Black Sherif’s ‘Money’: A Theodicy of Poverty

We have to recognise that theology and religious philosophy are not the preserve of long-trained academics. They are produced every day by those living the examined life, asking questions, sometimes in tears, often with sighs, every now and then with unspeakably beautiful songs.

I confess I am among the enthralled throng who have stumbled upon Black Sherif’s song ‘Money’ after being drawn in by the enigmatic vortex that is the ‘Second Sermon’. That song is in its own right commanding of my theological attention, and all the signs are that it shall receive it in due course. But once you stumble upon Money, something happens to your new relationship with this new artist. Something elevates your respect, deepens your empathy. Black Sherif himself has been nothing short of a revelation, not only musically but in a strongly personalistic way. He’s likeable on screen, not as angry as he sounds in Second Sermon. He’s 19 years old, which shocked me, not so much because his lyricology exudes maturity — which it certainly does — but because his musicology as a whole, as early as he is in his professional career, already shows signs of evolution. Whatever else Killer Black evolves into on his hopefully glorious path, I will make the case based on Money and, later, the two Sermons (preach!) that Black Sherif has secured his place as not just a musician, but as a theologian. He is a public theologian, and Money is his first true theodicy. May there be many more.

Money, Money, Where You Dey?

I don’t know Black Sherif’s religious beliefs. By the time I theologise his Sermons, hopefully, I will. In any case, I come from a Christian theological perspective because that is what I am familiar with as a theologian of World Christianity. My highly dynamic translations are in parentheses.

To understand the theology of Money, of course, we must refresh the mind on the socio-economic situation into which Sherif’s Money flows. As if the mind needs refreshing. But let it be said that times are not the easiest in Ghana at the moment; they haven’t been for some time. A queue of elections has not processed the promised progress. As the economic situation worsens under the veterans — mismanagement, corruption, incompetence — and the new kid on the macroeconomic block— pandemic-related economic stress, a flurry of songs about money have given voice to deep social angst. Ghanaians have always found ways to cope. Fameye’s Nothing I get; Yaw Tog’s ‘Sore’; Kweku Flick’s ‘Money’; and ‘Sika’ by Kimilist, featuring Yaw Tog and Kwame Yesu are a few examples, and in my opinion, some of the best ones. It is an age well-summarised by the early lines of Black Sherif’s Money:

Dabiaa we go through stress
Sika kakra na yɛpɛ
(Every day we go through stress; we just need a little money)

As hard as people work, the times remain hard. And yet the pressure to succeed reigns tyrannically, leading to pretentious life:

Mandem dey want some money for pocket but deɛ yɛbɛyɛ biaa no dey work
Fake life adey live everydayy am afraid to be real nti dabiaaa na mesie
(We want disposable income, but no amount of effort avails;
I live a fake life, I hide because I’m afraid to show the real me)

So that’s the reality Money speaks to. It is a powerful, relatable counternarrative to the picture of economic progress painted by politicians… another powerful response from the vox populi that the macroeconomic indicators are not felt in lived experience. Where is the money? Where is the money we’re working so hard for??

But Where’s the Theology?

To sing of hardship is all well and good. But is it theology? On a very basic level, it is. Theology has many parts, and Money, with its references to God, Satan, the Sucking of blood, etc., certainly communicates a standard concern of theology: to speak for the voiceless, to point out suffering where one sees it, and to express this in existential terms while maintaining an interaction with transcendence. Liberation Theology is built on, among other things, two key principles: “a preferential option for the poor,” which inspires the theologian’s worldview, and “see, judge, act,” which embodies an ethic of intervention. Money speaks for the poor. Black Sherif has seen, he has judged, and he has acted through a brilliant song.

But the hitmaker’s theology runs deeper. There are many angles that can be explored, but attention is precious these days, so I will dwell on only one theological theme: theodicy. Theodicy is the branch of theology that deals with suffering. It attempts to answer a notoriously difficult, but fundamental human question: how can an all-powerful, all-loving God co-exist with creaturely suffering? Black Sherif offers a rich and valuable reflection on this question through his song.

The Theodicy of ‘Money’

The theological reflection on God in the face of suffering is as old as theology itself. Of course, the Bible declares God is love and describes him as good and loving. The technical term is omnibenevolent. It also describes him as all-powerful, the theological term being omnipotent. The precariousness of human experience, however, demands some explanation of how this can be so. Black Sherif’s answer is not glib or uncomplex, but it is related to a long tradition of Christian thinking on the issue. The early church father, Augustine, proposed that God made the world perfect, and there is suffering in the world because of sin. Another church father, Irenaeus, suggested that creation is a two-step process that is still incomplete. God created a world that would test and try humankind with suffering because the only way humans could complete the image of God in themselves is to wrestle with and overcome evil. There are several versions of Irenaeus’ theodicy. Their common thread is that suffering is part of the Divine plan. In Augustine’s version, suffering was introduced by humankind into an otherwise perfect world. Others offer a third alternative: that suffering is caused by Satan. In Matthew 13, Jesus tells a parable about a farmer who sows a field with wheat, only for an enemy to steal in and sow thorns. In the parable, the planter is God, and the enemy is Satan (vss. 37–39).

At face value, Money seems to take the third view.

Sika yɛ mogya emake adey craze
Cus Ɔbonsam be sucking my blood o
(Money is blood; it makes me mad, because the Devil is sucking my blood)

For sure, Ɔbonsam, the Devil, does not come out looking good in this song. He is sucking the money, metaphorically the life-blood, out of the singer’s veins.

But God isn’t exonerated either. The singer listens for the the voice of God in his word, calls on God every day for deliverance from poverty, but the response is always “call waiting:”

Onyame asem pɛ na metie
Buh mafrɛ no saa everyday call waiting

This is an essential element in any theodicy. Never mind how it came to be, granted that suffering exists, what is the appropriate response of an all-loving, all-powerful God? The response of many naturalistic and atheistic thinkers is that such a God must immediately end it. The fact that it doesn’t end leads to the famous Epicurian trilemma: either God is unable to prevent evil, in which case he is not omnipotent; or God is able but unwilling to do so, in which case God is not all-loving; or God is both unwilling and unable to intervene. The position that a being cannot be both all-loving and all-powerful in the presence of suffering is central to atheist and agnostic thought and has been strongly argued by thinkers like Richard Dawkins in his book The God Delusion, and Neil de Grasse Tyson, the astrophysicist famous for ‘demoting’ Pluto from planetary status. As a logical argument, it is hard to refute. In the lyrics of Money, it is possible to read an existential frustration with God, an unspoken charge of complicity or duplicity; why else is he not answering the singer’s prayer? Why is Ɔbonsam having free reign over Killer Black’s blood? Is God only pretending to be powerful? Or does he simply not care? The song does not pretend to resolve the tension like a bad funeral sermon. No, in true Kierkegaardian fashion, the tension never resolves, because it never does for anyone who ever honestly examines the meaning of existence.

A Middle Way

As many have discovered, such examinations are dangerous to faith. Many have lost their faith because the trilemma does not compute for them. Rather than piously pretend to have an unassailable, unwavering faith, the persona of the song acknowledges this possibility:

Meyera mekwan aa fakyɛ me my God
(If I lose my way, forgive me, my God)

There is even a sense in which the persona’s faith appears imperilled. There is a daringly beautiful ambiguity in who is the true target of the persona’s prayer. The chorus, “Show me where the money dey,” (“show me where the money is”) comes right after a line in which he addresses the Devil:

Ɔbonsam you for know say mabrɛ nti ma mennya meho make I get the money
(Satan, you should know I’m exhausted, so give me peace, let me get the money)

But he goes further, and what Black does masterfully, he does simply. With two short lines, he taps into a rich store of theologising that allows us to approach the tension, to make space for it in our lives so we are not consumed or destroyed by it.

A know you get many plans for your boy
But me haw no dɔɔso a no fit dey loy
(I know you have many plans for your boy; But many are my troubles, I cannot lie)

Black refers here, of course, to the divine attribute of omniscience, the idea that God knows everything that can be known. In omniscience, theologians have been able to make room for a God who does not always act to remove suffering because it could be in the best interest of the sufferer. This is never an easy or pleasant theology to accept. How can suffering be good? This is where Killer Black’s theology deepens even further. The thirteenth-century theologian Thomas Aquinas taught the important lesson that our language for God is little better than guesswork. We speak of God by analogy, a form of comparison, with what we understand. So when we use fancy terms like omnipotence, omnibenevolence, and omniscience, they are only philosophical speculations on the nature of a being we can never fully know. And so it is possible for God to be good in ways that don’t seem good to us because our conception of goodness is limited.

Of course, this can be a cheap cop-out. Onyame nim bibiaa — God knows all, has been many a preacher’s escape route when disaster strikes. “It’s all in God’s plan,” “God knows best,” and their kind, are phrases that many have used to hide — hide themselves from facing the difficulty of a situation for what it is, and hide their God from the scrutiny of those in pain. But used rightly, omniscience allows us to maintain that there is no explanation justifiable to human logic for our suffering; it allows us, and this is a bold thing, to place the onus on any such being, if it exists, make it explicable. Yes, we’ve heard all the exhortations about the light at the end of the tunnel, all the sermons about ultimate redemption and replenishment; about how all things fit into his perfect plan for our lives, to bring us to an expected end; we have heard all his million preachers and their millions of lawyerly words in his defence; but But yɛn haw no dɔɔso, we no fit dey loy.

So the next time you face suffering, whether from poverty, disease, or death, whatever your faith or lack thereof, know that your questions are valid. This is Black Sherif’s theodicy.