belong. Anyone who attended church with me, at any point in my life, would disagree. I was a model church member. I dutifully turned to scriptures, took copious notes, highlighted key verses. I raised my hand to answer biblical questions in youth group. I performed at church block parties and washed cars to raise money for the building fund. I passed out bag lunches and Chick tracts to the community. I told strangers that Jesus loved them. I made my all my decisions, particularly those related to private and public conduct, with the very earnest belief that I was being constantly surveilled—by Christ, a nearby congregant, or both.
And these things did give me great joy. I loved everyone I prayed and worked and believed alongside.
But I never felt like I was one of them. My mind was always somewhere else, concocting stories. Writing about “secular things.” I didn’t have much interest in only being a Christian poet or a Christian novelist or a Christian anything. I tried it, making sure that all my stories had a wayward, tortured soul who had a conversion experience by narrative’s end and all my poems referenced scriptures and the Savior. But that felt false somehow–or if not false, then certainly forced. I wanted to use the gifts and talents God knew I’d have when He created me, in any way I saw fit. I didn’t feel a responsibility to contain them, so that they were only functional within a Youth Sunday or special service context.
I just wanted to be a citizen of the world, a writer, a wanderer. I wanted to be like Jesus: everywhere and ever speaking in parables.
But how do you explain that without sounding like a heretic?
But back to Mali Music. I was struck by his character’s frustration in Blessed and Cursed. It stemmed, as a lot of frustration does, from being misunderstood, from being treated with distrust when your intentions are noble. And his response to that frustration was, like mine, the wrong one.
I don’t know much about this artist yet. Sunday, he appeared on the BET Awards, in one of its Music Matters segments. In a post-awards interview, some artist who performed on Music Matters last year, said of Mali Music, whose name he didn’t remember, “His performance gave me chills.” It was unclear whether or not he knew that Mali Music was a Christian artist; it seemed that he didn’t. But he was moved, repeating that phrase twice: “gave me chills,” in a tone that suggested that he didn’t understand how it had happened.
I was on Twitter when he performed, and my timeline had a similar response: “Googling Mali Music.” and “I didn’t know this cat was gospel. He’s not wack.”
I began to feel about him the way I feel about anyone I encounter these days who has cracked the code, who’s found a way to be like Jesus–a citizen of the world, a philosopher/artist/thinker, a wanderer–everywhere and ever speaking in parables–without being confined or cast out.
I think, “Good for him.” I think, “That could be me.”
This morning, I found a song of his from two years ago: “Foolish.” It’s part of a project I didn’t know existed, called Gumbo Red. And the lyrics convey that resonant frustration, this idea that people have to be who we expect them to be in order to be ministerial or even Christian: seminary graduates, skilled musicians, scripture memorizers. The through-line is that God uses the foolish things of the world to confound the wise, which is a scripture oft-misinterpreted, if you ask me. Sometimes, people just trot this verse out when they want to use an Isley Brothers sample in a gospel song.
But this song seems to get the scripture right–at least as I understand it. Sometimes the role of art in the Great Commission is just to leave someone feeling moved, without expressly stating why you’re able to do it. This seems to be something Mali Music understands.
There’s another piece to this, involving the Holy Hip-Hop Movement that got its start a few years before I started reading poetry at church and how Mali Music definitely seems to exist within the
confines context of that movement, even as his work seems to transcend it. But again: different post, different day.