23 May 2010

Positive Playlist: enlisting our culture in spiritual empowerment

The third unit of Ruhi Book 7 is called "Promoting the Arts at the Grassroots." On the subject of music, two major themes for consultation arise. One is the effectiveness of music in addressing the spiritual needs of the community. 'Abdu'l-Baha's reassurance that "... in this new age the Manifest Light hath, in His holy Tablets, specifically proclaimed that music, sung or played, is spiritual food for the soul and heart" lets us know that music does indeed have a place, leaving us to focus on details such as form and venue.

The second subject for discussion surrounds the cultural heritage of the community in which the study circle in question has formed. "You can assist the participants of your study circles in gaining an appreciation of the musical heritage of their people. Your discussions with them could take the form of an exploration into the various types of music common in the region."

While folk musics indigenous to an area are certainly worthy of our attention, this is not the focus of this posting. I'd like to suggest that animators of junior youth groups need not only keep in mind the overarching cultural artforms of an area, but also those that characterize the youth culture of the area, whatever it may be.

That there is a youth culture, that it contains messages absorbed by the young, is undeniable. Hiding in a corner and ignoring this fact will only raise divides between the spiritual and social lives of junior youth, the very divide that these groups are formed to overcome. How do we deal with this?

One method is to look at the negative aspects of this culture and begin to analyze them. The junior youth book "Drawing on the Power of the Word" gives examples of this exercise in developing media awareness, particularly in dealing with print news and advertising. This is an important skill, and one that needs to be taught with patience and wisdom.

Another method is to seek out those positive aspects of the youth culture and celebrate them. Following are 20 songs I appreciate (most of which I have made use of in a junior youth setting), just a tiny kernel of songs with messages that are relevant to the experiences of many junior youth groups. No group will appreciate all of them. Country western fans might relate more easily to that genre. 11-year-old girls might appreciate a song from a Disney film more than a group of 14-year-olds boys. But it is a start.

In alphabetical order:

Beautiful Day – U2
Blackbird – The Beatles
Change – Sean Kingston
Feel the Rain on Your Skin – Natasha Bedingfield
I Hope You Dance – Lee Ann Womack
Lean on Me – Bill Withers
Never Too Late - Michael Franti
One Tribe – Black Eyed Peas
Reflection – from Mulan
The River – Garth Brooks
The Thing About It* - Sweatshop Union
True Colors – Cindy Lauper
Seasons of Love – from Rent
Soon Love Soon – Vienna Teng
Standing Outside the Fire** – Garth Brooks
Strength, Courage and Wisdom - India Arie
When You Believe – Mariah Carey
Where is the Love – Black Eyed Peas
You Gotta Be – Des'ree
Young and Positive – Sweet Honey in the Rock

*contains one word of profanity
**contains the word “hell”, an issue in some communities

Please feel free to add more in comments, as this was never meant to be exhaustive, only the very beginning of what might become a useful resource for animators in the future.


  1. Well said. I would like to add that I think it often really depend on the person. When I was 14, the music that really brought me out of my slumber was Jimi Hendrix, The Doors, and Pink Floyd. They in effect made me realize that there were ways to think and feel that were outside of the pop culture mainstream. Ways that, while not altogether healthy, served as a harbinger for awakening and search.

  2. "That there is a youth culture, that it contains messages absorbed by the young, is undeniable. Hiding in a corner and ignoring this fact will only raise divides between the spiritual and social lives of junior youth." Well said! This is so important! In the animator training there's a section where we discuss what it is to live an integrated life. How can we help them live an integrated life unless we address, engage, and analyse the pop culture/youth culture with them? Discussing which elements are inspiring and which are harmful illusions, etc.

  3. Engaging with contemporary music in the setting of junior youth groups is also a valuable opportunity to understand the society around us. Dr. Peter Khan, recently retired from the Universal House of Justice, gave an excellent talk about Shoghi Effendi's definition of a Baha'i scholar. One definition is to engage the Baha'i teachings with contemporary problems and participating in the discourse of society. Dr. Khan went on to point out that by this definition, a person who had read all sorts of Baha'i books but not applied that knowledge would be farther from Shoghi Effendi's idea of a scholar than an illiterate person who shared the teachings with his peers and responded to their concerns.

    One reason it can be difficult to decide which elements of our culture are "inspiring and which are harmful illusions" is that the foundations of culture are often invisible. Culture is a set of acceptable assumptions embedded in everyday practice. It's not enough to say sexism is wrong-- we often have to tease out carefully hidden or implied attitudes in seemingly innocuous statements around us. I know this kind of thinking isn't really expected of us until college, but as Kat indicates, this is a survival skill, and JY empowerment programs have already blasted apart many preconceived notions about this age group's capacity. Junior Youth groups are an excellent opportunity to confront, respond to, or even "enlist" youth culture in the company of friends and from a perspective firmly based on the Baha'i writings. Listening to a song in this special context, even if it has been heard on the radio a hundred times before, may even cause the participants to listen to it differently.

    What I liked about Juliet's post about Lady Gaga's video is that it demonstrates that there is a level of engagement with the culture around us beyond simply deciding if a song is helpful or harmful. Is it so simple to make this distinction about Majnun sifting the dust for his beloved Layli, or music that aptly describes the very real rage and despair in the world as it undergoes its most momentous changes yet?

    It is important to understand how the media affects us, for we are not immune to its influence. We should also be thinking about understanding what is decadent about our culture--so we don't unwittingly adopt it-- and recognizing innovations that happen outside the Baha'i community so we might, as Kat says, "enlist" them.