Like many Catholics of my age, the “home turf” of my liturgical music taste is of a rather traditional bent. My wife and I got married to the English Renaissance polyphony of Byrd and Tallis, so such music lies at the very bosom of our home life. That said, even I felt discombobulated by the polymodal harmonies of Langlais’s Messe solennelle in our parish on Maundy Thursday, after which the congregation confusedly staggered in disarray to the altar of repose. Perhaps this was deliberate – we need to be thrust off our home turf in order to be more genuinely at home, for here we have no lasting city.
Stumbling upon the work of Stormzy, a grime artist from London’s urban music scene, has proved equally disruptive in recent weeks. His debut album features the song Blinded by Your Grace, with lyrics to make even the most ardent devotee of self-abnegating Catholic mysticism wince: “Lord, I’ve been broken / Although I’m not worthy / You fixed me, I’m blinded / By your grace.”
Stormzy isn’t unique; there is a long history of black music drawing deeply on faith, from negro spirituals to jazz-funk and beyond.
Sociologists have long since recognised how youth cultures can exhibit pseudo-religious characteristics, with ersatz rituals of performance and narratives of redemption. Stormzy taps into a dark side of this with the album cover for his debut, Gang Signs and Prayer, where a group of Balaclava-wearing youths are arranged in a Last Supper pastiche, with Stormzy himself at the helm.
Gang culture offers the sort of pseudo-familial belonging, authoritative hierarchies and demanding initiations that were once provided by the Church. Yes, placing himself in the place of Christ does demonstrate grime’s braggadocio, but given the lyrics on the album – (“You saved this kid and I’m not your first / It’s not by blood and it’s not by birth”) – one wonders if this is not just mere bravado, but something closer to realising “it is no longer I who live” (Galatians 2:20).
Today’s Catholics feel uneasy when people enthuse about contemporary music. This is surely because of the deeply problematic issues with post-conciliar liturgy, where all manner of facile and (ironically) grossly outdated popular music has undermined the reverential holiness of the Mass. But finding Stormzy’s work interesting does not in any way mean one wants to see a parish priest rapping his way through the Eucharistic Prayer. Heaven forbid. But it does mean God is at work in unexpected places, and bringing home some poignant truths.
One such truth arises from grime’s own home, to be found amid the poverty of London’s ungentrified enclaves. The unavoidable link between poverty and closeness to God in Catholic tradition need hardly be reiterated here, from Luke 6:20 right up to Paul VI’s claim that there “is a thirst for God that only the poor can know”. Those in poverty are robbed of the ability to feel at home, deprived of basic necessities and home comforts, and thrust thereby into the arms of the loving God in a way others simply aren’t.
Stormzy is of African origin and his mother took him to church every week (“It was just what you did”). To speak of London being re-evangelised by its African diaspora makes perfect sense if you’ve travelled down the Walworth Road on a Sunday morning, past people dressed in their Technicolor finery to give Pentecostal praise in London’s post-industrial wastelands. African communities making their home there often demonstrate a strong morality of which Western Catholics are taking note; think of Cardinal Sarah’s popularity at the current time.
Among the people of Nigeria or Ghana, it is unsustainable to pretend that the most pressing social justice issue of our time is the pursuit of non-gendered pronouns. This was why GK Chesterton idolised the London poor: for in the common people, he claimed, one finds genuine common sense.
Watching Stormzy being interviewed, and seeing the unassuming simplicity with which he points upward to signify God’s home, gratefully referencing the many “mad blessings” he has received, one can’t help but wonder if there’s much we could learn. Converts of the Second Spring, such as Graham Greene and Evelyn Waugh, thought creatively about what a post-Reformation English Catholic culture might look like, and found expression in a cultural form which had once been dismissed as vernacular and unsophisticated: the novel. No one is suggesting replacing liturgical Scripture readings with fiction, but the enrichment of our sense of a Catholic homeland given by their writings is inestimable.
So I suggest we let ourselves be shaken off our home turf by Stormzy, to be more genuinely at home, perhaps even praying for the “mad blessing” of diaspora Pentecostals entering the fullness of Catholic faith: “Stormzy, come home.”
Dr Jacob Phillips is BA theology programme director at St Mary’s University, Twickenham
This article first appeared in the April 28 2017 issue of the Catholic Herald. To read the magazine in full, from anywhere in the world, go here