TAMPA, Fla. (ABP) — Ken Medema — singer, composer, pianist, artist and for four decades a softly prodding social conscience of the church — worked his art through the two days of the 2011 Cooperative Baptist Fellowship General Assembly June 21-22 in Tampa, Fla.
His unique and fascinating gift is to listen to a sermon or a session, to a speech or a spiel, and immediately after to unreel a song that reflects what he’s heard; created as he sings it.
During a break between sessions he spoke briefly of his background and answered questions in an exclusive ABP interview.
As a young person Medema, 67, ran away from the Dutch Calvinist faith of his family in Michigan. While studying music at Michigan State University, Medema met the daughter of a man who directed the Baptist Student Union and was pastor of a tiny Baptist church in Lansing.
Jane’s family members were “very progressive thinkers” who dared to ask questions and were unthreatened by the doubts of others. When Medema presented his own questions about faith they told him they have the same questions.
“The only difference is we ask them from the inside,” they said. They explained to him the foundational Baptist beliefs about church and state; soul competency of believers and church autonomy in which “no ecclesiastical body is going to tell us what to believe.” Those positions rang the bell of a young radical in the 1960s, who thought, “If this Baptist thing is what Christians are all about I want to be a part of it.”
He’s been married 46 years to Jane, that Baptist girl. They’ve lived in San Francisco since 1980. Medema was wildly popular among Baptists but in the past 10-15 years he said most of his work has been among other Christian groups. He said the General Assembly in Tampa was “truly like coming home.”
ABP: You’ve been doing this a long time. How do you stay fresh?
Medema: I have people around me who do not exult me, who insist on keeping me real, who do not believe all the publicity and hype they hear and they keep me away from most of it. The people who manage my work and my family treat me like an ordinary guy with lots of foibles and failures. My wife is always reading to me new things, new theological articles to keep my head fresh. Friends send me musical things.
I get enough down time so I am not burning the candle on both ends. That’s been the secret. When I go home for five or six days, I totally change my focus. I’m home focused on the kids, grandkids, going out to eat, taking long walks in the city.
ABP: How has your blindness informed your music?
Medema: It has put me in tactile contact with people. When I walk with people I have to take their arm. That immediately sets up a relationship most people don’t get to have.
Because I am blind it makes me maybe even more interested in using visual imagery than other composers. I have this obsession with visual imagery, talking about color and talking about azure skies and the depth of clouds.
It made me aware of other people who are left out. I was the kid other kids didn’t play with. I stood at the edge of the playground wishing I could play basketball knowing they’d never invite me to be on the team.
The other thing is, people will give me a listen sometimes when they won’t give other folks a listen. In my concerts, I ask people to tell me stories. They know I’m not looking at them and judging them by their appearance so they’ll walk up to the mike and tell me a story that I can then turn into a song.
ABP: Can you articulate how you do what you do?
Medema: The music is for me like grammar is for you. If I ask you a question, you don’t think about the grammatical form of what you’re going to say. You think about the content. Without even thinking about it you speak because you’ve spoken all your life. The process of speaking is an unconscious thing. Because I’ve done this all my life, music is my grammar. I have listened to what the person has said. I have reactions. Then I simply engage in conversation with what I’ve heard.
ABP: Social justice is often a theme in your music and life. Has that changed?
Medema: The emphasis has not changed. My way of doing it has changed. Through the 1970s and early 80s I was “the angry young man.” I would get on the piano and pound out my songs saying: “Church, we’re neglecting these very important things. We’re a bunch of stupid fools.” I would rag and bang and pound. I called it passion and it was really anger. It was kind of spiteful and full of vitriol and bitterness.
Somewhere in the later 80s and early 90s some people helped me by saying: “Ken you don’t have to be so angry. You can dance with people. Come alongside us and say, ‘Let’s think about this. Or tell us a story about people who are hungry. You don’t have to hit us in the head.’”
My way of telling is a lot gentler now. It’s filled with a lot more humor and fun. The issues are no less urgent for me. But I realize it isn’t going to help for me to be angry. We’ve been called to dance in the crossroads; to laugh while we feed the hungry; to shout delight while we care for the poor.
Some of that I learned with poor people.
We went to Nicaragua in 1986, responding to a call to come show us there are some people in the U.S. who don’t agree with Reagan’s Contra war and all that. I came all primed to be a prophetic witness. We visited a coffee plantation prepared to work alongside the coffee growers. Instead, these people whose very life depended on working hard every day stopped work because we had come to visit. They brought out their guitars. We spent the whole day singing.
I kept saying you have work to do and we want to work beside you. They said, “You don’t understand; if we don’t stop to sing we won’t be in it for the long haul.”
It made me weep. I thought golly I’m not helping people stop to sing. I’m hitting them over the head. I want to help people stop to sing so they will be there for the long haul.
ABP: How has your music and theology matured changed over the years?
Medema: I think it’s a lot more open, a lot less certain, a lot more open to mystery. You can’t take a mystery and turn it into a manual. Doctrine for me has become a way that we fragile, weak humans try to codify a story and I’d much rather hear it as a story. I’d much rather follow a story than a doctrine.
Jesus is my teacher and guide, my way of seeing the world and seeing divinity and holiness. But I’m not afraid to ask questions. I’m not afraid to be drawn by a story rather than a belief set.
As far as music, I continue to be open to new musical forms. I’m always wanting to experiment and find new things, new sounds, new textures.
ABP: Of what are you proudest?
Medema: Being known as a storyteller with integrity. I’m not always proud of all the music I make. Some is good, some is weak. I’m proudest when people say, “Ken, you tell our story with truth and sensitivity.”
ABP: What remains to do?
Medema: There’s some choral work to write. I want to write a mass. I want to write a postmodern choral piece. I want to write a piece with influences that come from here, from there, from everywhere, that brings together all these traditions in a crazy mix. I want to write something from the perspective of a Baptist. I want to take that kind of radical, revolutionary, independent kind of way we have of looking at the world and write a choral piece that embodies that. I want to do something with the Psalms, more than I’ve done before.
I want to travel some more. I want to see more of the world.
ABP: To your audience, many of your spontaneous pieces are instant classics. Does it hurt to sing it once knowing the only ears that will ever hear it are those in the audience at that moment?
Medema: Once in a while I say I wish I had that to keep. We’ve had it happen where I’ll do a piece and both Beverly, who is my manager and producer, and I realize this is going to be a keeper. We’ll dash home after the concert and say, “Quick, write that down.”
For most of them it’s like a sunset. It’s wonderful that God gives us a new kind of sunset every day. But if on Thursday you had to have a repeat of Wednesday’s sunset, what fun would that be?
Norman Jameson is reporting and coordinating special projects for ABP on an interim basis. He is former editor of the North Carolina Biblical Recorder.