What you see while you listen affects what you hear.
Seeing Andrea Arnold’s heart-rendingly glorious road movie American Honey made me hear Raury‘s God’s Whisper as the mesmerising background to a tribal dance. In the film, the song’s lyrics flicker in and out of awareness, like sparks coming off the bonfire. You hear and you don’t hear. God’s Whisper is now ‘fixed’ for me as a dance trance with hope, truth and youth at its heart.
For me, savior, with its soft central v and spacious, floating ior, sways as a move in the dance: important, but not a bragging shout. I played the song, sound alone, no video, to a British 20 something. His reaction? “Typical 17 year old, calling himself a *saviour.” Words speak differently when you hear them blind. How does savior strike you? Brag or encouragement?
God’s Whisper is a masterful choice for the final scene in American Honey. The lyrics: “I won’t compromise/I won’t live a life on my knees/You think I am nothing/I am nothing” are youthful hope in the face of terrible circumstances. The way Raury emphasises the soft z sounds of compromise and knees, after their long vowel sounds (ise/ees) gives the listener time to focus and think about what’s being said. It gets the listener ready to pay attention when the sounds reappear in “We are indigos/Living lives we chose”.
Singing compromise with an unusual stress pattern: compro-mise, gives Raury room to emphasise the I at the beginning of the line, and of the song. To claim his space. He bookends the line like this: I won’t compromise. The I isn’t restricted to “I, Raury”. It’s like the I of Gloria Gaynor’s I Will Survive. The singer sings it, but the audience owns it.
When Raury expands his I into We are indi-gos, we’re not surprised. Anyone under 20 would have understood his message as inclusive already. Anyone over 30 will have understood that he’s singing about his own generation. The racial rainbow of his friends in the video make it clear that he’s singing for all youth.
If you plan to sing God’s Whisper, be sure to make the unusual stress patterns feel natural and smooth. Swapping the usual English pronunciation of indigo to God’s Whisper’s indi-go needs to be a magic trick, where the audience sees the finished product, not the hours of practice. What your audience hears in performance needs to sound easy and unforced. Indi remains a coil of energy; it doesn’t lose its propelling power, or disappear into the shadows. Indigo is an important word, with its new meaning. Go mustn’t sound like an angry stomp. It’s a strong step in the dance. The same with compro-mise or intu-i-tion. Don’t overdo the difference from the usual. Do it, but don’t overdo it.
If English isn’t your first language: be sure to give I the relaxed space it needs. I is crucial in this song, but I is one of those words that a lot of English students take for granted. It’s one of the first words you learn and, when you speak, you can get away with a constricted I. It doesn’t sound good, but people will understand you because of context. When you sing, it’s a different game. You cripple your song unless you give I space and depth. Look here for more information.
Raury talks about the song, and his intentions on the BBC side of the Atlantic here and closer to home here. If you’d like to know more about the music that has inspired him, you’ll enjoy this interview.
By the way, if you’re an American reader: could you tell what the smoky things that look like fireworks that people keep lighting and waving around in the video are called? They appeared in American Honey quite often, but I couldn’t work out what they were. They’re not flares or fireworks and I’m guessing they’re something you can buy in a supermarket? I’ve never seen them in the UK. I’d love to know what they are.
© Sing Better English, 2016
* British spelling for a British voice.