Maddened Pedagogies

Primary Sources (Albums):

What are the epistemic consequences of foreclosing popular music from our learning spaces? Do albums contain less theory than essays? If not, why are they absent from religious studies curricula and syllabi? Besides music departments, what epistemic role might studying the sounds of black popular music play in religious studies classrooms? What noise(s) fill learning spaces? Who decided class spaces were supposed to be devoid of music unless ruptured by voices quoting texts? As a way to disrupt the text-centered coloniality of knowledge-production, the following list is provided as a means to ask the following question: what becomes possible if learning spaces occasion the opportunity to engage black musicians as theorists, black popular music as rigorous interventions, and careful listening as far more than a hobby we take up once “the work” is done?

Kendrick Lamar, good kid m.A.A.D City
Nina Simone, ‘Nuff Said!
Various Artists, The Wiz Movie Soundtrack
Janelle Monáe, Dirty Computer
Sylvester, Living Proof
Aretha Franklin, Amazing Grace
Kanye West/Ye, Yeezus
Yasiin Bey/Mos Def, Black on Both Sides
John Coltrane, A Love Supreme
Lauryn Hill, MTV Unplugged No. 2.0

Secondary Sources (Scholarly Books and Articles):

These scholarly works all, each in their own way, challenge conventional borders separating the so-called secular from the so-called religious. These works invite students to analyze how ideas of religion, sexuality, notions of the divine, community, and the sacred are taken up -or explicitly disavowed- by black artists. Some of the work listed below examines how artists sought to expand the borders of the sacred while others sought to problematize the idea that “the sacred” was anything essential that separated certain lives and practices from others. The following books aid in helping students analyze how standard definitions of “religion,” “God,” “purity,” “the secular,” “normativity,” “sexuality,” “law and order,” and “the sacred” among others become scrambled once black artists and their cultural productions are taken into account.

Angela Y. Davis, Blues Legacies and Black Feminism: Gertrude "Ma" Rainey, Bessie Smith, and Billie Holiday, (New York: Vintage Books, 1999)

Ashon Crawley, Blackpentecostal Breath: The Aesthetics of Possibility, (New York: Fordham University Press, 2017)

Charles White, The Life and Times of Little Richard, (London: Omnibus Books, 2003)
Clyde Woods, Development Arrested: The Blues and Plantation Power in the Mississippi Delta, (New York: Verso Books, 2017)

Gayle Wald, Shout, Sister Shout! The Untold Story of Rock & Roll Trailblazer Sister Rosetta Tharpe (Boston: Beacon Books, 2008)

Jason C. Bivins, Spirits Rejoice! Jazz and American Religion (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015)

Jerma A. Jackson, Black Gospel Music in a Secular Age, (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2004)

Judith Weisenfeld, Hollywood Be Thy Name: African American Religion in American f Film, 1929-1949, (London: University of California Press, 2007)

Monica R. Miller and Anthony B. Pinn, The Hip Hop and Religion Reader (New York: Routledge, 2015)

Paul Gilroy, Darker Than Blue: On the Moral Economies of Black Atlantic Culture, (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2011)

Richard Iton, In Search of the Black Fantastic: Politics and Popular Culture in the Post-Civil Rights Era, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011)

Su’ad Abdul Khabeer, Muslim Cool: Race, Religion, and Hip Hop in the United States, (New York: New York University Press, 2016)

Teresa L. Reed, The Holy Profane: Religion in Black Popular Music (Kentucky: University of Kentucky Press, 2004)

Tracy Fessenden, Religion Around Billie Holiday, (University Park, Pennsylvania: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 2018)

Emily J. Lordi - “Souls Intact: The Soul Performances of Audre Lorde, Aretha Franklin, and Nina Simone”, Women & Performance: a journal of feminist theory, 02 January 2016, Vol.26(1)

Hortense Spillers - “The Idea of Black Culture”, CR: The New Centennial Review, Volume 6, Number 3

Liam Maloney - “…And House Music Was Born: Constructing a Secular Christianity of Otherness”, Popular Music and Society, 27 May 2018, Vol.41(3)

Mark Clague - “‘This Is America’: Jimi Hendrix's Star-Spangled Banner Journey as Psychedelic Citizenship”, Journal of the Society for American Music, 2014, Vol.8(4)

Reynaldo Anderson - “Fabulous: Sylvester James, Black Queer Afrofuturism and the Black Fantastic”, Dancecult: Journal of Electronic Dance Music Culture, 01 November 2013, Vol.5(2)

Stephen C. Finley - “The Meaning of ‘Mother’ in Louis Farrakhan's ‘Mother Wheel’: Race, Gender, and Sexuality in the Cosmology of the Nation of Islam's UFO”, Journal of the American Academy of Religion, 1 June 2012, Vol.80(2)

Stuart Hall - “What is this ‘Black’ in Black Popular Culture”, Cultural Theory and Popular Culture: A Reader

The following exercises are provided to challenge the idea that the most accurate method of assessing knowledge is text-centric assignments. Students learn in myriad ways. While many students prefer writing assignments and traditional exam formats, other students excel when they are invited to communicate through art the knowledge acquired throughout the quarter or semester. These assignments are not meant to test “mastery.” Quite the opposite. These assignments are meant to communicate how mastery over a brief quarter/semester is both an impossible and short-sighted aim. Instead, the following assignments asks both student and professor alike to consider the ways curiosity and imagination are not the antithesis to rigor, knowledge-production, or knowledge assessment. If professors are serious about addressing head-on the coloniality of knowledge that haunts our campuses and classrooms today, reifying the same narrow-minded modes of assessment will not exorcise anything except, perhaps, the drive of students.

Professors concerned about university writing requirements need not be discouraged. There are many ways to help students improve their writing without privileging writing as the sole means to assess the acquisition of knowledge and skills. Many students taking your classes are not the best prose writers, but they have a gift for cinematography that far exceeds the limits of what can be communicated in five pages of prose. Other students may struggle with sentence structure and formatting but possess prodigious skills with a canvas and some acrylic. What about the students who play instruments, make beats, form images with glass, or write jokes? Who decided for everyone that prose was the ultimate means to separate the so-called genius from the student who “might not be ready for college?” To be clear, learning writing skills are important and should be practiced and refined (this goes for both students and professors). These assignments are not meant to abolish writing altogether but, rather, decenter its dominant stronghold over knowledge-production. Students of hip hop know that just because a rapper uses a notepad doesn’t automatically make them G.O.A.T. (Greatest of All Time) MC’s. The late-great Notorious B.I.G. (Christopher Wallace), JAY-Z (Shawn Carter), and Lil Wayne (Dwayne Michael Carter, Jr.) were/are widely considered among the greatest technicians of the English language to ever take up the art of rap, and all of them recorded/record their rhymes from memory; no pen or pad was/is involved. Who is going to walk into a barbershop and say “Ready to Die” would have been an even greater album if Biggie utilized a Composition Notebook? This is precisely what professors sound like when they insist the only way to assess knowledge is through the written word.

The following ideas are only meant to begin the conversation. My hope is that, by reading these suggestions, you will begin thinking of additional ways beyond the written word to assess the work of students. The following assignments are meant to occasion the possibility for the artistic brilliance of students to shine in our classes. Alongside every project is a supplementary writing component. As stated earlier, the purpose of these assignments is not to abolish writing but, rather, decenter and de-privilege it.

  1. Have Students Curate an Annotated Playlist
    1. Students will take the key themes discussed throughout the course and come up with a Playlist of at least 15 songs created by Black artists that could serve as a soundtrack for the course. Each annotation should include information about the selected track including artist(s), producer(s), year the record was created, and the year the record was commercially released (if the record was never released commercially, list the reason it was shelved -if possible.) Next, have students account for why each track selected addresses specific themes related to the study of religion identified throughout the course. Does this song explicitly identify religious themes? Where? If religious themes are addressed implicitly, how so and where? How did this particular track help expand -or unsettle- your knowledge of the category of religion? How might this track assist -or unsettle- others? Could someone who never attended this course or studied religion within an academic setting listen to your playlist and account for the general themes and objectives of the course? Why or why not?
  1. Have Students Create a Critical Art Project, or Album Review Essay
    1. Students have the opportunity to create a documentary short, short comedy special, chapbook, EP, zine, painting, sculpture, photo-essay, short dramatic film/play, etc. that focuses on one of the major themes of the course. The project should clearly define the theme you are addressing, the Black writings/films/art-pieces, etc. that inspired your work, where you would envision this work circulating, who is the intended audience, and how this project hopes to expand -and potentially unsettle- our conceptual knowledge of the category of religion. In addition to the art piece, students will craft a critical essay that explains their artistic decisions – why did they choose the subject matter? Where might we locate religion? If religion is intentionally left unmarked, how might the absence of an explicit reference marker serve as a possible critique of the category of religion? How are you thinking about method? Disciplinarity? Historical period?  How do you imagine your artistic style unfolding alongside the course readings?  The goal of this project is to provide students with the opportunity to take the front seat and create art that amplifies the material discussed throughout the semester. This project exemplifies what becomes possible when certain canonical figures are placed in the backseat and are invited to listen to the sounds, innovations, and contributions of others. It will be the task of students’ to -through their art- introduce these canonical figures to the brilliant intellectual interventions often ghettoized and foreclosed by the principalities and powers of canonicity.
    2. The review essay is an opportunity to review 3-4 recent documentary films, feature films, exhibits, Comedy Specials, or albums created by Black artists that corresponds with the major theme(s) of the course. The review essay will be expected to situate these cultural productions within the context of the broader scholarly field by placing the works in conversation. The student will schedule a meeting with the university/college librarian to assemble a list of approved and diverse list of (re)sources.

*Page Limits/Word Counts and other project details were specifically left out due to these project ideas possibly being adapted for undergraduate and graduate students.

James Howard Hill, Jr. is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Religious Studies at the University of Oklahoma. He holds a B.A. from Criswell College, an M.T.S. from Southern Methodist University, and is an Advanced Ph.D. Candidate at Northwestern University. Hill, Jr. teaches courses and conducts research in black studies, religious studies, cultural studies, and the politics of popular culture. His scholarship has received recognition and support from The Heidelberg Center for American Studies (Heidelberg, Germany), The Henry Luce Foundation (Sacred Writes), the Forum for Theological Exploration, The Louisville Institute, Wabash Center for Teaching and Learning in Theology and Religion, Social Science Research Council (SSRC), as well as the Mellon Cluster Research Fellowship in Comparative Race and Diaspora studies. In 2020, Hill, Jr. was awarded the Rubem Alves Award for Theopoetics in recognition of his contributions as a photographer whose art and scholarship reflect a commitment to imagination, art, and embodiment. His public commentary on race, popular music, sports, politics, and religion can be read in Black Agenda Report, The Syndicate, Black Perspectives, and The Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs, among other outlets.