The performance begins with the voice of a young girl fervently praising God. With a choir harmonizing in the background, Kanye West, vocals warped by autotune, sings, “we on an ultralight beam/this is a God dream/this is everything.” He lies on the floor sprawled out like Jesus on the cross while gospel musician Kirk Franklin delivers a verse that sounds like a sermon. The Saturday Night Live performance of “Ultralight Beam” from The Life of Pablo also featured Chance The Rapper, who would ride that breakout moment for the rest of a huge 2016.
In May, Chance played “Blessings” from his album Coloring Book on The Tonight Show. Chance and his band are joined by a choir clad in white choral robes and gospel artist Byron Cage. Downstage left and right stacks of styrofoam boulders tumble to represent the walls of Jericho. “I’m gon’ praise Him, praise Him ’til I’m gone,” sings guest vocalist Jamila Woods. “Don’t believe in kings, believe in the Kingdom,” answers Chance.
The opposite of faith isn’t doubt; the opposite of faith is certainty.
These artists come at a time when technology dominates our existence, heightens loneliness, and leaves many wondering if there’s anything to life beyond screens. With the horrific state of the world, the search for purpose and community has intensified and this contemporary secular religious music is an expression of that pursuit. These musicians not only show how blurry the boundary between the sacred and secular music worlds in North America has become but how extraneous the divide is. Void of a strict religious agenda, these artists’ diverse expressions of faith also show that this boundary is more about how religion is used within music rather than the inclusion of faith itself.
Contemporary Christian music (CCM) was born out of the Jesus movement in the 1960s when members and leaders started writing music with a Christian message. As CCM began to popularize, Dolly Parton, Johnny Cash, and other mainstream artists straddled the line between sacred and secular. The influence of gospel music permeated secular genres by the early to mid-twentieth century and numerous artists with gospel influences — Aretha Franklin, Dionne Warwick, and so many others — found major success in mainstream music.
By 1983, the Australian megachurch Hillsong, and its music subsidiary Hillsong Music, began its journey towards becoming an international Christian conglomerate. In 1991, Christian star Amy Grant released Heart in Motion, a pop album that charmed both sacred (despite its limited Christian content) and secular audiences and by the end of the decade, Pedro The Lion (fronted by David Bazan) spoke to indie kids beyond the Christian scene. By the early 2000s, more Christian cross-over artist emerged like Sufjan Stevens and harder rock bands like Switchfoot and P.O.D.
Today, some of the biggest names in hip-hop openly include their faith in their music. Like West’s varied examination of faith throughout his albums and Chance’s celebration of God in Coloring Book, Kendrick Lamar, who this year released untitled unmastered, fits his self-conscious devotion within his political and socially aware music. In the genres of R&B and soul, Toronto’s Daniel Caesar, who grew up singing at his Seventh-day Adventist church, openly struggles with his ties to God.
Caesar is one of a wave of Canadian artists who have emerged who express their personal stories of faith. Vancouver’s Jordan Klassen, for instance incorporates his faith in his music while rejecting the "religious" label. “I think I’m a person with a world view just like everyone else who makes art,” he tells me. “I would never call it religious art. I’m a religious person and I make art and that certainly effects the art that I make but I don’t think I have any kind of agenda in my music.”
Kenny Boothby of the Toronto band Little Kid writes songs which, in part, reflect his journey away from his Pentecostal upbringing and subsequently express doubts about God and the related anxieties. Boothby says this openness about losing his faith resonates with listeners. “I do get a lot of messages saying, ‘Thank you for writing this. It helped me through an experience I was having,’” Boothby explains. “I feel honoured to have played that part for them.”
Pastor Kevin Makins of the Hamilton church Eucharist feels that spiritual dissonance, like that expressed by many artists, is crucial to Christianity. “I think there’s a need to have space for doubt and uncertainty with our faith. It just seems that the opposite of faith isn’t doubt, the opposite of faith is certainty,” he says.
Although the presence of religion has diminished since Vancouver band We Are The City’s first release — a conscious choice after growing feelings of discomfort with the idea of making money off of Christianity — the traces that remain leave room for doubts. “The music should be something that anybody can listen to and understand what’s being said. I think that’s an important part of music and of art, to cross the bridge,” says drummer Andrew Huculiak.
Unlike many CCM artists, these musicians reject being labelled as Christian artists and do not make music for worship or attempt to indoctrinate listeners. The religion found in their music manifests itself naturally, like faith’s impact on day-to-day life.
Parallel to these artists, there is a rise in the number of independent musicians who label their music as “devotional.” Traditionally, devotional music refers to the music performed during worship or rituals in most religions but its use in secular music is wide-ranging. On Bandcamp, the “devotional” label characterizes everything from synth-pop to DIY punk, Montreal gospel-infused folk artist Un Blonde (Jean-Sebastien Audet) to Massachusetts emo band The Hotelier.
What appears to unify many of these artists, similar to artists influenced by Christianity, is their examinations of self and others and questions of purpose. They are dedicated to finding meaning.
With the release of their album Returning Current, Toronto/Los Angeles band Snowblink describe their music as “non-denominational devotional pop,” a description that Daniela Gesundheit characterizes as “very tongue-and-cheek at the end of the day.”
Gesundheit’s use of “devotional” to describe Snowblink’s music is a nod to the larger act of reflecting on life’s uncertainties. “[It’s] focusing on the deep-ends, like deepening the deep-ends,” says Gesundheit, who has spent some time singing in synagogues. “Music where you learn something more about yourself.”
According to a national survey by the Angus Reid Institute in 2015, 44% of those ages 18-34 describe themselves as somewhere in between embracing religion and rejecting it. In the United States, a 2014 survey showed that just 15.8% percentage of those polled characterize their religious beliefs as “nothing in particular” of which 32% were 18-29 and 38% were 30-49. That is a substantial portion of the population who are trying to figure out their place in the world.
For the believers, this means a shift to a more integrated expression of spirituality and for others, it’s looking for meaning in nature or in relationships. In both cases, it is a deeply personal expression of self which doesn’t have an agenda and is, as a result, very engaging.
The intersection of the sacred and the secular musical world could be indicative of a larger social trend: people are in need of connection and community. In 2016, many artists found that within music.