Chance The Rapper’s Religious Themes Transcend Theism
WORDS: VANESSA TAYLOR | ART: FAYE ORLOVE
Chance was introduced to me when my life held the illusion of togetherness; after my first arrest, but before the second, and the third, and the fourth.My name was still plastered across the Dean’s list. I hadn’t yet quit my job for a movement that’d make it impossible to hold down another. It was before I was homeless again, sprawling across my couch, that my friend turned on what he said was his favorite album. “Good Ass Intro” blaring through my speakers sounded like early Spring; there’s hope for warmer times but you’re still trudging through mud and slush while the wind bites at your back. It was like early marches where I had existed only as a participant, pulled along by the fervent energy the crowds provided while being allowed to shrug it off at the route’s end. The confident assurances that Chance was good, better than good, better than he was, caught my attention. In part, he was referencing his growth since his original mixtape, 10 Day, but I related to the frantic pace of his affirmations. It reminded me of nights standing in front of mirrors, biting my nails until they bled while assuring myself I was okay. Throughout the entirety of Acid Rap, Chance spoke explicitly about murder, drugs, and demons with an energy bordering on discord. The mix of emotions with an underlying current of a newly perfected facade helped me relate to Chance’s work, reminding me of the downward spiral my mind had been engaged in since my introduction to protests.
Belief in heaven and a higher power is often dismissed as a trick coaxing people into accepting their oppression.There is a romanticism of activism that thrives. People idolize stories of revolutionaries, like Malcolm X and Assata Shakur, without bothering to consider what happens to the psyche of someone invested in violence and death. I watched the blood of a man get washed off the streets and felt parts of myself systematically shutting down as people crept out of their apartments, whispering, “I saw it. I saw him die.” I climbed fences and scrambled up embankments to shut down highways with November winds biting at my face that I could not feel. I shut down a precinct and navigated an occupation while folding parts of myself away to shoulder the burdens of an entire diaspora. I internalized every Black death and began to be unable to picture us outside of rot. The toxicity of those months manifested in bitten comments and isolation before transforming into a two-month long illness. “It’s been a long time, long time now/ since I’ve seen you smile,” played on repeat while I got ready for another night out, stifling hacking coughs in my hands. It was after the occupation; my room smelled like campfires and mace. I’d been going out every night for the past month. “It sounds like you’re giving birth through your mouth,” a friend said at a rave beneath a doughnut shop, surrounded by writhing, offbeat white bodies and I had loudly questioned my life through coughing fits. Because I’d never been one to broadcast my emotions, my friends’ attempts at comfort and delicate confrontation made me freeze uncomfortably. “Don’t answer about your problems/ your issues or your Ashleys” captured my attitude towards the direction life had taken and the toxic relationships I’d begun to invest in. Eventually, I was cornered at an event by friends and told if they saw me out or working, they’d beat my ass. Activism had called for me to internalize systemic failures, taking accountability for actions that weren’t mine, and in the forced solitude following their confrontation, I realized I needed faith in life beyond my control.
When you take away a people’s means to cope, without offering an alternative, what do you subject them to?Amidst the themes, Chance wove together in 10 Day, Acid Rap, and his work on Surf, religion was a constant chord running through the background. In 10 Day, Chance’s vocalized relationship with God had an underlying desperation. I could relate to Chance’s reluctance to place faith in a figure who couldn’t pick up the phone when called; whose paradise was reconstructed as unfair sentencing, “And heaven’s gates look a lot like prison from the ave/ we on the ground yelling, “give my nigga back!” Calls for reconciliation reminded me of years I spent going to white, Baptist youth groups in my hometown. Somehow, I found the only one populated with queer kids and I was happy until I asked if God could be a Black woman and watched my youth leader’s face twist with disgust. I stood before sweaty preachers in pulpits, whose words I didn’t understand until I was older and watching similar, balding men in mega-churches; men who swore my queerness would lead to my damnation. I’d come from multiple Christian traditions, who could only reconcile theology with portions of my identity. But the way Chance explored Christianity was not stagnant. It evolved in his work and, while he spoke of a faith that wasn’t mine any longer, I could relate to the bare bones. “I come to church for the candy/ your peppermints is the truth,” threw me back to sampling church on Sundays with my grandparents; long afternoons spent in my grandfather’s truck, munching on snacks while he drove us from extravagant buildings to dilapidated storefronts hiding places of worship inside. Chance’s ode to his grandmother was firmly rooted in exploring gospel sounds and utilizing imagery of the Black Church. It reminded me of my grandmother, who stood over me while I kneeled by my bed and recited the Lord’s prayer after her as a child; who picked up the phone when I called after a two-year absence and told me to come over when I said I needed somewhere to stay. The matriarch of my father’s side, who assembled portraits of the family with a picture depicting the life of her Savior, a Black Jesus with dark skin, shoulder length locs, and a solemn expression, the largest and firmly fixed in the middle.
Coloring Book dropped when I was cracked open; my body beginning a process of painful reconstruction with my spirit.Chance’s work speaks to a praxis that transcends one tradition but instead encapsulates the work of Black Americans who reexamined theology to answer for the problems of Black suffering. “When I meet my maker he gon’ make sure that we chillin/ everything’s good,” was a reintroduction to the concept of the Black afterlife. Belief in heaven and a higher power is often dismissed as a trick coaxing people into accepting their oppression. In some circles, where people’s rejection of the caricature of Blackness had taken them into another narrow depiction, I often heard Black people would be better off without religion. It’s a simple reduction; something people conceive as theory without bothering to account for reality. In the months following major protests, I listened to friends discuss which passages of the Quran gave them peace; they discussed critical theology and individual relationships with God, where queerness and Blackness were not trials. One friend tweeted about how sujood let his mind rest and another shared that her nightly prayers did the same. On the night I took my shahada, I was alone with only the muted glow of my phone, but each word felt as if it was transferring my burdens to more capable hands. It is easy to discuss our individual relationship with religion, and to project those expressions onto everyone, to label anyone who believes as dumb, as tricked. It is easy to theorize that we would be better without religion. But what happens to the psyche of a people when you do? When you take away a people’s means to cope, without offering an alternative, what do you subject them to? The afterlife stands as unexplored terrain. It isn’t death, not really because when you exist where global anti-blackness is served up as the world’s main course, are you really alive to start? Rediscovering the afterlife meant redefining my humanity beyond. If the conception of Blackness here meant that I would never fully thrive, and instead exist in a state of social death, then I had to reconceive my own birth. It meant understanding the “afterlife” as not necessarily after or a cruel end. Instead, the afterlife became a different plane and a continuation. We will carry our legacies with us, but the afterlife is one place that our tormentors can not find us again. It’s the undefined complexity of outer space; an unexplored essence of freedom. It’s where Blackness prospers, a future and an alternative. I remember lying on a broken click-clack the night Coloring Book dropped. The opening notes of Donnie’s trumpet were a triumphant beckoning, a playful, “you thought we wouldn’t make it, huh?” It was a welcome home banner stretched across the ceiling, accompanied by Chance’s cartoonish “Agh!” and his eager announcement: we back. I listened to the entire album in one go, caught up in the emotions built into every track. I cried, my friend in his room cried, and we both pretended we didn’t see the other’s tweets saying we were crying. “Never, never drown/ the water may be deeper than it’s ever been,” the choir reminds us near the mixtape’s end. There’s a rumor that Black kids can’t swim, but we’ve come from the water and returned to it, caught in our own tide. We’ve waded in shallow pools and waited for God to trouble the coolness licking at our ankles. Coloring Book is cited as Chance’s most religious work. It is a testimony to his experiences, how Black theological traditions carried him through. It dropped when I was cracked open; my body beginning a process of painful reconstruction with my spirit. In some places, it only increased the pain, but I remember: “I’m gonna get by when the going gets rough/ I’m gonna love life till I’m done growing up/ And when I go down/ I’mma go down swinging/ My eyes still smiling/ And my heart still singing.”