The Common Good
July-August 2003

Can't Take Her Joy

by Beth Isaacson | July-August 2003

An interview with music-maker, activist, and passionate believer Michelle Shocked.

Michelle Shocked—musician and activist extraordinaire—was in Washington, D.C., this winter to take part in Sojourners' roundtable on faith, art, and social activism and to participate in a CodePink peace rally on International Women's Day. She spent a day with fellow believers, musing about how faith, activism, and art can work toward the renewal of this world. She spent the next day putting her art, activism, and faith to work—a practice to which she is no stranger—in Malcolm X Park with thousands of other activists, yearning and speaking for peace and justice.

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After the rally, Shocked—a tallish woman with straight, shoulder-length brown hair—walked into the lobby of her hotel dressed all in black, wearing a bright pink "Women for Peace" button attached to her T-shirt. Shocked carried what looked like an American flag under her right arm. In fact, it was the flag she wore as a burka during her performance at the rally. She settled at a table in the hotel's pub, taking the sunward side for the photographer's sake. A reporter set out to discover how the different aspects of Shocked's life—professional, spiritual, and political—build off of and nourish one another. Do her political beliefs feed her spiritual journey? Does her faith nourish her activism?

"I can go anywhere in the world and speak from what's in my head," she said, cutting a line just under her chin with her hands and then motioning upwards. "There are very few places where I can speak my heart and be heard."

Her hands floated in front of her chest. Shocked is clearly more interested in sharing her experience—how Jesus has changed her life—than in waxing philosophical about anything. And, judging from what she has to say—as well as last fall's gospel-infused double album, Deep Natural/Dub Natural—Shocked's life has changed profoundly.

MICHELLE SHOCKED WAS raised in "an extremely large, poor, strict fundamentalist Mormon household," which she left at 16. She worked herself through college, earning a degree in oral interpretation of literature from the University of Texas. Shocked then spent several years in the early '80s hitching from city to city, staying in squats, playing mandolin and fiddle in street bands. She was an activist, paying particular attention to community organizing on the issue of water privatization.

Around this time, her mother had Shocked involuntarily committed to a mental institution. The insurance ran out a month later, and Shocked was suddenly out on the street, still under the influence of "mental straitjacket" drugs—as Shocked explained, "You can think clearly but you can't connect the thoughts with actions." She was raped. "I literally watched myself being raped by this man, and I didn't understand at the time that it was my inability because of the drugs [that kept me from fighting back]. I felt guilty for years and years afterward that I watched it happen. That was really painful. That makes you angry."

Shocked's life experiences are rife with pain, lost dreams, hopeless feelings, and sleepless nights. Her earlier albums are filled with the blues, shuffles, and fiddle tunes that rise out of such suffering. Through her study of the roots of American music, however, Shocked began to learn about gospel, a style she's described as "one of the deepest roots music." She began attending a church in Los Angeles "for the music," she said. "I guess I went one time too many." Shocked heard the call and found a balm for her wounds, as well as insight into the significant power of forgiveness.

"You can forgive the person that's wronged you, that's much easier than forgiving yourself for being in a vulnerable position. That took a lot more time," she said. "That's really, I think, a big part of what it means to me to be saved. You have a savior that was God and yet allowed himself to be crucified, to be made vulnerable and die for our sins. And if he could do that, it starts to work on you. You start to realize that a lot of our sins were circumstantial—we were acting out the hurt that we had received at the hands of others.

"It's just such a glorious and transcendent and graceful gospel to practice on a daily basis, the gospel of loving forgiveness," she continued, "because only in forgiving others can we really be in touch with that experience of how we can be forgiven. I think a lot of times we try to relate to being forgiven for things that we deliberately did to hurt others, to injure others. But for a lot of us who are tender hearted, we know we've hurt others, but it wasn't so deliberate."

Shocked is part of a Church of God in Christ congregation; the African-American denomination known as COGIC (pronounced ko-jik). She noted that sometimes she can't help but express her difference of opinion. "If doctrine comes up that I don't agree with, I just stand," she said. "I don't feel it's my place to push [for change]. It's sort of a ‘take what you need and leave the rest' kind of approach. I've received and gained a lot from [COGIC], but it's not open to a democratic process, you know." Shocked believes it takes all kinds of people to make a world, including the world of a church.

In the midst of her earlier wanderings, Shocked's activist career was diverted, "just like the water," she jokingly said, and her musical career found her first as a "folkie" with an independent label in Britain, then in a contract with Mercury Records. When Shocked's musical stylings became too "erratic" for the company's taste, it refused to pay for production on another record while simultaneously refusing to release Shocked from her contract. Years of legal battle ensued, and Shocked eventually won her freedom, having sued the record company under the 13th Amendment, which abolished slavery.

Shocked will let no one tell her what music she can or can't play. "Music is a part of life, like food," she said. "As you'd bake someone a special meal, as feasts are a part of important parts of life. You don't have to train as a chef to know how to cook." She feels the same way about music: "[It's] in the air—you breathe it." Shocked calls this quality the "vernacular" of music. On her Web site, Shocked wrote, "The main revolution I'd like to start is just getting people to play their own music." Her egalitarian roots are never far from hand.

With Deep Natural/Dub Natural, Shocked debuted her own label, Mighty Sound, and she continues to work with all styles of American music. Appalachian ballads whisper next to the shuffles that are swallowed by yowling, reggae-infused gospel. Here, though, instead of sleepless nights and hopeless feelings, Shocked sings of good news and comfort that she has come to know. "At this point, you know, I gotta start shouting: ‘Thank God, thank God that he made a way out of no way,'" she said. "No human could have come up with that logic: By transcending death, I will defeat once and for all the old laws. I will create a new law and it's the law of love. That is God wisdom only."

Shocked's faith brought her into a community—after initial reluctance. "I'd heard folks at church were among those that can hurt you most, so I stayed back for a while," she said. "I didn't want, at such an early place of coming back to church, to get hurt and blame it on God." In Shocked's experience, though, the people of COGIC wouldn't leave her to herself, and they have proven among her most cherished companions.

"You're talkin' to a girl with a lot of hurt where ‘mother' is concerned," she said while describing a woman from her church who has been instrumental in Shocked's spiritual growth. "[She] didn't try to be a physical mother but was in every sense what my own mother should have been, spiritually—she told me you need to sit down at the Lord's table and eat and drink from what he has to give you. Read his word." It's guidance Shocked has incorporated into her daily routine.

When she's home, Shocked follows a rigid diet. While she eats, she reads scripture. "I've read Matthew, Mark, and am just starting Luke, all in about one month," she said. "I'll read through the whole Bible this year."

During moments like these, when she speaks of how her faith molds her life in new ways, Shocked becomes most animated and most at ease. Joy pours through her. Her cup runneth over. And Shocked's convinced your cup can overflow too. She's right: No superfluous philosophizing can grasp the experience of a life changed. Her heart says it all.

Beth Isaacson is a free-lance writer living in Silver Spring, Maryland.

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