Is The Narrative socially conscience or Christian? Is it a protest against racism or a celebration of black culture? Is it a sermon or a confession? Or Maybe it is both?
The Narrative tells the story of the metaphorical character James Portier who symbolically represents the plight of the African Americans in the American experience. It’s a journey that involves spiritual insights, social commentary and personal reflections. To help place the narrative in its historical context, a specific year is included in the song titles which reveals a milestone in Mr. Portier’s life.
The journey starts with the “Foreword, 1619”. The year is significant because in 1619 Africans were first bought and sold by European settlers in North America – so it’s natural starting point for James Portier, and the listener.
Sho manages to tackle serious topics such as systemic economic racism in My Hood, USA, 1937 (the year when the Federal Housing Authority established redlining – a practice that legalized housing discrimination and the lost of untold amounts of black wealth) while still maintaining his characteristic, playful wordplay. At one point chiding copycat emcees:
“How you sound outdated when you copying The Future?”
So while this project is deeply committed to addressing social issues, Sho doesn’t take himself too seriously. The catchy, dance jam 30 & Up, 1986 (30 years ago) features Grammy™ award winning artist Courtney Orlando (formerly known as JR), a live band and reveals that Sho Baraka can still be the life of the party! The video reflects Sho’s fun-loving, romantic and comical streak.
Sho creates a narrative that seeks to make room for a faith and culture integration that embraces complexity. In Maybe Both, 1865, Sho seeks to add nuance to the overly simplistic view of American history that sees the founders solely as inspirational revolutionaries while ignoring their slaveholding legacy and role in enshrining discrimination in our system of governance (such as the 3/5th Compromise in The Constitution). He also questions the popular dichotomy of viewing Jesus Christ as either an exclusively otherworldly Savior or merely a radical social activist. Maybe America is a great nation of opportunity, yet also greatly flawed due to its historic failure to live up to its own vision. Additionally, maybe Jesus is a spiritual Savior and the iconic model for righteous resistance against injustice. Sho challenges us “Maybe it is both”.
The spiritual undertones of the album pushes back against the anti-supernatural bias in a post-Christian and secular age. That bias reveals itself in how people discredit Christianity because of the atrocities that (so-called) followers have done in its name. Sho reminds the listener that though those with an atheistic worldview have also been responsible for evils and racism in the world yet their worldview is not rejected because of it. He asks:
“Is God to blame for our intentions?/Like scientists didn’t bless the world with eugenics.”
Conversely, Sho highlights the contributions of activists inspired by the Bible’s appeal for social justice. Names like Phyllis Wheatley, Frederick Douglass, Sojourner Truth, Marcus Garvey, Mahalia Jackson, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and others are woven into The Narrative to give honor to these faith-inspired activists and challenge us to walk in their footsteps. In the tradition of C.S. Lewis, Sho employs a defense of the Christian faith by arguing, among other things, that the very concept of truth and morality insists on a transcendent Truth Giver. At the same time Sho warns the faithful of the perils of ignoring God’s mandate to do justice: it leads to hypocrisy, suffering and a lack of effective Gospel witness in the world.
The Narrative doesn’t just take aim at major historical and theological themes, either. In what has become his signature, Sho is brutally honest in sharing his own struggles to live out his convictions and vision. He unflinchingly reveals his personal battles with the allure of fame, the frustration with his financial struggles, and – perhaps most vulnerably in Words, 2006 – the challenges of caring for his autistic son. Sho turns a sound booth into a confessional and bears his soul. Vulnerability like this is a rarity. Hardly a track goes by without some reflection of a personal shortcoming. This helps prevent The Narrative from being preachy but more of a memoir not only of James Portier, but also of Sho Baraka. And it’s difficult not to be impacted and inspired by such self-disclosure.