In Praise of T.I.

(Matt DeButts)– Three a cappella groups have finished performing. There’s a pause at the end, after the applause, when the spokesman or woman walks up to the microphone to announce the next group. He is usually animated by a somewhat obligatory enthusiasm—“Next up is the Sabrinas! [but don’t you dare audition for them] Let’s give them a hand!” So it goes in every Freshman Showcase: latent but palpable competition stuccoed by smile and song.

That is, so it goes until Terras Irradient (T.I.) takes the stage. There’s a slight tweak in the air at T.I’s announcement. The audience members shift in their seats. The group spokeswoman walks out to center stage and takes the microphone to announce, with a slight tremble in her voice, that T.I. enjoys singing but more than anything T.I. wants to “praise the Lord” and share His light with us. The remaining a capella groups, peppered throughout the audience, are the pictures of stoicism. I feel awkward, like I am leaning over the shoulder of a kneeling churchgoer.

I am not going to lie – T.I.’s performances make me uncomfortable. I object to their reclamation of an Amherst’s motto whose religious connotations have been mostly forgotten. I do not enjoy being obliged to sit through what I believe is tantamount to a religious sermon. But all that being said, T.I. deserves our (secular) praise.

First. T.I. has the courage to be publicly religious on a campus where one’s personal beliefs are rarely professed publicly. Numerous polls indicate that young Americans today are increasingly faithless. Liberal political views, i.e. those of Amherst College students, tend to negatively correlate with religiosity. Religious groups play little to no role in the lives of students who do not seek them out. (For many students, including myself, T.I. is the only emissary of an otherwise-invisible religious community.) T.I.’s members know this is the case, yet they sing their hearts out anyway. That’s impressive.

Second, and no less important, T.I. sounded great this year and their religious message is more effective for it. Their blend has improved, their basses are rock-solid, and their second soloist’s voice is lovely. Their third song (Andrew Kaake’s rap) is as provocative as ever. Now as ever, good music acts as an effective conduit of the Lord’s message. T.I. renders both their group and the Lord’s message more attractive by sounding as clean as they did. T.I. didn’t invent that wheel, but they make good use of it.

Indeed, I’m impressed by T.I.’s music, sure, but I’m most impressed by their total commitment to the message. They sing without doubt and with no small amount of caring for their audience. They want to entertain us but they also want to save us. There is something benevolent and un-ostentatious about their presentation. In our disenchanted modern era where nothing is certain and meaning has fled, T.I.’s voice penetrates for its utter certainty. The music is comforting in that way. It has the potency of religion and the palatability of sweet song. It’s a curious concoction.

Yet despite it all, or perhaps because of it, I detect the smooth cadences of organized religion, as indifferent to me as it has always been. Something in me rebels at their claimed possession of the truth. Where others hear salvation, I hear only lullabies. (Do I wish that I had the capacity to believe? That’s a question for another post.) T.I.’s songs provoke in me an allergic reaction. Something in me says no, that’s not it. They may have found their answer, but I’m still looking for mine.

That “thing” in me doesn’t speak up often. In the chaos of classes and clubs I find it easy never to stop and interrogate my conscience. T.I.’s performance, through the combination of euphony and religiosity, both alienates me and awakens my sense of self. For that awakening, uncommon as it is, T.I. deserves our praise. Granted, this may not be the type of heavenly praise they desire to inspire. But given the proclivities of this particular listener, they might take what they can get – they’ll need more than a few songs to get this non-Christian to genuflect. For the time being, secular praise will have to suffice.