Andre Henry is an artist and activist living in the Atlanta area. A former pastor, Henry’s single “It Doesn’t Have to Be This Way,” was remixed and re-released on Juneteenth. Lauren Shields spoke with Andre from his home in Atlanta for Sacred Matters about activism, spirituality, and the role of music in the fight for liberation.
LS: Can your activism be understood as a spiritual practice?
AH: To be honest, I struggle with the connection between what I’m doing and spirituality because of the harm that I experienced in church. We can say a lot about what’s wrong with the culture of evangelicalism, but the thing that broke the camel’s back for me was encountering white supremacy in the evangelical church, and among evangelical people that I loved.
I went to seminary because I was studying to become an Old Testament professor. During that time, I learned that the high God of Canaan was referred to as El–so Abraham, Isaac and Jacob thought of the God of the Bible as El. But later on, God comes to Moses and says God’s name is YHWH. God isn’t who Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob thought God was. One day in church, everybody around me was singing their hearts out, their hands up in the air, and I looked around and thought, “Who are we talking to?”
Later on, when I started speaking up about racial justice, the white evangelicals in my life told me, “Racism is not a priority to God,” and, “Jesus never led any protests against the Roman Empire.” I really thought about the church, its complicity in the transatlantic slave trade, Jim Crow and other chapters of church history and I thought, “What if they’re right? What if Christianity is just for white people because they made it up?”
I was supposed to be leading worship that day. But I was sitting on my couch thinking: Who are they talking to? Is God the same person that I read about in the Exodus story, who hated systemic suppression so much that God abolished that entire system of slave labor? Or is God just a cosmic middle-class white American man that they projected into the heavens and now they want to go sing to because they’re rehearsing this theology that justifies this arrangement of social inequality?
That’s partly why I get shy about talking about my spirituality being connected to what I’m doing. Because the only spirituality that I really knew initially had come through the evangelical church.
But in studying nonviolent movements, there are the Quakers who marched from house to house trying to enlist people in the abolitionist struggle, the pastors who walked the Trail of Tears, the Black churches who organized to fight Jim Crow. And Michael White, one of the co-founders of Occupy Wall Street, wrote about how the most important battles for collective liberation will be fought on the spiritual level, because we’re fighting for the imagination of a people. So to me, when we talk about spirituality we’re talking about the vibe. We’re talking about our common sense. We’re talking about our political imagination. And in that way, I do think that my work is spiritual: changing hearts and minds is not everything, but it is important.
LS: Can you talk a little bit about how music– yours and others’– and spirituality interact for you?
Music has always been a spiritual experience for me: it’s kind of ineffable, otherworldly. When I was in the church, music was the way that I felt most connected to God–and it’s interesting, as I’ve felt more alienated from Christianity, music has meant so much more to me. I’m not an expert on decolonization, but I wish I knew why it feels like I experience music more deeply now. No matter what I’m listening to, I just feel music more deeply than I ever have.
I listen to Bob Marley’s “Chant Down Babylon” every morning. And the first lyrics are, “Come, we burn down Babylon one more time.” But the esthetic, the music, is major, it’s happy. I’ve been thinking about how reggae music does this, and it’s tied into why I made the remix of “It Doesn’t Have to Be This Way” sound different from the original.
“Chant Down Babylon” sounds the way that it does because it’s not for white people. We as Black people living in an anti-Black world. We need songs that we can groove to, that we can relax to, that we can dance to. Even if they are talking about burning down this oppressive system, dismantling it, the music itself makes me feel relaxed. I have a glass of tea to “Chant Down Babylon” in the morning and read some poetry. And I feel like I’ve been re-sourced to deal with the routine violence of this society.
LS: Tell me about the re-release of your single, “It Doesn’t Have to Be This Way.”
When I wrote the song 2017, my perspective on social change was less developed. The original version starts with, “I see the children across the sea, left on the shore like trash and debris.” I’m not going to be too hard on myself for that lyric, but I feel like there are plenty of people who haven’t spent time on the streets or studying nonviolent struggle who could have written those lines. Also, the sound of the original is very abstract. You have to really understand reggae music to understand how this is a reggae song.
But the new version starts with, “Five hundred sneakers stomp on the pavement. Five hundred fists clenched high in the air, cardboard and banners waving, hear the sirens wailing. Five hundred voices shouting for change.” I’ve been in that crowd of five hundred people, I’ve led that crowd of five hundred people, that’s a scene from my life. And musically, it is more accessible and recognizable. It’s in a form that feels more familiar to people so that when they’re listening to it, they can easily understand it as reggae, they’re not distracted by how “weird” it sounds.
But there’s a deeper level to why I wanted to re-release it. Dr. King said near the end of his life, “Those who love peace must learn to organize as effectively as those who love war.” I put a lot of thought into that, I’ve been writing song after song about it, and even to this day, I feel like people don’t really understand my message.
The reason why “it doesn’t have to be this way” is that political power works by the consent of the ruled. Obedience is at the heart of political power. They told these Black people, you can’t eat in this restaurant. It’s for white people only. And these Black people said, “We don’t consent to being ruled this way. We’re going to come in here.” White people said, “You can’t ride in this section of the bus.” And we said, “We don’t consent to being ruled this way. We are going to ride in this section of the bus.”
There was a massive study by Erica Chenoweth and Maria Stephan that showed that over these 323 conflict situations, no regime could withstand the sustained nonviolent resistance of just three and a half percent of the population. I’m saying, “It doesn’t have to be this way,” because that’s literally grounded in history. It’s grounded in fact, it’s grounded in a proven analysis of what it takes for ordinary people to work together to change the world.
I think that’s where the message is, and I think that part is getting lost. People love it when we’re snarky about white people and racism online. But I’m trying to talk about anti-racism, specifically about nonviolent struggle, the kind that King was talking about in his final days. That’s a different angle, and I wonder if it’s being heard. Yes, racism is bad. We know that. We know that we need to actively confront it. How do we do it?
LS: That sounds like a frustrating place to be as an artist.
AH: It can be. And also, I’ve grown as a songwriter, as a political songwriter. When I was promoting the remix for “Red and Blue” with Propaganda, I asked friends if they would listen to the original version to prime the algorithm on Spotify. A friend of mine, a Black woman, said, “I like the song, and I’ll play it. But it’s hard for me to listen to.”
I thought a lot about that. “Red and Blue” is a song about police brutality, told through a story that happened to me, and it does make you want to bounce. But when my friend said that, I realized that a Black woman like her already knows what’s going on in this society. When she comes home after having coworkers trying to touch her hair and not getting the promotion at work even though she’s just as qualified as the new white employee that just got hired, feeling nervous on the way home that the police were behind her for a few seconds… when she gets home, she doesn’t want to listen to a song that brings her back outside.
With “It Doesn’t Have to Be This Way,” I’m trying to talk about what it means to live in the world in this Black body without sermonizing like I did with some of the other songs. My dad, who’s a reggae musician and was an anti-imperialist activist, said something that really has stuck with me: Black liberation is about giving food, shelter and clothing to Black people. That’s it.
Black people just want to live. If you’re going to make music about chilling out and enjoying the breeze, we need that song. We live in a world that robs us of leisure and puts obstacles in the way of our pleasure. We want to be able to enjoy our lives without having to worry about being beat up by the police, or any of that other antiBlack nonsense. We need and deserve music for that.
I’ll still write songs like “Red and Blue” and “How Long,” because in a world where you’re subjected to constant racial gaslighting, telling the truth in your music is cathartic. But I also want to be mindful of how I can serve Black people with my music. I think what I can do for them is like what Bob Marley does for me with songs like “Jammin’”: singing about how everything is going to be all right feels different to a privileged person who can afford to spend a week at an all inclusive resort in Jamaica, versus someone living in the ghetto splitting a pot of soup with their neighbors.
LS: It seems like an important lesson, the difference between talking to white people and serving Black people.
AH: And I’m not saying that a heavy metal band like Rage Against the Machine doesn’t appeal to Black people at all. But I think there’s a time when that kind of esthetic fits, because you’re feeling angry or tense or you need to get some energy out or maybe you’re going for a run, and you need that kind of adrenaline. But Tom Morello has a degree from Harvard in political science. What machine did these people think they were raging against?
If you look at where Bob Marley’s music ends up on Spotify, it’s a lot of “Sunday fun day” and “beach day” playlists. And I get why. But I don’t think he’s being heard. He’s writing so much about Black liberation, and people don’t hear it. It’s very conscious and very political, but it’s still just serving as the backdrop to white people’s pleasure. Bob Marley really wanted to sing to Black people, because he’s singing about African unity. But his manager, Chris Blackwell, didn’t feel like his music with the Wailers would appeal to Black audiences, so they intentionally marketed Bob Marley and the Wailers to white college students. And you see this as a frustration with the Wailers, with the Roots, and I for myself as well: struggling to be heard.
That’s a tightrope that I’m walking with this. I want my music to be enjoyable, but really meaningful, and that’s hard. It feels like that story Kierkegaard told about a fire breaking out backstage at a theater, and someone comes out onstage to warn everyone and they just applaud. No matter how hard he tries to warn them, they think it’s just art.
Lauren Shields is a graduate of Candler Theological Seminary, former pastor, activist, and author of The Beauty Suit: How My Year of Religious Modesty Made Me a Better Feminist (Beacon Press 2018). She now works as a freelance author, focusing on feminism and religion.