A Religion Scholar Goes ‘In Search of Soul’, Comes Back with Ralph Ellison, Garcia Lorca, and Hip-Hop

Alejandro Nava ties black and brown art about survival to biblical values and stories.

In Search of Soul: Hip-Hop, Literature and Religion
Alejandro Nava
University of California Press
Sep 2017

It would take some combination of etymologist and anthropologist to determine when exactly “soul” became a thing in the ‘hood. The gospel group the Soul Stirrers took its name in the ’30s. By the ’50s, it was all over the place in jazz: Ray Charles and Milt Jackson recorded a collaboration entitled Soul Brothers (a follow-up to that release was titled Soul Meeting); and in 1959 Charles Mingus looked back to his Pentecostal roots with the immortal “Better Git It in Your Soul”. The term “soul jazz”, demarking a specific strain of jazz music inclined to shed modernism in favor of populism and the directness of the blues and gospel, was in play as early as 1960, according to Bob Porter’s survey book Soul Jazz. From there, it was a relatively short leap to calling the South-rooted R&B of the early ’60s “soul music”, and to black-owned businesses in riot-besieged communities posting up “Soul Brother” signs in hopes of deterring looters.

But what exactly did these signifiers signify? Amiri Baraka, in his essay “The Phenomenon of ‘Soul’ in African-American Music”, defined it as “an emotive genre”, a feeling wholly within the black experience: “To be soulful is to be in touch with the truth and to be able to express it, openly and nakedly, without the shallow artifice of commerce.” An anonymous jazz musician told Nat Hentoff in The Jazz Life “that soul only comes from certain kinds of experiences, and only we – you know who I mean – go through what you need to have the kind of soul that makes real jazz.”

Those conceptions still don’t quite put a finger on it, but they lead us a bit closer. Soul, in those readings, might be the term that best represents the inner yearnings of blackness, both the desire to connect with the universal truths of existence and the gauntlet black people must navigate to get there with heart, mind, and blackness intact. But how did that essence come to be known as “soul” with the obvious allusion to the “soul” of spiritual matters, and how did it come to carry such resonance and specificity in black life? Alejandro Nava goes off looking for answers in In Search of Soul and comes back with some concrete ways to understand the notion.

He begins his exploration with a clear delineation between “soul” and “the soul” – not surprising, since he is a professor of religious studies at the University of Arizona. Also not surprising is that he’s on his firmest ground when reading the Bible to examine how the two are connected. Nava puts forth a biblical interpretation in line with liberation theology scholars like James Cone, maintaining that the Bible provided a blueprint to oppressed people. “For the first time in Western history the lives of the ordinary, poor and rude were the subject of lofty narratives,” he writes, “with themes that were as sublime as anything found in Greek tragedy, nothing was too humble or too coarse for biblical texts.”

Nava unpacks the concept of nephesh, “the secret power that enlivens the body and spirit of a person”, and then centers on deep readings of the Gospels, most specifically the Book of Mark, with some surprisingly helpful citations of the noted skeptic Friedrich Nietzsche, to conclude that “the Christian vision of life, of soul, and of everything else is largely shaped by a slave’s values. In this sense, at least, Christianity represents the revolt of the mob against its masters.” Given that Nava makes his love for hip-hop evident early on in the process, it makes perfect sense that he connects the Gospel of Matthew with the birth of Tupac Shakur: Jesus was destined to a hard life and tragic end; Tupac was born to a mother who was imprisoned (and later acquitted) on federal charges, and we all know how he met his end.

Nava’s next leap forward is to the writings of Federico Garcia Lorca and Ralph Ellison, to explore how they advanced the notion of downtrodden souls creating dignity for themselves. For Lorca, soul was represented by the idea of duende, a form of “creative grace” that turns suffering into art. Nava writes that Ellison worked with similar ideas, citing his perception of soul’s “ability to articulate [a] tragic-comic attitude towards life.” As he moves through Ellison’s work, Nava begins to draw parallels between blues singers, preachers and rappers in how notions of both soul and the soul have echoed down through the generations.

With such an impressive build-up, it’s a bit of a letdown that the final section, where Nava goes all-in on hip-hop and soul, doesn’t give us new things to ponder. Nava comes across as a listener stuck in the ’90s, with his citations of Tupac and other politically conscious rappers to illustrate the latter-day presence of soul as a life-force for positive change (and similarly with the likes of Ozomatli and the Orishas in his look at Afro-Latin rap). Nothing wrong with that, but his readings don’t add much to what any fan of the era’s rap already knows: Tupac was righteous but conflicted, and much of that music was anything but spiritually minded. In that light, it’s puzzling why he didn’t look at latter-day rappers whose work speaks to the condition of young black souls, like Chance the Rapper or Kendrick Lamar; I’d be quite interested in a theologically grounded consideration of DAMN., especially from a religion scholar who clearly likes his beats.

Rather than connecting Ellison and Lorca to contemporary music in a straight line through their respective invocations of soul, In Search of Soul suggests that such expression has happened throughout time and culture, more as a culturally-rooted impulse than as an extension of direct influence. Indeed, one could argue that rap got much of its progressive conception of soul from the cultural generation that immediately proceeded it, of which Ellison was often dismissive. That would be the soul brothers and sisters of the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s, whom Nava skips over entirely save for a brief look at soul music’s rise and fall.

But in doing so, Nava focuses on something more essential. By the ’70s, the word “soul” had fallen out of vogue in black culture. Soul brothers and soul sisters were now just brothas and sistas, with the presence of soul taken for granted. “Soul jazz” (but not soulful jazz) was on the wane, and the soul shouters of the ’60s would soon fall victim to the onslaught of corporate disco just like everyone else. And marketers and pop culture had figured out how to commodify “soul” by hyping the trappings and selling the sizzle (black power fists on Afro combs, for example) as the steak.

But the notion of “soul” as an integral, spiritual necessity of black life didn’t completely go away, thanks largely to hip-hop (both the original creations and the treasures of the past they sampled). “By considering the needs and trials of the soul from the perspective of ghetto dwellers, migrants and colored folks,” writes Nava, “hip-hop gives expression to the ills of time… and to the many travails that the soul must endure in the wastelands of the modern world.”

That reading isn’t all that far removed from the imperative Baraka put down in his essay. In both cases, soul is a way of living, being, and creating that allows black and brown souls to make sense of, and make a way in, an often-hostile world. That work is troublesome, never-ending, and far from merely a matter of strut and style. In fact, Nava might well suggest, if asked when “soul” showed up in the ‘hood, that soul is as old as the Bible itself.

RATING 7 / 10