Sunday, November 12, 2006

Gospel Musicians, Emcees, and Prayer Warriors



As some of you know I have an interest in religion and race. There's a really interesting thing that is happening in the Baha'i community that is transforming our culture of worship and being lead, not surprisingly by people of African Descent and those who love them. This new dimension of the spiritual revolution that is sweeping the planet known as the Baha'i Faith, involves three things, the introduction of gospel music that is inspired by Baha'i theology, the proliferation of Hip Hop music and prayer gatherings inspired by Baha'i theology, and a style of worship inspired by the African American experience that had it genesis in the Baha'i Black Men's Gathering and has now spread throughout Baha'i communities in North America, South America, the Caribbean and Africa.

The older of these trends is Baha'i gospel music which had its formal debut as a style of worship that Baha'is could embrace and be transformed by in 1992 at the second Baha'i World Congress in New York City that was part of a year long commemoration of the centinary of the passing of Baha'u'llah the Founder of the Baha'i Faith. From that earth-shaking moment at the World Congress, Baha'i gospel choirs began spreading from community to community all across the U.S. I've had the pleasure of singing with several of these choirs over the past ten years all over the country and currently sing with a local gospel choir called The Voices of Glory (Baha'u'llah in Arabic means "The Glory of God") Outstanding Baha'i gospel musicians in collaboration with musicians from a variety of religions and ethnic backgrounds have continued since 1992 to enhance this unique worship experience through composing original music as well as creating new arrangements of traditional Negro Spirituals. Composers such as Eric Dozier and Van Gilmer are two examples. So what is Baha'i gospel music? My definition is that Baha'i gospel is a form of music ministry that draws on the style and form of gospel as it has developed in Christianity and infuses it with key elements of Baha'i theology such as Baha'u'llah being the Promised One of all Religions, the Advent of the Kingdom of God on Earth and the oneness of humankind. In recent years, Baha'i gospel music has gone global with tours in Europe under the direction of Van Gilmer.

Baha'i Hip Hop has also emerged over the past decade and really began to rise to the top as a transforming influence on the consciousness of a new generation of Baha'i youth and young adults. Hip Hop groups such as Fort Tabarsi of New York, who are about to perform in Boston, offer a mix of beats, rhymes and Baha'i analysis and social commentary to their listeners. The proliferation of Baha'i inspired Hip Hop as an art form has evolved into Hip Hip as a form of devotional experience blending prayer, song, rap and personal testimony laid over infectious beats. The experience, when done well is electric but definitely still in it experimental phase.

Finally, the Baha'i Black Men's Gathering has generated a form of devotional experience that is changing the way people pray all over the Baha'i World. The Gathering (as its participants affectionately call it) is celebrating its twentieth anniversary with a journey to Africa and the Baha'i World Center in Haifa, Israel in December that I'm happy to say I will be participating in.
What is the Black Men's Gathering? I think the most eloquent description I've heard is that offered by the Universal House of Justice, the world governing Council of the Baha'i Faith:

"...the Gathering is a distinctive activity with a different agenda. It does not concern itself chiefly with race unity...as such. It addresses itself to a special situation faced by a minority that has suffered severe social and spiritual afflictions imposed upon it by the majority. The program of the Black Men's Gatherings is unique and exemplary as an avenue for transcending the legacy of anguish, frustration and social pathology that is peculiar to black men in the United states; it urges them towards a fullness of life within the spirit and principles of the Bahá'í Revelation."

The soul of the Gathering is the spirit of prayer, prayer that can both break and heal the heart, the voices of black men raised in praise to God, calling on the power of the Holy Spirit, on the assistance of our spiritual ancestors, seeking aid, seeking forgiveness, seeking healing, seeking grace. We drum, we sing, we chant, until both the building and our bodies are vibrating. Anyone who has experienced it will tell you that it is life altering. Thankfully, this experience is becoming part of the devotional culture of Baha'i communities everywhere and was recently featured in an article by the Baha'i World News Service, which did a story about the Hush Harbor devotional meeting in New York City.

The term "prayer warrior" is a popular one among my Christian brothers and sisters and I believe is an accurate term to describe the spirit of prayer practiced by the men of the Gathering.

I'll close with the following commentary that speaks to the mission of the spiritual revolution that these gospel musicians, MC's and prayer warriors are in the vanguard of:

"Throughout history, the masses of humanity have been, at best, spectators at the advance of civilization. Their role has been to serve the designs of whatever elite had temporarily assumed control of the process. Even the successive Revelations of the Divine, whose objective was the liberation of the human spirit, were, in time, taken captive by "the insistent self", were frozen into man-made dogma, ritual, clerical privilege and sectarian quarrels, and reached their end with their ultimate purpose frustrated.

Bahá'u'lláh has come to free humanity from this long bondage, and the closing decades of the twentieth century were devoted by the community of His followers to creative experimentation with the means by which His objective can be realized. The prosecution of the Divine Plan entails no less than the involvement of the entire body of humankind in the work of its own spiritual, social and intellectual development."
(Commissioned by The Universal House of Justice, Century of Light, p. 113)