RLC editor Britney Winn Lee virtually sat down with singer/songwriter Sara Groves to talk about beauty, prophecy, and the role of the artist in these days.
Britney: Sara, you’re working on a new album that’s coming out next year (which I’d like to hear more about in a bit), but I want to talk about a song from an older album of yours first. “Why It Matters” begins with the words “Sit with me and tell me once again, of the story that’s been told us, of the power that will hold us, of the beauty, of the beauty, why it matters.” Where does this song come from? What’s its back story?
Sara: During a faith crisis / deconstruction phase in my late 20s, I was struggling with my role as an artist, and was longing for a more embodied faith-life. I was talking to my friend and producer, Charlie Peacock, about how I was feeling compelled to become a nurse, or something else that would be more hands-on. Charlie told me the story of the Cellist of Sarajevo, Vedran Smailovic, and how he had protested the tragic deaths of 22 civilians during the Bosnian War by playing Albinoni’s Adagio in G in bomb craters, bombed out buildings and other sites of war. His protest of beauty drew attention to the region, and some have said this attention hastened the end of the war. This story became a mobilizing metaphor for me. It is easy to stand at the edge of a crater and talk about its depth and breadth, and who created it, who is at fault. It takes a generative person to get down into that crater and make something, to ask yourself, what would I put here? This is the story of Jesus. He leaves a perfect place to climb down into our bomb crater and plays a song – the most beautiful song I have ever heard. I want to be found playing that song. The cellists protest was not easy or safe – it was not just a work of art. He was there, in person, with danger all around him, putting his body in that crater – it reminds me of other non-violent resistors, and that pacifism is not passive. PS. It was not easy to rhyme with ‘cellist in a bomb crater’, so that became ’statue in a park.’
Britney: What does this piece say for us today? What does it mean to you now amid a global pandemic and the urgent and important mile-marker we are witnessing and participating in regarding justice and equity for Black America?
Sara: That is a question I am asking myself. While I have been engaged with justice issues through organizations working around the world, I am aware that I have engaged in these questions of justice at home as I have wanted to, or as they have presented themselves, while Black leaders in my community have been engaged, like it or not, for their lifetime. I am trying to show up physically, and am looking to partner with the peacemakers around me that have been leading for sometime. And ultimately, I am wired to write these songs, to put my lament and resistance and questions into them, and I am doing that as well.
Britney: Fyodor Dostoevsky said that “beauty will save the world.” What does this mean to you? What can it mean for the movement of Jesus and Justice?
Sara: I think something of beauty and human flourishing are one and the same, and the heart of God’s work through Jesus is reconciliation and human flourishing. It is so easy to let anger, self-righteousness and even violence lead, but beauty takes time, thought, patience – something supernatural – a transformed heart.
Britney: Talk to us about the relationship between artist and prophet. Can you share why music, poetry, paintings, protest murals, etc are less accessory and more necessity for these times?
Sara: I think the role of the artist is not always one monolithic thing, and different kinds of art-making serves different purposes, but at the heart of it is noticing and naming. Every prophet confronted the kings and leaders of his day with their lack of protection of, or oppressive treatment of the people they were charged with protecting. The public naming of things hidden, things embedded, systemic, is prophetic. Artists don’t exist outside of the tumult, and aren’t necessarily ahead of it, but they have decided to be free to ask questions. I also think the world is full of false binaries, and creative people can offer a vision for a third, fourth, fifth way, and what Walter Brueggemann called the prophetic imagination.
Britney: Now, this new album. What can we expect?
Sara: It is in its formative days, but the central question seems to be – why is it so hard to tell ourselves the truth? Our very hearts are so ‘close’ to us, and still so unknown. We are not gods, and cannot see the distance, and are often arrogantly unaware of how limited our perspectives are. Every human says in their heart, “if I were God…” and their vision is full of their ‘rightness’ and how they will bring it about, but God, the only one with authority to bring about ‘rightness’ goes to the cross. Grace, hope, love must abound, then, as we follow Jesus – who laid down his ‘rights.’ That’s what I’m aiming at, anyway.