The Gospel According to Jon Batiste
Three life-affirming tips from the album of the year.
Posted April 13, 2022 | Reviewed by Jessica Schrader
"There's a joy to living that's still available to us. It's always available to you no matter what you're going through." –Jon Batiste
Jon Batiste reminds us of the myriad and wondrous truths of the human psyche. There's something infectiously joyous and vibrant about the music and lyrics of the ferociously talented pianist and singer. Listening to We Are, his Grammy Award-winning album of the year, is like going through a time machine of musical styles—R&B, gospel, old-school rock, jazz, classical, and hip-hop—and yet coming back to the pulse of what's happening right now.
Batiste's lyrics speak to the combined heartbreak and triumph of this moment in history—racial reckoning, political polarization, war, and the need for hope and love above all. Although he conjures and shapeshifts between James Brown, Curtis Mayfield, Ray Charles, and other influences, there's something unique, supple, and sophisticated about his distinctive voice.
Batiste has profound lessons and good news for all of us wherever we are struggling psychologically right now. And so apropos at this time of year when freedom from slavery and resurrection are celebrated alongside the rebirth of spring.
Lesson 1: Embrace Your Distinctive Voice Yet Be Interdependent
Like Batiste, as creative beings, we are all called to witness the past and future and bring it together in a creative act of the present. Batiste shows that this is our true birthright. As Walt Whitman posited, we all contain multitudes inside, and the songs of ourselves come from collaging and honoring all of those selves to speak in every tone and register we can muster.
What makes his work so authentic and refreshing is that it speaks to and from such a variety of chakras that we inevitably connect to its profound humanity. We all have this potential psychologically to speak from these different registers to express our fullest collection of selves to connect even more deeply with others and their fullest constellation of selves.
We must learn how to trust and cultivate this multiplicity of inner choruses and find a way of making our own unique tracks out of everyday experience to create our own psychological album of the year.
To echo the chorus from the title track: "We are, we are, we are, we are the golden ones, we are, we are, we are the chosen ones." Like the Talmudic angel beside each blade of grass saying "grow," this is the inner mantra out of which psychological creativity, fulfillment, and joy flourish.
But we are never alone, as Batiste counsels. We call on all the influences from culture and history and from our own family, as Batiste does with snippets of wisdom from his grandfather, father, and nephews peppered throughout the album and such a dizzying array of musical conjurings that you almost feel as if you've listened to a musical cosmos instead of a mere album.
We are all interdependent, and the creative spirit seeks to collaborate, pay homage, and dialogue with everything. Artistic creativity, as psychological creativity, comes from embracing and cultivating this range, and using it in service of something bigger. As Batiste intoned at his Grammy acceptance speech:
"I believe this to my core: There is no best musician, best artist, best dancer, best actor — the creative arts are subjective and they reach people at a point in their lives when they need it the most. It's like a song or album is made and it almost has a radar to find the person when they need it the most."
Lesson 2: Embrace the Complex Mixture of Life
Batiste's second lesson: We must constantly embrace and lean into the dissonances as well as the wonder, to find new forms for the complex melange of stuff we all carry, and to keep faith in hope, life, and love amidst the loss and heartbreak. Batiste echoes the recent work of Susan Cain in her new book Bittersweet, Daniel Pink in The Power of Regret, Brene Brown in Atlas of the Heart, and Susan David in Emotional Agility by inspiring us to welcome with gusto all of the feelings we have inside of us, especially the negative ones.
I can only imagine Batiste carrying the bittersweet joy of marrying his partner of eight years just before she receives her bone marrow transplant, finding a way like a New Orleans funeral celebrating life above all even in the harshest glances of death. Or as he sings it:
"We got a lot of living, we workin' overtime. Don't need another million, you got that goldmine. I love the way you living cuz you so genuine. I just need you, you, you!"
Lesson 3: You've Got Freedom in Your Body
Batiste encourages us to do exactly what psychology is steering us toward these days: to stay embodied. In addition to knowing the ambivalences of living in our head, we also need to allow ourselves to trust something deep inside our body to help us to express and contain it. In "Freedom," he declares:
"When I move my body like this, I don't know why, but I feel like freedom. I hear a song that takes me back and I let go with so much freedom"
In this time of spring's rebirth, it's a breath of fresh air to have an artist like Jon Batiste remind us that we've all got soul, and it's always available to us, no matter what.