I first heard "Ultralight Beam" when Kanye West and company performed it on Saturday Night Live. The-Dream opened with “I’m tryna keep my faith" and Kanye continued with "Deliver us serenity. Deliver us peace. Deliver us love. Lord knows we need it.” Think about how tragic it is that Kanye West, one of the biggest artists on one of the biggest stages, married to one of the most ubiquitous characters, Kim Kardashian-West, and frenemies with one of the most powerful couples, Jay-Z and Beyoncé, just wants some peace and a safe space.
Then, imagine how many Christians feel right now. Black folks of any faith, really—Yeezus just happens to rock with Jesus. We claim to believe in an omnipotent, omniscient God. A god who loves and protects us and who knew us before birth (Jeremiah 1:5). But cognitive dissonance is real and we are human—Black people are being murdered. I know we’re becoming desensitized to that sentiment so it’s worth saying twice: Black people are being murdered. Like young Chance the Rapper said on “Pusha Man/Paranoia,”
Black Americans are getting it from every side: cops, white Americans, systemic and environmental racism , you name it. How does one keep their faith amidst all of that?
I worried I lost my faith over the past couple of years. I would pray and for the first time in life, I felt as though I was just talking to the ceiling. Born to two high school graduates of the Compton Unified School District, my life thus far has already exceeded most expectations. We ain’t even supposed to be here. But I’ve had some awful times, too. Through high school, I wore the then-popular Jesus Is My Homeboy t-shirts. In college, I tried the Christian organization InterVarsity. Then my senior year, two days after Christmas, my best friend died unexpectedly. And everything changed.
I thought I had a mature faith but this was the real test. And I’m pretty sure I failed. Instead of dealing with that spiritual and existential crisis and confronting my pain, I applied to grad school. A few months after graduation I turned 22 and started my PhD program. It was tough but I put my head down and I worked hard for two years and then took a vacation. My vacation quickly turned into a major depressive episode, the first I ever experienced. One suicidal period and a hospital stay later, Ferguson happened. Just when I got the strength to take back my life, cops were taking Black lives left and right.
This isn’t a random chronological connection—this is how my depression evolved. I went to Ferguson and in the midst of it all, I felt somewhat calmer. I felt closer to a purpose. I started writing again. I wrote about my time in Ferguson, I wrote about what it meant to be back in DC with this new fire inside. I wrote about existentialism. I wrote about quantum physics. I was doing well in school again. Things were starting to look up. I was still dealing with my severe depression and feeling alone but I was finding better outlets. Then last summer a wildly unnecessary event at Howard University’s financial aid office changed everything. Departmental politics and regular HBCU administrative shenanigans occurred and I no longer felt it was in my best interest to remain there.
Per usual though, even in my spiritual desert, "with my head up high, I look to the Light. ‘Cause I know that You’ll make everything alright. And I know that You’ll take good care of your child." And out of nowhere, it seemed, I got this amazing possible opportunity to work with someone I wildly respected. It fell through last Thursday and now I write this having no clue what I’ll be doing next with my career or my life.
So yeah. I lost my faith. But I’m not here to argue about His facial features or here to convert atheists into believers, I’m just tryna say Black people are a deeply religious people, historically. We’re dangerously conservative, even. Many of us often joke that if the Republican party ever got over themselves and realized that, we’d all be in danger. Luckily I don’t see that happening anytime soon. It’s with this context of my own depression and the general rough patch Black Americans are in – wouldn’t you know, we’ve been hurt, we’ve been down before – that "Ultralight Beam" premieres.
When times get hard, we defer to our faith. Or we used to. But the church is dwindling in numbers and more and more millennials lack a religion or belief in a higher power because we’re stifled when we enter the sanctuary. We’re told to become completely different. To hide our true selves. Don’t curse. Don’t party. Don’t do this. Don’t wear that. If somehow, someway, we do make it through the church doors despite whatever stigma we may fear or bad experience we may have had, even HOW we praise is under scrutiny. We should be dressed in our good church clothes and on our best behavior. Stand here. Clap there.
But this “Ultralight Beam” performance had folks dabbing in the choir, leaning and snapping, milly rocking on the SNL block, and unapologetically so. What’s more authentic than that? A choir of young people in ripped jeans and sneakers, shaking their dreads, flaunting their natural hair, and declaring themselves as part of a divine plan—"This is a God dream. We on an ultralight beam. This is a God dream. This is everything" – all on stage, and on live, national television is a revolutionary act.
When Kelly Price sings “So why send depression not blessings? Why, oh why’d you do me wrong?” I know many people instantly connected to that. Activist depression is very real. When the National Guard was shooting tear gas canisters at women and small children in Ferguson while CNN lied about it in real time, that was stressful. Depression came when everyone I knew was staying up with their eyes glued to their computer screens and mobile devices watching live streams of the government attacking us. Depression seeps in when on Christmas Eve 2014 my twitter timeline was filled with people not excited about the holidays, but deeply saddened by the murder of Antonio Martin just two miles from where Michael Brown was gunned down by Officer Darren Wilson. And with all of that happening, Black people were expected to continue carrying on with school and work and life like everything was okay. That’s stress. That’s trauma. That causes depression.
So hearing Sister Kelly Price convincingly sing “Head up high, I look to the Light. ‘Cause I know that You’ll make everything alright. And I know that you’ll take good care of your child” while that trill choir points to themselves on beat is the encouragement and affirmation that we needed. That’s gospel. “Gospel” means the good news. And usually, that’s in reference to the good news of Jesus Christ coming to save our souls from eternal damnation. But in this case. Kanye, Chance the Rapper, The-Dream, Kelly Price, and Kirk Franklin (who once defiantly started a song “Some people say that gospel music has gone too far. They say we’ve gotten too radical with our message…”) made a gospel song where the good news is that we gon’ be alright. This Glory Rap is what the people need. While Beyoncé calls us into formation after baptizing herself atop a New Orleans police car, and Kendrick affirms that we’re gonna be alright, Kanye and The Family are hitting us with the encouragement on a spiritual level. Oppression is exhausting and depressing.
Kelly Price continues her optimistic direction with No longer afraid of the night, so I, I look to the Light. While this could simply be about Black people literally being in danger by being out at night driving, walking to get skittles, etc, this is also about depression – as many will tell you the night can be the scariest time. The song “Everlasting Love” by gospel titan Cece Winans is one of the best descriptions of the depressed experience I’ve ever heard:
But much like “Ultralight Beam”, “Everlasting Love” is a gospel song so the uplifting part comes just in time: Then suddenly the darkness gave way to the Light, and I threw off the covers as I closed my eyes… And I knew in that moment that it was Your everlasting love.
We started with I’m trying to keep my faith, Kelly Price encouraged us to keep going and by the time we’re blessed with a verse by Chance the Rapper, he’s declaring that the pressure he’s been putting on the devil’s neck (aka winning the holy war) is enough to break the continents up. He ups the ante by saying he’s moving his family out of Chicago and to Zambia (a place the Global Peace Index declared as the most peaceful country in Africa). A classic Martin reference and shoutout to Chicago lingo later, Chance keeps the Black excellence allusions poppin’ and declares himself the “Tubman of the underground”, inviting us all to follow him to freedom.
To top off that marvelous display of lyricism, this is where the entire performance just reaches peak Blackness: the choir is in full sway, snapping their fingers and stomping and clapping to the beat like we do. Kanye and The-Dream have no sign of the usual big music star coolness. They’re cheesing and leaning on each other almost in awe of the spirit present on the stage. They finally found their safe space. It’s what we’re all looking for now. A safe space. A literal safe space from murderous cops, lone white terrorists, and a myriad of other dangers in the world, but also a safe space to just be Black.