Making Grace Amazing: Songs of resistance

the semiotics of the slave ship continue: from the forced movements of the enslaved to the forced movements of the migrant and the refugee, to the regulation of Black people in North American streets and neighborhoods, to those ongoing crossings of and drownings in the Mediterranean Sea, to the brutal colonial reimaginings of the slave ship and the ark; to the reappearances of the slave ship in everyday life in the form of the prison, the camp, and the school.

– Christina Sharpe

The image of the ship conjures up entire political, economic and spiritual histories—conquest, empire, struggle, song, kneeling, kneeling in protest, kneeling in prayer, the knee that forces one to shout “I can’t breathe”.  From the first slave ship that transported enslaved mothers, children and fathers across the Atlantic to the raft that fails to protect the migrant crossing the sea. Water is an undercurrent to all struggles. These struggles are connected and everything is everything.

Within the narrative of colonialism, there exists many lives that are rendered invisible and furthermore lives that are unheard or rather lives whose reverberations and echoes are felt only by those paying attention. Writer Sharifa Rhodes-Pitts speaks of rumours of a universal hum, an imperceptible vibration producing a sound ten thousand times lower than can be registered by the human ear. Perhaps this barely noted hum is the echo of enslaved peoples, their cries of sorrow and of joy through song.

Reminiscent of the Negro spirituals of the South, the song; Amazing Grace has long been a beloved companion, offering encouragement in times of grief and disappointment —a bonafide anthem for the scarred, the broken, the unjustly treated and the hopeful. But of course, its past is fraught. It is marred, sullied and implicated in the ugly history of the Trans-Atlantic slave trade. The hymn dates back to 1779, written by poet and clergyman John Newton. 1779 – the same year Spain declared war on Great Britain (the longest siege endured by British Armed Forces) in support of the American revolutionary war which sought to overthrow British rule across North America. Tough to believe that a song of comfort and consolation was itself conceived by a slaver in the slave trade. But then again, if ever there was a song for  absolution and salvation it would be this one;

I once was lost, but now am found,

Was blind, but now I see.

Taking the form of a call and response between composer Neo Muyanga, soprano Tina Mene and multidisciplinary troupe Legítima Defesa, Making Grace Amazing functions as an unflinching inquiry into America’s most beloved hymn song. It studies the evolution and persistence of this 240-year-old hymn as not only a mark of time but a contestation of history and temporality. Through moving image, fragments of writings and a sound archive, Muyanga reconsiders its dark and obscured past detailing histories while reimagining the hymn through a subversive, layered and non-linear lens.

You can watch the performance here.

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