Black Masculinity and Black Faith: An Interview with J.Kwest

Racial justice is a constant headline in America. Whether it's Colin Kaepernick kneeling, the overlapping of gender and racial justice in the critical conversations surrounding Nate Parker's Birth of a Nation film, the importance of racial justice - and a healthy sense of black masculinities - is an urgent conversation.

To advance that dialogue, I conducted an interview with the Emmy-Award winning artist and pastor, Rev. Julian "J.Kwest" DeShazier. Rev. DeShazier, the pastor of University Church in Chicago, recently released an album called Lemonade - before Beyoncé took over the charts with an landmark visual album of the selfsame title. The interview is centered on "Black Man", one of the standout tracks on a stellar album. What follows is a lightly edited interview I conducted with Rev. DeShazier discussing what it means to be a black man in America today.

Andrew Wilkes: What made you pen the song Black Man?

Rev. DeShazier: The easy answer is: look at what's going on! But a lot of people see it and don't do anything. So here's the real: I grew up on the type of emcees that spoke to reality, told hard truths, and did more than the simple voyeurism into black life that a lot of rap provides. I want to continue that lineage of Common, Talib Kweli, and Queen Latifah..."Black Man" as a song fits that.

Another reason is a lot of folks - regardless of race - have commentary on what's going on, but I'm not noticing is a lot of listening to try and learn the real experiences of Black men in this country. So when Colin Kaepernick kneels, or [Muhammad] Ali throws his gold medal in the Ohio River, people have hot takes but aren't asking, "Wow, what must it really be like to be a Black Man?" We all need to take a turn at shutting up and listening. "Black Man" is one way to do that and to share that with folks you know who are struggling to grasp this moment in history.

AW: We live in a moment of toxic white masculinities creating various kinds of harm. But, as black women remind us, there are also toxic understandings of what it means to be a black man as well. What does it mean to be a black man in the age of #SayHerName?

RD: That movement is so dope because it publicly humanizes black women in the same ways Nikki Giovanni and Maya Angelou were doing - like, "Here's my feminine, not relative to your masculine but all by itself." When any people become a monolith, much is lost, and when women are described only in relative terms - as in, what a man is not - I think that takes away from the beauty as well. I have two daughters and I want them to be known by their NAMES.

I'm also cognizant that writing a song like "Black Man," could make it seem like I'm out here leading the movement. To be clear, if you go to those protests and are a fly on the wall of those BLM [Black Lives Matter] and BYP [Black Youth Project 100] meetings, the room is full of young, black, WOMEN leading us. It's so incredible, and to be a man right now means when people assume it's ME doing this, I make sure to #SayHerName. Just as we're asking white folks and historically white institutions of power to lay down privilege for the equality of all...we must ask the same of all men.

AW: There's a line which states, "I wish they'd only load up on the computer. I wish the system cared about us young rulers". Tell us more about what about these lines mean.

RD: To fully do this we gotta go one line back "Call him Hoover or David, call him a shooter".

In Chicago, when you are on the block and call a young black man "King," he will almost always think about David or Hoover (David Barksdale, leader of the Disciples Nation, and Larry Hoover, leader of the Gangster Nation - they merged and became the Gangster Disciples), and with "Chief" or "Lord" it's the same thing: black men understanding their authority through violence and territorial warfare. All I'm asking is, "What if there was another way to understand ourselves?" Some people have talked about it as "black on black crime" or "dealing with our own community first," but the reality is that a lot of straight up hatred has penned in black folks - literally in some cases - and created the need for gangs in the first place. So while I'm talking to the brothers on the block...I wish the system cared about us young rulers...when Spike came here to do Chiraq it was all about "black on black" and the young activists were like, "We gotta fix the system," and they quickly got at odds with each other. I put both lines together to say we need both!

AW: For readers who are unaware, you are also a pastor. How does your pastoral ministry inform your composition of the Lemonade album?

RD: The more I pastor - six years now! - the more I see how people gravitate to stories. I get now why so much of the Bible is in that narrative form, and why people seem to hate "preachy" or heavy-handed sermonizing. Dr. King [Martin Luther King Jr.] talks about this in his autobiography and why he really disliked going to church as a boy - and his daddy was the pastor! So I wanted Lemonade to be a bunch of stories - of pain, of triumph, of making it through and turning the bad into good (that is, lemons into lemonade) and I didn't just want to tell the story of Jesus; I wanted to tell my story so that I can be approached by anybody listening.

The coolest and most humbling thing is somebody coming up to me, not to say, "Yo, you can rap," but, "Yo, I been through that too," or, "Thanks for helping me finally say that." Giving people language and helping people make meaning out of life, whether broken or beautiful, that to me is pastoring and emceeing at its best.

AW: Thanks for your time and your work.

For more information on J.Kwest's music, including the song "Black Man", please visit: JKwest.com