“First, I want to thank God … ” For decades, those words have been uttered by Black performers from gospel artists to gangsta rappers on every awards-show stage, whether their lyrics encourage optimistic praise or are phrases that need to be bleeped.
But Sunday night, Jay Z stopped himself short, almost correcting himself, to change the direction of his praise, and the object of his thanks for bringing him his wife and success, from an amorphous God to the infinite and elusively defined “universe.”
This deliberate departure and clear redirection from the rhetorical, if not sincere, language so common within the Black community is notable. It points, in part, to the fact that in the current day, there has been so much splintering and diversity of beliefs within African-American culture that this artist felt it necessary to clearly distinguish between any obligation to or belief in a God other than himself and the undefined but clearly present “universe.”
In light of the persistent presence of Judeo-Christian iconography in the naming, imagery and lyrics of many of these performers, it is hard not to see the comparisons and contradictions. Whether it’s wearing obscenely large, diamond-encrusted crosses, adorning their exposed bodies with tattoos of Christ, trotting out the crucifix as a prop or posing in front of The Last Supper, it’s easy to wonder if they actually embrace the idea of a higher being—God—or are evoking his image and name in various forms to keep making the money and the bling that seem to be the real god being served anyway.