Like many Catholics of my age, the “home turf” of my liturgical music taste is of a rather traditional bent. My wife and I got married to the English Renaissance polyphony of Byrd and Tallis, so such music lies at the very bosom of our home life. That said, even I felt discombobulated by the polymodal harmonies of Langlais’s Messe solennelle in our parish on Maundy Thursday, after which the congregation confusedly staggered in disarray to the altar of repose. Perhaps this was deliberate – we need to be thrust off our home turf in order to be more genuinely at home, for here we have no lasting city.
Stumbling upon the work of Stormzy, a grime artist from London’s urban music scene, has proved equally disruptive in recent weeks. His debut album features the song Blinded by Your Grace, with lyrics to make even the most ardent devotee of self-abnegating Catholic mysticism wince: “Lord, I’ve been broken / Although I’m not worthy / You fixed me, I’m blinded / By your grace.”
Stormzy isn’t unique; there is a long history of black music drawing deeply on faith, from negro spirituals to jazz-funk and beyond.
Sociologists have long since recognised how youth cultures can exhibit pseudo-religious characteristics, with ersatz rituals of performance and narratives of redemption. Stormzy taps into a dark side of this with the album cover for his debut, Gang Signs and Prayer, where a group of Balaclava-wearing youths are arranged in a Last Supper pastiche, with Stormzy himself at the helm.
Gang culture offers the sort of pseudo-familial belonging, authoritative hierarchies and demanding initiations that were once provided by the Church. Yes, placing himself in the place of Christ does demonstrate grime’s braggadocio, but given the lyrics on the album – (“You saved this kid and I’m not your first / It’s not by blood and it’s not by birth”) – one wonders if this is not just mere bravado, but something closer to realising “it is no longer I who live” (Galatians 2:20).
Today’s Catholics feel uneasy when people enthuse about contemporary music. This is surely because of the deeply problematic issues with post-conciliar liturgy, where all manner of facile and (ironically) grossly outdated popular music has undermined the reverential holiness of the Mass. But finding Stormzy’s work interesting does not in any way mean one wants to see a parish priest rapping his way through the Eucharistic Prayer. Heaven forbid. But it does mean God is at work in unexpected places, and bringing home some poignant truths.
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