Michelle Shocked—musician and activist extraordinaire—was in Washington, D.C., to take part in a Sojourners' roundtable on faith, art, and social activism and to participate in a CodePink peace rally on International Women's Day. She spent a day with fellow believers, musing about how faith, activism, and art can work toward the renewal of this world. She spent the next day putting her art, activism, and faith to work—a practice to which she is no stranger—in Malcolm X Park with thousands of other activists, yearning and speaking for peace and justice.
"I can go anywhere in the world and speak from what's in my head," she said, cutting a line just under her chin with her hands and then motioning upwards. "There are very few places where I can speak my heart and be heard."
Michelle Shocked is clearly more interested in sharing her experience—how Jesus has changed her life—than in waxing philosophical about anything. And, judging from what she has to say—as well as last fall's gospel-infused double album, Deep Natural/Dub Natural—Shocked's life has changed profoundly.
Michelle Shocked was raised in "an extremely large, poor, strict fundamentalist Mormon household," which she left at 16. She worked herself through college, earning a degree in oral interpretation of literature from the University of Texas. Michelle Shocked then spent several years in the early '80s hitching from city to city, staying in squats, playing mandolin and fiddle in street bands. She was an activist, paying particular attention to community organizing on the issue of water privatization.
Around this time, her mother had Michelle Shocked involuntarily committed to a mental institution. The insurance ran out a month later, and Michelle Shocked was suddenly out on the street, still under the influence of "mental straitjacket" drugs—as she explained, "You can think clearly but you can't connect the thoughts with actions." She was raped. "I literally watched myself being raped by this man, and I didn't understand at the time that it was my inability because of the drugs [that kept me from fighting back]. I felt guilty for years and years afterward that I watched it happen. That was really painful. That makes you angry."
Michelle Shocked's life experiences are rife with pain, lost dreams, hopeless feelings, and sleepless nights. Her earlier albums are filled with the blues, shuffles, and fiddle tunes that rise out of such suffering. Through her study of the roots of American music, however, Michelle Shocked began to learn about gospel, a style she's described as "one of the deepest roots music." She began attending a church in Los Angeles "for the music," she said. "I guess I went one time too many." Michelle Shocked heard the call and found a balm for her wounds, as well as insight into the significant power of forgiveness.
"You can forgive the person that's wronged you, that's much easier than forgiving yourself for being in a vulnerable position. That took a lot more time. That's really, I think, a big part of what it means to me to be saved. You have a savior that was God and yet allowed himself to be crucified, to be made vulnerable and die for our sins. And if he could do that, it starts to work on you. You start to realize that a lot of our sins were circumstantial—we were acting out the hurt that we had received at the hands of others."
"It's just such a glorious and transcendent and graceful gospel to practice on a daily basis, the gospel of loving forgiveness because only in forgiving others can we really be in touch with that experience of how we can be forgiven. I think a lot of times we try to relate to being forgiven for things that we deliberately did to hurt others, to injure others. But for a lot of us who are tender hearted, we know we've hurt others, but it wasn't so deliberate."
In the midst of her earlier wanderings, Michelle Shocked's activist career was diverted, "just like the water," she jokingly said, and her musical career found her first as a "folkie" with an independent label in Britain, then in a contract with Mercury Records. When Michelle Shocked's musical stylings became too "erratic" for the company's taste, it refused to pay for production on another record while simultaneously refusing to release Shocked from her contract. Years of legal battle ensued, and Michelle Shocked eventually won her freedom, having sued the record company under the 13th Amendment, which abolished slavery.
Michelle Shocked will let no one tell her what music she can or can't play. "Music is a part of life, like food," she said. "As you'd bake someone a special meal, as feasts are a part of important parts of life. You don't have to train as a chef to know how to cook." She feels the same way about music: "[It's] in the air—you breathe it." Michelle Shocked calls this quality the "vernacular" of music. On her Web site, Shocked wrote, "The main revolution I'd like to start is just getting people to play their own music." Her egalitarian roots are never far from hand.
With Deep Natural/Dub Natural, Michelle Shocked debuted her own label, Mighty Sound, and she continues to work with all styles of American music. Appalachian ballads whisper next to the shuffles that are swallowed by yowling, reggae-infused gospel. Here, though, instead of sleepless nights and hopeless feelings, Michelle Shocked sings of good news and comfort that she has come to know. "At this point, you know, I gotta start shouting: ‘Thank God, thank God that he made a way out of no way,'" she said. "No human could have come up with that logic: By transcending death, I will defeat once and for all the old laws. I will create a new law and it's the law of love. That is God wisdom only."
When Michelle Shocked speaks of how her faith molds her life in new ways, shed becomes most animated and most at ease. Joy pours through her. Her cup runneth over. And Shocked's convinced your cup can overflow too. She's right: No superfluous philosophizing can grasp the experience of a life changed. Her heart says it all.
Listen to Christian Music Artist Michelle Shocked
|Texas Campfire Takes||1986||Mercury Records|
|Short Sharp Shocked||1988||Mercury Records|
|Captain Swing||1989||Mercury Records|
|Arkansas Traveler||1991||Mercury Records|
|Kind Hearted Woman||1994||Private Music|
|Mercury Poise: 1988-1995||1996||Mercury Records|
|Deep Natural||2005||Mighty Sound|
|Don't Ask, Don't Tell||2005||Mighty Sound|
|Got No Strings||2005||Mighty Sound|
|Mexican Standoff||2005||Mighty Sound|
|To Heaven U Ride||2007||Mighty Sound|
|Soul of My Soul||2009||Mighty Sound|