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At a back-to-school party 50 years ago this week, behind two turntables, Clive Campbell — better known as DJ Kool Herc — mixed the beats from familiar songs together, and hip-hop was born.
“We are all considered to be poets and prophets and stewards of the mysteries,” said the Rev. Otis Moss III during his Interfaith Lecture on Monday in the Hall of Philosophy, opening Week Eight’s “Freedom of Religious Expression” theme. “If we are to be poets of the movement, stewards of agitation, griots of the sacred stories, cantors of resistance and preachers of a freedom faith, (then) we are all called to be poetic DJs and create a mixtape that America desperately needs in this moment.”
He invoked Psalm 96: “Sing unto the Lord a new song, sing all the earth …” but asked the audience to consider the “OM3” translation: “Sing unto the Lord a remix of an old song.”
As a teenager who was mostly into hip-hop, Moss recalled how he reluctantly went to an R&B concert featuring Debarge and Luther Vandross. He recognized a woman in the third row who was a parishioner at his father’s church, shouting like she was at a Sunday service.
“At that moment, I realized there was no sacred and secular separation because the spirit hit her at that moment as she was listening to Luther Vandross sing about love,” he said.
When it comes to making a mixtape, Moss said producer James Dewitt Yancey, known as J Dilla, realized when some people clap to the beat of a song, they find the beat at the one and the three, while others clap on the two and the four.
“What J Dilla did is that he was able to create music that was not biased to one and three or biased to two and four,” Moss said. “What he was saying in his work was that he believed there should be no beat supremacy in America, that every culture brings something to the table whether you clap on the one and the three or on the two and the four.”
At this point in our democracy, Moss said, America needs DJs who are going to create a mixtape in civic society, blending together the songs of diverse people.
“A DJ does not believe in walls of demarcation,” Moss said. “The DJ says ‘I can take country western and trap music and bring them together to create something that has never been created before, borrowing from the jazz tradition of improvisation.’ America deeply needs this mixtape perspective.”
Just like DJs, the four gospel writers all had different perspectives and different audiences, Moss said. A DJ brings perspective to a party in the form of crates of records.
“You couldn’t just bring one crate, you had to have a variety of crates,” Moss said. “And when they would have this variety of crates, they could always have music from a variety of different genres.”
America is challenged because not enough people have that expansive collection in their crates, Moss said.
“We’ve got to learn to expand our crates, expand the music that we are playing, and in that expansion, we learn how to communicate at a higher level with each other,” he said, just like when the right song comes on and everyone starts nodding their heads together.
The civil rights movement was dedicated to “expanding the crates” and “ensuring that the voices that had been muted by those functioning with a Confederate and antebellum framework would see there were new possibilities in this nation,” Moss said.
Expanding the crates of records also means allowing those who are marginalized to be a part of the music, which allows for a “more nuanced understanding of what is happening to our democracy,” he said.
His wife and daughter, as Black women, communicate differently than he can — just by giving each other a “huh” — that taught him to “expand his crate,” just as scholars he learned from like George Tinker and Vincent Hardy taught him to confront different ideas.
“I was then able to make new music and that is a challenge in this nation: Are we going to be able to make new music when someone presents a new song or an old song that is a remix?” Moss asked the audience.
He referenced Monday’s morning worship service and the sermon by the Rev. William Lamar IV, emphasizing that “if we choose to shift our democracy, it takes more than what we say, but also what we do.”
Musicians often don’t just communicate with their words, but also their bodies, Moss said. For example, jazz pianist Thelonious Monk often jumped up from his seat while performing.
“I gotta get out what God put in me,” Moss said, quoting Monk, then continued, “We are called to co-labor and use the fullness of our being — our mind, our body, our spirit — if we are to utilize our full being in this moment in history.”
When expanding the crates of perspective, beautiful music can be found in even the darkest stories, Moss said.
For instance, a slave trader named John Newton is credited with writing “Amazing Grace,” when a ship carrying kidnapped people from West Africa hit a storm.
“Amazing Grace” is one of the only hymns where the dominant beat isn’t on the one and the three, but on the two and the four, and the melody is structured on the pentatonic scale, Moss said.
“Newton, yes, wrote the lyrics, but the melody did not come from Newton, it came from the hull of the ship,” Moss said. “There was a hum and a sound that came from the hull of the ship … and that sound was so beautiful, it was like incense that made its way to heaven.”
The black keys of a piano play the pentatonic scale, which is what most spirituals are based on, Moss said.
“In other words, if you remove the black keys from ‘Amazing Grace,’ you will have grace, but it will not be amazing,” he said. “But if the black and the white keys play together, then all of a sudden you have music that could not be comprehended by Newton, but something new comes about.”
Remixing American democracy, Martin Luther King Jr. was one of the greatest DJs in American history, Moss said, since he knew and mastered these tactics.
His “I Have a Dream” speech in 1963 came, in part, from an improvised recollection of a prayer he had heard two years earlier by the Rev. Prathia Hall in Albany, Georgia, Moss said.
“And then, as he stood at the Mall, he started to remix, like a good DJ,” Moss said.
King added the notion to “let freedom ring” at Stone Mountain and in the Great Smoky Mountains — where the Klu Klux Klan hate group was the strongest.
“When he was remixing, saying ‘let freedom ring,’ he was saying, ‘There will be a day where there shall be no more KKK’, where there will be no more terrorist organizations, that America will become America,” Moss said.
And today, America needs those DJs “willing to bring a remix” to places in Florida, Georgia, South Carolina, Illinois, Oklahoma and California, that include lyrics of love and justice, not just one or the other, he said.
“Love without justice is simply sentimentality,” Moss said. “Justice without love can easily become legalism and brutality. But when love and justice get married, and they walk down the aisle and become a couple, they produce two children: one by the name of liberation and the other by the name of transformation.”
As DJs in this moment of American history, anyone can drop a beat into the mix, no matter their background or language or country of origin, because the mixtape of America should “speak to the fullness of what we can become as a nation,” Moss said, and he has hope for future generations who are willing to bring that music together.
“I can see it in my mind’s eye that America may be America one day,” he said, “if we get some DJs who can drop a mixtape. God bless you.”