Rocking — A spontaneous combustion of rapture and bliss; an altered state; becoming personal with the divinity of your beliefs/craft/art and reawakened.
Every Sunday, throughout the United States, Evangelical ministers walk to the pulpit with one agenda: to invite the congregation into a direct union with God. In the early moments of this invitation, the minister addresses a composed, seated congregation as he or she begins to weave a metaphorical story of doubt and fear, and the role of faith, courage, endurance, and love. Within minutes, if it is a Black church, many members respond to the minister’s sermon verbally, declaring “Amen!” or “Yes, Lord!” The minister continues the message of the power of the Almighty—the trials of David with Goliath, or the doubt of Mary about Gabriel’s message. Large swaths of the seated congregation nod or hold an acknowledging arm in the air, palm facing the minister or heaven.
The minister may sing a few lines of “Take My Hand, Precious Lord,” propelling individual members of the congregation to stand and sway or to bounce to the cadence established by his song-speech and verbal-breath. There is always a piano, and now it Riffs on the melody “Though the storm, through the night,” amplifying emotions, the message, and the minister. More individuals stand. The minister chants the words now being played by the piano and the guitar (“Take my hand…”), and the choir stands to sing, Riffing on the message. Most of the congregation rises to its feet. The song ends, and the minster increases the intensity of the message using repetitive motifs of scripture and verbal-breath and song-and-rhyme and metaphor and the raising and lowering of his voice and heart-felt, God-induced hallelujahs.
The congregation inspires the minister: “Preach! You know the way Brother Williams, you know the way!” And he does: stepping back from the pulpit, the minister jumps into the air three times and then marches down the church aisle declaring the victory of the Almighty in the metaphorical battle. In so doing, he catapults his congregation into movement, shouts, and the glossolalia of spirit-possessed worshipers who have given control of their behavior over to this spiritual higher source. Now everybody is on the Rocked journey of God. An hour later, the minister, congregation, and musicians are filled with profound joy, love, and peace.
Rocking is not restricted to the expressive endeavors of the speech/song musical language of African-American preachers in a Sunday sermon; since Africanist performers “go to church on stage,” it is an essential part of specific Africanist performances.
John Coltrane once looked at a transcript of one of his solos and said, “I can’t play that.”[i]
In an interview with Terry Gross, National Public Radio jazz critic Kevin Whitehead prefaced the above quote by saying, “It’s not always easy learning to play something you’ve improvised.” In Rocking, the Africanist tenet of Improvisation serves as an escort, taking the jazz artist, church worshiper, hip-hop dancer, or actor into unchartered aesthetic virtuosity, perception, memory, attention, emotion, pleasure, and resolution.
When an artist improvises, he or she is spontaneously performing with awareness of the present; however, the awareness is a charged temporal moment that is informed not only by the performer’s own experience but also by ancestors—maybe a deity, a higher virtuosity, and iwa, which is a personal spiritual force such as qigong, chi, or taksu. The longer the artist exists in the Improvisation (i.e., in the vibration of possibilities), the greater the likelihood that unseen forces will ritualistically reconstruct within her or him (i.e., “mount” the practitioner) and move, speak, sing, or play an instrument. Therefore, part of the improvised performance is touched (influenced/shaped/transcended)—or Rocked. That is why Coltrane said, “I can’t play that.”
Artist Chad Morris speaks of the same magical moment occurring during hip-hop performances: “Bboy Free and myself have this conversation all the time. ‘Catching the ghost’ relates to a term we use when mind, body, time, and rhythm meet at the same place instead of anticipated by following the rhythm. When you move without even thinking, you are the rhythm—and time and space have met. You are catching the ghost.”
Every participant in Rocking, whether it’s a Pentecostal church parishioner, a hip-hop artist, or John Coltrane, uses the tenets of Improvisation, Riffing, Repetition, Hantu, Innovation, and Call and Response to bring revelation, awakening, understanding, and resolution that is not accessed by linear reasoning, which honors consistency above all else. That is the point of Rocking: to become personal with the divinity of your beliefs/craft/art, and reawakened. Thousands of Africanist performances Rock, from stage acts such as James Brown’s exits to Sister Rosetta Tharpe’s singing and the tap dancing of Savion Glover in Bring in ’Da Noise, Bring in ’Da Funk.
From the point of view of neuroscientist Dr. Charles Limb, one might explain the uber-performance levels related to possession, Rocking, and Improvisation based solely on human neurological activity: “[A]rtistic creativity, it’s magical, but it’s not magic, it’s a product from the brain, a neurological product.” Using fMRI, Dr. Limb studies complex neurological processes such as creativity. Asking the question “What happens in the brain…during something that is spontaneously generated, or improvised…?”[ii] early research produced a preliminary hypothesis that “to be creative, you should have this weird disassociation in your frontal lobe. One area turns on [lateral prefrontal/self-expression], and a big area shuts off [medial prefrontal/self monitoring], so that you’re not inhibited, you’re willing to make mistakes, so that [you do not] shut down…new regenerative impulses.” Similar brain studies on glossolalia (speaking in tongues) and possession suggest support for the spiritual practitioner’s and artist’s subjective experience—that these Rocked events are not necessarily coming from the brain; rather, they are simply reflected in brain activity.
Robert Farris Thompson calls it spirit memory, or a “flash of the spirit.” Africans who lived in the Americas during the 1700s through to the 1800s brought several practices for worship from the continent of Africa and the islands of the Caribbean: Kinetic Vocabulary, Call and Response, Riffing, Repetition, shaking, spirit possession, and Rocking. Just as their ancestors knew of astrological constellations centuries before the invention of the telescope, they knew how to make neurological room for larger forces—becoming personal with the divine and large archetypes—and how to use this intimacy to engage with flashes of revelation and resolution well before the birth of Jesus, Jung, or the fMRI.
[i] Fresh Air. “Alto Saxophonist Miguel Zenón Evokes Folkloric Melodies on ‘Típico.’” February 28 2017.
[ii] Charles Limb. “TEDxMidAtlantic 2010.” YouTube video. November 5 2010. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BomNG5N_E_0 In a scientific experiment, Limb compared jazz musicians playing a memorized jazz theme and an improvised jazz theme based on chord progressions.