Congolese Gospel, God, and Me

In God, Season 2 by Adele Luks

Before tarot, before astrology, before therapy, music was the only medium I found solace in.

Growing up as the oldest in a family of six, it quickly became clear that I had little space truly reserved for myself. When I needed to pour everything I was holding onto, I’d rely on my diaries. But those weren’t a comfort as much as they were a confessional— a physical manifestation of my thoughts, feelings and troubles. When things were tough and I was near bursting, I’d turn to writing, but when I couldn’t find the words or energy to lift a pen, music was my only haven. I’d burrow deeply into my bed under my comforter and listen to whatever I had saved to my MP3 until I fell asleep.

I’ve always really connected with music and was always on the lookout for more tunes and artists that fit my various moods but I’d never felt genuinely seen through music until 2016 when Solange’s A Seat at the Table was released.

Initially coming into that album, I have to be honest— I was not a fan of it at all. It was slow, the type of music typical of a contemporary dance routine I’d see on So You Think You Can Dance. I’d never really listened to Solange beforehand so I was truly thrown off. But I was tasked to write a review for a teen-led online zine I belonged to and after listening and relistening to it, this album awakened something in me. 

I was in my senior year of high school and was drifting apart from my group of friends due to my issues with vulnerability, my polarizing opinions and politics, and other factors outside of my control. At the time, I mainly had friends of colour, a few white and queer friends but no one who was both. I was coming into myself as a bisexual Black girl in an environment where I was the only one I knew living at the intersection of those identities.

And I was exhausted. These were the years when Black Lives Matter had started to gain traction and I was trying to figure out how to educate myself and speak on the toll of whiteness and anti-Blackness all while experiencing it. I was tired of feeling like the token Black activist when I was nothing of the sort— I was just a kid with an Instagram account who was swept into the wave of social media activism. 

After the third or fourth listen of A Seat at the Table, something in me began to stir. I was “weary of the ways of the world.” I hadn’t realized the way my body tensed when we spoke of racism in my English class or the defensiveness that felt stuck in my throat as I, the lone Black person alongside my non-Black friends, went class-to-class explaining to white teachers the history and realities of anti-Blackness. I hadn’t realized I wasn’t alone in these experiences.

In my review for this album, the ending portrayed an allusion to how the album was a meal for Black folks to feast on, and feast I did. I came for seconds, thirds, and even saved some leftovers for later. I had spent my entire life neglecting a large part of my identity and was met with defensive comments or silence, my words swept under the rug as others continued their conversations. So hearing Solange— a woman 13 years my senior, a Knowles sister, an irrefutable star— talk about the weight of the world on her shoulders, about being mad, about not wanting people to touch her hair? Not only was it unbelievably validating, but it also was the beginning of a spiritual journey I hadn’t even realized I needed or desired.

My mom taught me the importance of music when I was young, teaching me that there was no prayer more powerful than through song. But growing older proved time and time again that despite my love for music, it did not extend itself to God. 

The thing about my mother and music is that once she connects to songs, they never leave our household. Her music was constantly on rotation, whether you liked it or not. It’s the reason why I know artists like Makoma, Louange Plus, and Marie Misamu from the lyrics down to their musical arrangements, despite not being able to (confidently) speak a lick of Lingala. From the endless burned CDs wedged between my mom’s car seats to the nearly all-Congolese lineup of our Smart TV’s Youtube suggestions, not only was it my childhood, but it was also a haven amidst the messiness of day-to-day life. No matter what was happening, I could count on those familiar organ-based gospel chords or the flashy Y2K Britney-esque type pop-produced songs on the way back from my swimming lessons at the YMCA or the first thing heard on a Saturday morning. I never learned to reach the tones or notes those singers did, nor did I feel closer to God, but I did sing my heart out each and every time those songs came on.

While my mom filled her quiet moments with Henri Papa Mulaja and Audit Kabangu tracks back to back on weekends, I began to block it out with the sounds of my favourites like Wet’s Still Run album, the discographies of Paramore, Jamila Woods and respectfulchild’s 在找 :​:​searching​:​:. I learned there was more to connect to than allusions to Jesus and his father, that I could find songs about friendship, loneliness, depression, and more that hit just the same, or even more, than the songs I grew up on. The way I clung to these artists, similar to how my mom clung to her gospel music, was a testament that certain music was more than a coping mechanism; it was one of many keys to my wellbeing.

In the summer of 2020, my mother became obsessed with Psalms 22; a Bible verse turned song. She’d spend her days randomly humming to herself or singing at the top of her lungs, “le seigneur est mon berger / je ne manque de rien,” even going so far as to get me and my siblings to sing it before prayer at night. At first, I resisted singing the words. It was more than just giving in to my mother’s religious pressure; the words just felt unnatural in my mouth. Why sing praise if you don’t believe in the words you’re singing?

But I can’t help but see the parallels between her attachment to the song and the ways I’ve been hooked to People, I’ve Been Sad and Lonely these past few months. There’s power in words written in song and my mom recognized it, she lived and breathed it, but this lesson hadn’t taken root in the way my mom expected. 

Whereas I could sing my heart out to Makoma, which I had memorized by the ripe age of three, but I didn’t connect to it. But now, it’s easier to accept my mom’s almost unchangeable music library despite it annoying me.  Because when I’m away from home, in my bedroom, in the kitchen, in the shower, I bring my speakers with me to blast whatever album resonates that day. And I don’t care how loud it is or how often I repeat certain songs. They’re inextricably linked to me now, and I don’t plan on denying that truth any longer.

In the words of cultural studies writer Nadesha Gayle’s mother, from her piece Black Women’s Experiences of Spirituality as a Form of Resistance and Activism, spirituality is a “living thing that flows through us like water that nourishes our cells and sustains our body; separating spirituality from ourselves and our work is like denying the body of air, water and food that keeps us alive.”

Spirituality for Black folks today is more than churches, mosques, and synagogues— it’s a revival. Spirituality kept our ancestors alive, so what better way to grow and heal than by building on their traditions and other spiritual practices and seeing what works for us.

The slow but sure awakening of Black folks to spirituality is why there’s an emergence of Black astrologists, tarot readers, and other energy practitioners, why Black Lives Matter has prioritized healing justice, why Black folks are tapping into ancestral practices like Santeria and Hoodoo. In an era where the violent nature of anti-Blackness is inescapable, Black folks like me are discovering various ways to find and connect to something bigger than themselves, to heal outside of normative religious practices.

As bell hooks explained in her opening chapter of Sisters of the Yam, for Black people, “choosing ‘wellness’ is an act of political resistance.“ 

So often, I‘m plagued with feelings of unworthiness, and despite knowing that oppression such as misogyny and anti-Blackness impact my sense of self, it’s hard to believe it. Still, one medium through which I am incapable of forgetting my own emotions is music. 

When I feel too overwhelmed and confused to do anything, it’s easy to pick up my phone and play whatever song that connects to me the most and just sit with it. It’s why, after a fight with friends, I turned to audacious tracks like Solange’s Mad, Jamila Woods’ GIOVANNI, and Rina Sawayama’s Take Me As I Am to fuel me. I was asserting myself as a Black woman and needed to be affirmed, needed to drown out the voice of doubt in my head and build up my confidence. And when my father passed, when I couldn’t find the words to explain the waves of confusion and numbness I felt now and again, I turned to Ryan Beatty’s Shimmer and sang to a father I knew couldn’t sing back to me. 

I’m a writer by necessity. After years of only expressing myself in my diary, lined paper and ink simply isn’t enough. It’s exhausting to always have to find the words yourself, to have all your feelings on a page but feel unsatisfied with how they’re expressed. So it’s nice just to sit, to breathe, to shape the words of another and reflect as I whisper or shout lyrics seemingly written for me, or written to me.

When I had nothing else, music was my spiritual practice. It has represented healing and now represents the endless possibilities and paths for healing and wellness in my future.

I’ve listened to A Seat at the Table countless times, and yet I never understood what Master P meant when he said, “the glory is in you.” 

But through music, through therapy, through the help of works of Black writers and energy workers, through my discovery of tarot cards and broadening of spirituality, I feel that I’m finally beginning to.