During the memorial service for Eritrean-American rapper Nipsey Hussle, his mother Angelique Smith emphasized how her spirituality helps her deal with grief.
Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images For Atlantic Records
On Thursday, thousands of fans gathered at the Los Angeles Staples Center for rapper and philanthropist Nipsey Hussle (b. Ermias Joseph Asghedom) for his homegoing service. Thousands more gathered around their electronic devices to join in on the farewell to a pillar in the hip hop and Black community, as well as a devoted father, son, and loving boyfriend to actress Lauren London. One element of the memorial that stood out was the reflection from Hussle’s mother, Angelique Smith, who not only apotheosize her son, but performed an African ritual and theology during the ceremony.
Smith, who was dressed in all white—considered a spiritual wardrobe in many African sects that is said to attract divine entities— began her speech by calling on the ancestors of her late son, whose father is of Eritrean descent, while pouring libation (in the form of bottled water) as an offering into the plant that stood in front of the podium. “Tap into you spirituality,” Smith later told reporters after the memorial service about her parenting philosophy. “[My church] teaches African spiritual science and that’s where I get my strength from. And as Black people, I want to encourage you to go back to your roots and find your creator and spiritual power.”
Smith’s act of honoring her son with a traditional religious consummation simultaneously brought attention to the re-emergence of African theologies in mainstream media.
In 2017, Beyoncé’s Lemonade album, which pulled from narratives of generational trauma and grappling with infidelity, struck up a conversation about deities, the Middle passage, and spirituality retained in African American culture. “[Lemonade] invokes so much of the Yoruba tradition, which is grounded in African tradition,” Dr. Amy Yeboah, associate professor of Africana studies at Howard University, told PBS. “But it spreads across the diaspora. So you see it in Cuba, you see it in Louisiana. It’s a cultural tradition that connects women of the diaspora together.”
References of Yoruba traditions, the goddess Oshun, and incorporating Somali-British poet Warsan Shire into the album’s extended film all revealed a maintained connection throughout the diaspora with the Continent, particularly in the face of grief.
Contemporary creative arts has shown a connection with the Motherland through the works of beloved writers such as Toni Morrison—who threaded concepts of African spirituality into her work such as Beloved (1987) and Sula (1973). These narratives of love and loss amalgamated with the presence of institutionalized racism of the Americas, serve as catalyst for traditional practices of healing to be embraced.
“She [Smith] shared the African heritage of what happens to the spirit and to the soul, upon death,” Dianne Stewart, a professor of Religion and African American Studies at Emory College, tells Broadly. “And she didn’t just perform a libation, she talked about this particular theology quite extensively, [which] is quite rare,” says Stewart.
According to Stewart, focus on African spirituality has been a concept on public display for centuries, seen in the works of artists and writers like Kendrick Lamar and Frederick Douglass. These concepts have been an example of how Black people have used their spiritual systems to aid their navigation from gruesome situations, which have caused their grief and mourning.
“Frederick Douglass included [in his Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave] his encounter with Sandy, the old African in the woods who gave him the root to wear on his right side so that Covey (the slavemaster who Douglass was working for), could not beat him any longer,” Stewart says. “Douglass said that Sandy professed to be of a religion of which I have no name, he professed to believe in a system, which I have no name. So even from as early as Frederick Douglass’ Narrative to the present, literary artists, and visual artists have definitely trafficked in the memory of African heritage religions, but to see this performed in a funerary space, a space where if we’re not talking about African American Islam, the assumption is that what’s going to happen is going to be Christian, is very interesting.”
Despite the rise of Black Americans exploring their ancestry and original spiritual regalia, the majority of Black Americans who practice religion are widely Christian. While some African traditions are now being elevated on a massive mainstream scale for the current generation—as the 1960s and 1970s was the last era of major Afrocentrism—outwardness of their specific beliefs are still masked.
“African spirituality is very much stigmatized and bastardized,” says Tatiana Skroskis who’s also known as The Trap Witch, a practitioner and social media influencer. “There is a very poor representation in the media of us because we [African spiritualist] are exploited and used for shock culture. Whether it’s the news or common articles, there is a lot of disrespect due to misunderstanding, which is unfortunate. The beauty of the practice is only gained through respect and an open mind.”
Many believe that in dealing with trauma on a such insidious scale as the Black American community has for centuries, different types of African spirituality has been instrumental in giving hope that death is simply a transition to a higher realm that protects and guides loved ones.
“You always hear that what matters is the profession of faith in Jesus Christ as the personal savior and that if you don’t do that all else is gone,” says Stewart.
“But African heritage religions provide a continued kinship relationship with your departed family members and [show] that death is a doorway to continued life. There is an invisible community of deities and spirits that operate and have power, that emphasizes the healing of individuals and social experience and relationships. That ritual, which we saw as a simple pouring of water, is intended to keep those passageways open between the visible and invisible world.”