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 exist 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 10 000 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 bona fide 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, when it was 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.”
Making Grace Amazing, which takes the form of a call-and-response between composer Neo Muyanga, soprano Tina Mene and multidisciplinary troupe Legítima Defesa, functions as an unflinching inquiry into America’s most beloved hymn. It studies the evolution and persistence of this 240-year-old hymn as not only a mark of time but also as a contestation of history and temporality. Through moving images, fragments of writings and a sound archive, Muyanga reconsiders its dark and obscured past, detailing these histories, while reimagining the hymn through a subversive, layered and non-linear lens.
You can watch the performance online; tickets cost R35.
This article was first published on The Critter.