Curating Creative Encounters: A Living Religions Playlist
Brad Braxton is part of the curatorial committee for the 2023 Folklife Festival program Creative Encounters: Living Religions in the U.S. He developed a short, annotated playlist—or “spiritual soundtrack”—of songs that connect to his religious identity. What would your playlist include?
1. Sounds of Blackness – “Optimistic”
This song (perhaps my all-time favorite) begins with a confident, two-word affirmation of Black people and Black culture: “The Blackness.” It is then followed by three words that have typified the extraordinary resilience of Black people amid injustice and struggle: “Keep, keep on.” When I was growing up in Salem, Virginia, the spiritual elders at First Baptist Church encouraged me with this oft-spoken Black church mantra: “Son, keep on keeping on.”
The constant refrain of “Optimistic” encourages people from all backgrounds to have hope and a positive attitude: “You can win as long as you keep your head to the sky. Be optimistic.” Whenever I am sad or frustrated, I listen to this song. Its soul-stirring lyrics, energetic tempo, and pulsating percussion (drumming is key in African-derived cultures) chase away my blues with an uplifting spirituality based in Blackness.
2. James Cleveland – “I Don’t Feel No Ways Tired”
This song’s opening lyrics convey the idiomatic expressiveness of Black folk culture. “I don’t feel no ways tired.” The double negatives—“don’t” and “no ways”—depict a deep-seated spiritual resolve to move forward despite circumstances that cause spiritual and physical fatigue. In her classic essay on the “Characteristics of Negro Expression,” the African American anthropologist Zora Neale Hurston commented on the creative ways that Black people use double descriptions (saying the same thing in two different ways) to adorn their language and make their.
I appreciate the realistic outlook of the song. The lyrics declare, “Nobody told me that the road would be easy.” Even if we have faith and a relationship with God, we are still destined to have, as my spiritual elders would say, “trials and tribulations.” Yet, the song offers powerful words of assurance: “I don’t believe He (God) brought me this far to leave me.” Amid problems and pain, our faith insists that there is a divine plan to carry us through. Additionally, when I hear the piano in the background of this song, it immediately transports me to Sunday mornings of my childhood as my mother played this song on the piano in our basement.
3. Fred Hammond – “We’re Blessed”
This song merges God’s ancient declaration of blessing in Deuteronomy 28 (Hebrew Bible) with a contemporary gospel/hip-hop sound. When we attempt to live a righteous life and serve as “a light in a dark land,” the song affirms that God’s goodness will go before us and follow us, too.
4. Joshua’s Troop – “Everybody Clap Your Hands”
Joshua’s Troop is a Chicago-based youth choir. The unfettered joy of this song is marvelous! Based on the exhortation in Psalm 47 (Hebrew Bible), the song invites everybody to clap their hands as an act of adoration and thanksgiving to God. When teaching students about embodied Black joy, I often use the video of this song as an illustration.
5. Kenny Bobien – “I Shall Not Be Moved”
This song is a spectacular example of a remix. Kenny Bobien takes the old-school spiritual/freedom song “I Shall Not Be Moved” and transforms it into funky house music. Like a tree with deep roots irrigated by a nearby river, our souls should be deeply anchored as we strive to fill the world with justice, peace, and love. While our souls will not be moved (i.e., intimidated) by the forces of injustice, the driving beats of this house remix will surely make fingers snap and toes tap.
Dr. Brad R. Braxton is the chief diversity, equity, and inclusion officer at St. Luke’s School in New York, founding senior pastor of The Open Church in Baltimore, and a curatorial advisor for the Creative Encounters: Living Religions in the U.S. program at the 2023 Smithsonian Folklife Festival.