When Music Touches Your Soul by Elise Edwards


It’s incredibly liberating to have the co-mingled sensation of being elevated by aesthetic delight, affirmed by words that reflect the life experiences of you and your loved ones, and honored by another’s desire to relate to you.  This type of liberation is spiritual.

Last month, I attended a Lalah Hathaway concert, the first live concert I think I’ve attended in about a year.  For those of you who don’t know, Lalah Hathaway is an R&B singer and daughter of the late Donny Hathaway.  It was my first time hearing her perform and the audience’s response to her artistry sparked some thoughts in my mind about authenticity, soul, and participation in the black church.

I should probably admit that my favorite genre of music is R&B/soul because of what its name suggests – the ability of the music to connect to the innermost parts of my being, the spirit inside of me that recognizes what is true.  Whether they are speaking about joy or pain, love or loss, soul singers have a way of making me feel the authenticity of their souls conveyed through their music and lyrics.  Because I agree with the feminist principle that the personal is political, I believe that feminists must take the time to recognize what is personally true for them and what is most real.  This is so that feminists’ energies directed toward making the world a more just place can be sustained during times of struggle, and maintained with integrity, regardless of what sphere they’re located within.  Soul music helps me remember who I am.

During the concert, I was lifted away from external concerns about money and school work and career pressures.  I was enveloped by a warm voice, humor, style, and lyrical messages that spoke of true experiences common to many women.  I was not surprised, then, that the bio on her website says this:

“Lalah understands who she is as an artist and continues to remain consistently true to her vision in song and lyric. Like aged, fine wine, her voice continues to get better with time. Throughout her career, Lalah has captivated audiences by channeling the essence of her father’s spirit in her music, while adding her signature flare. Her ability to touch a listener’s soul in one phrase is an extraordinary gift that is synonymous with the Hathaway brand.”

Sharing the concert experience with one of my dearest friends, surrounded by other black women I did not know amplified my gratitude at being a witness to Lalah’s talent and the ease I felt in the setting.  At times, the concert experience reminded me of the moments I have seen and felt the spirit of God within the black church.  I identify as black and a regular church-goer, but I did not grow up in “the black church” itself; I’m only an occasional visitor, and it’s not a setting that typically evokes a sense of belonging within me.  Yet it’s familiar enough that when elements of the black church experience show up in other contexts, I can recognize it.

When Lalah’s music touched the audience’s souls, many of the listeners would jump and shout and wave their hands and handkerchiefs in the air.  She and the other musicians would talk to the audience, ask us questions, and we would answer back.   They invited our participation and our response.  I felt joy and lightness from the musicians’ attention to how engaged we were.  I think it’s incredibly liberating to have the co-mingled sensation of being elevated by aesthetic delight, affirmed by words that reflect the life experiences of you and your loved ones, and honored by another’s desire to relate to you.  This type of liberation is spiritual.  It simultaneously brings you deeper within yourself and connects you to that which is beyond the individual to the communal and the divine.

I remain grateful that these types of liberating experiences occur for me in not only spaces set aside by religious institutions for devotional and worship practices, but in non-religious sites of beauty, artistry, shared humanity, and love.

Elise M. Edwards is a Ph.D. candidate in Theology, Ethics, and Culture at Claremont Graduate University and registered architect in the State of Florida. She does interdisciplinary work in the fields of theology, ethics, and aesthetics, examining issues of civic engagement and how beliefs and commitments are expressed publicly. As a black feminist, she primarily focuses on cultural expressions by, for, and about women and marginalized communities. Follow her on twitter,google+ or academia.edu.



Categories: Art, Black Feminism, Feminism, General, Humor, Music, Relationality, Spirituality, Women and Community, Women's Spirituality

Tags: , , , , , , ,

5 replies

  1. Reminds me of the feelings I had in women’s music concerts in the 70s and 80s. Music is an important ritual form that can bring body, spirit, and mind together.

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    • I agree abotu music as an important ritual! Although I felt it at an R&B concert, I’m sure a similar experience is had by others in other settings with other kinds of music.

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  2. I like R&B and soul and gospel music too, though I must confess I don’t always pay attention to the words. But you’re right–this music does connect us with an inner spirituality, and spirit can work as cheerfully in an auditorium as in a church. I think Plato was right when he said that music “gives soul to the universe, wings to the mind, flight to the imagination.”

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    • I admit that with most music, I have to make an effort to listen to the words! But with the slower ballads and the R&B/Soul or gospel songs I listen to most often, it’s not challenging for me to hear the lyrical content. I think when the words are poetic and inspired, they have a way of breaking past distractions into my consciousness.
      Thanks for your comment!

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  3. Hi Elise —

    I don’t know why I missed your post when it first came out, but I want to respond even now. Thanks for your articulate description of a meaningful ritual in your life. I’ve been a singer since I was a little kid (and that’s a LONG time ago), so I know to a certain extent what you’re talking about here. And I’m a ritualist, so I understand the importance of creating a community (of whatever size) to the success of such an event. I also am an odd white woman, because like most Blacks I know, I want to respond to performers and preachers with exclamations of delight and hands in the air (but my community is much more silent than that, so I’ve learned to sit on my hands).

    The reason I’m writing today is because I’ve been reading Jonathan Haidt’s book _The Righteous Mind_, and although I think he has some blind spots (like a lot of the feminist literature that I know about), I still think it’s an interesting book. In the last two chapters that I’ve read he’s looking at what he calls “the hive switch,” the ability (under special circumstances) to transcend self-interest and lose ourselves (usually temporarily and ecstatically) in something larger than ourselves. I think that might describe your experience at this concert. And that is certainly what chanting in a group of like-minded sisters is for me.

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