Each month, we’ll feature a playlist from a different individual across Mennonite Church USA reflecting on their top 10 most important songs. This month’s playlist comes from Isaac Villegas. Isaac is pastor at Chapel Hill (N.C.) Mennonite Church.
You can listen to Isaac’s playlist below.
1. Ana Tijoux, “Somos Sur”: Tijoux grew up in France because her parents had to flee their homeland of Chile due to the U.S.-sponsored dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet. She knows the effects of repressive regimes and the imperial dreams of the United States. Her music is an act of resistance against all forms of oppression—from military violence to patriarchy.
This song, “Somos Sur,” is an anthem for peoples everywhere who have been silenced—“Todos los callados, Todos los omitidos, Todos los invisibles.” She especially calls out the continual insinuation of the United States in the affairs of Latin America: “Fuera yanquis de América latina…Caballito Blanco, vuelve pa’ tu pueblo, no te tenemos miedo.”
While there are moments of righteous anger, the theme is one of the joy of survival, the joy of struggle, the joy of life. This is music for dancing—a prophetic invitation, a dream of celebration, that moves your body to dance on the ruins of empire. “Alegre rebeldía, del baile de los que sobran, de la danza tuya y mía, Levantarnos para decir ‘ya basta’.” This song is all about power, the power to create new possibilities for life even as the old world burns away: “Tenemos vida y fuego, fuego nuestras manos, fuego nuestros ojos. Tenemos tanta vida.
2. M.I.A., “Paper Planes”: M.I.A. is the stage name of Mathangi (“Maya”) Arulpragasam. She grew up on the move, from country to country, city to city (Jaffna, Madras, London), due to civil war in her family’s homeland of Sri Lanka. Her music documents life on the underside of Western powers. She was inspired to write “Paper Planes” as a result of having her visa request rejected by the United States because the government included her name on the U.S. Homeland Security Risk List.
The song does two things at once: First, it explains what it’s like to live in exile, to migrate again and again, and to try to make a home in the midst of people who are cruel and inhospitable to immigrants. Second, the song is a political satire of the wide-spread fear in the U.S. of people who come from other countries and cultures—as the children sing in the chorus, speaking as if they were the embodiment of anti-immigrant fears, bringing violence and ruining the economy. With “Paper Planes,” Maya exposes the scare tactics of the inhospitable and racist politics of the West in our globalized context of refugees and migration.
3. Lauryn Hill, “Mystery of Iniquity”: I became a faithful devotee of Lauryn Hill when I was in junior high, when I purchased my first CD: “The Score” by the Fugees, which included Hill as a member of the group. Her solo album, “The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill,” never gets old. But, for this playlist, I’ve included a track from her live album. The song “Mystery of Iniquity” is an indictment of the U.S. criminal justice system—or, I should say, the (in)justice system.
Since I grew up listening to Lauryn Hill, I was already primed for books like Michelle Alexander’s devastating account of the racism of the justice system in this country, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (2010). As Hill sang in “Mystery of Iniquity”: “A defendant is depending on the system, totally void of judgment, purposely made to twist em’.”
She recently posted a sketch of a song that she’s been performing live, “Black Rage.” She released it last year during the protests in Ferguson, Missouri.
4. Tracy Chapman, “Talkin’ Bout a Revolution”: Chapman wrote this song in the middle of 1980s as U.S. politicians instituted legislation that produced an unholy gap between the wealthy elite and everyone else—a trend that still shapes our economy today. As the government ballooned military spending while shrinking the domestic budget, Chapman was, “Talkin’ bout a revolution,” an economic revolution. “Poor people gonna rise up and get their share; poor people gonna rise up and take what’s theirs.” Like Jesus, who promised woes to the rich and blessings to the poor (Luke 6), Chapman prophesied a world where wealthy Americans “better run, run, run” because “the tables are starting to turn”—“a revolution,” she sang, that “sounds like a whisper.
5. Nina Simone, “Strange Fruit”: This song started as a poem written by Abel Meeropol in 1937 in response to the widespread lynching of African-Americans. Billie Holiday first sang it in 1939. I’ve included Nina Simone’s version from 1965, which became a protest anthem of the Civil Rights movement. Her version is sparse and haunting—so much range of emotion in her voice, from fierce anger to the tenderness of mourning. This is a sacred song, appropriate for hearts prepared to honor the dead, the victims of this country’s brutal sin of racism.
6. Sweet Honey in the Rock, “Sylvie”: This song is passed down to us as part of the Alan Lomax recordings of Huddie William Ledbetter (“Lead Belly”), a folk musician born on a plantation in Louisiana in 1888/1889. Over the years, Sweet Honey in the Rock has been performing and recording versions of old spirituals and hymns. “Sylvie” is a song from plantation workers—bent over in the fields, scorched by the sun—who call out for water. They are thirsty, longing for cool water to wash away the dust choking their throats, a sip to refresh their bodies. Sometimes—in this life we have, in this wilderness of a world—we need someone to offer a cup of water, refreshment for our souls. We need Sylvie, who reaches out her hand and gives us what we need.
7. Etta James, “At Last”: We need love, all different kinds of love (from God, from friends, from partners), and no one sings about love like Etta James. When I hear “At Last” at a store or restaurant or coffee shop, I can’t help but stop whatever I’m doing and close my eyes and let the song take me away. “I found a dream that I could speak to, a dream that I can call my own.” This love, even if in a dream, is a kind of companionship that makes life feel like music: “My lonely days are over, and life is like a song.”
8. Janis Joplin, “To love somebody”: While you can almost taste the sweetness of love-fulfilled when you listen to Etta James, you need Janis Joplin’s voice to draw you into the frayed edges of love, the heartache. When Joplin sings, you can hear a voice that bears the scars of love denied, love withdrawn, and the longing for impossible love. “Oh honey, I wanna talk about trying to hold you.” This song speaks of what love wants and how much love wants it and how it feels to live without it. “Honey, I want, I want my whole life to be lived with you. That’s what I want, to be living and loving you.” When Joplin sings about love, you hear the ache in her chest, a guttural longing. Unattainable love. “I can’t find you with my love.” And if you can’t find it, you sing about it; or at least sing along to Janis Joplin until your throat dries out.
9. Aretha Franklin, “Precious Lord” (Parts 1 and 2): This song is prayer. Aretha Franklin lets the words lead her into sighs, the groaning of creation—the Spirit whose sounds are too deep for words, as the apostle Paul put it. She calls out to God for intimacy—a feeling beyond words, the touch of God. She wants God to be close, by her side. “Hear my cry, hear my call, and hold my hand lest I fall.”
When I think about the touch of God’s hand, I remember the words of a Benedictine monk, Sebastian Moore, who, after spending his life learning how to draw close to God, said that “..we must look forward to the moment when the mysteries of God are revealed in our sister’s and brother’s hands.” When I pray along with Franklin in this song, I think of the hands of my friends at church.
10. Andrea Gibson, “The Nutritionist”: I first heard this “song” at a local music venue here in North Carolina. I’d never seen a slam poet before Andrea Gibson. It was a Saturday night, and as she performed “The Nutritionist,” I thought to myself, What’s the point of preaching tomorrow?—because I can’t say it better than she just did. So I ended my sermon the next day by quoting the last lines of Gibson’s poem: “Friend, if the only thing we have to gain in staying is each other, my God that’s plenty, my God that’s enough, my God that is so much—each of us at each other’s backs whispering over and over and over, Live, Live, Live.”
The poem starts off as an exploration of what leads people to suicide, then turns to where hope for life can be found. “You,” Gibson calls out, “You stay here with me, okay? You stay here with me.”
The presence of another becomes reason to go on with this life—and that’s where we find ourselves falling into the gospel. As the Peruvian theologian Gustavo Gutierrez once said, the God of life is among us to instigate a gospel of life. In the words of the ancient Christian creeds, God is pro nobis—for us. As the Swiss theologian Karl Barth put it, “God is pro me, because God is pro nobis.”
If you like this poem, I’d recommend “Birthday, for Jenn” (this live performance is the best), “For Eli” (a poem that exposes the horror of military combat) and “I Sing the Body Electric, Especially When My Power’s Out.”
Listen to Isaac’s playlist on Spotify:
Have a comment on this story? Write to the editors. Include your full name, city and state. Selected comments will be edited for publication in print or online.