Stop making fun of “Kumbaya”

“Kumbaya” began as the sincere plea of a generation of African Americans for God’s intervention, but since entering popular culture in the 1950s it has become a metaphor of naive optimism or corny camaraderie and thus a term of derision, levied most often against peace activists and politicians. How did this happen? And why do we tolerate this disparagement of the black religious experience in America?

The precise origins of the song are unclear, but most ethnomusicologists believe it originated with the Gullah people (also called Geechee), the descendants of enslaved Africans who live on the Sea Islands and in the coastal regions of South Carolina and Georgia. (Perhaps you remember the kids’ TV show Gullah Gullah Island? I do! With much fondness.) The Gullah developed their own creole language, based on English but with strong influences of West African languages. The words “Kum ba yah” mean “Come by here” in Gullah. “Come by here, my Lord,” the Gullah people sang as they suffered under the Jim Crow regime. “Come by here.” 

The two earliest recordings of “Kumbaya” were made in 1926. The song was picked up by white folk artists in the late fifties, and by the early sixties it had become a popular camp song and one of the anthems of the civil rights movement. It used to be that it was sung without a tinge of irony, lifted up with deep-seated reverence and belief, but somewhere along the line it became a joke and an insult. “Kumbayahoos” are those who are said to approach serious issues with blind idealism. “Everything’s kumbaya” means, in popular parlance, that everything is just great—peachy keen!—because problems are being glossed over.

These associations make no sense, given the literal translation of the term and the context of the song.

To sing “Kumbaya” is to plead with God to bear witness to the world’s suffering and to deliver us from it. “Someone’s crying, my Lord, kum ba yah.” (Or, the alternate, personalized version: “Hear me crying, my Lord, kum ba yah.”) It’s not at all to say, “It’s all good”; on the contrary, it affirms that all is not good, and that we desperately need God to come by here to right all wrongs. One might sing it in an eschatological sense—that is, in the sense of seeking Christ’s return to earth, to establish his uncontested rule over all—or in a here-and-now sense—as in asking for his Spirit to come bringing comfort and strength and deliverance from the immediate trial at hand. Or both.

However you interpret the song, it’s certainly no “Hakuna Matata.” It’s the expression of a heart desire that springs from a deeply felt and much-tested faith, and this faith deserves respect.

It’s somewhat understandable that an atheist might find the song laughable—it is, after all, an invocation of the presence and power of God. (“There is no God who’s listening,” says the atheist.) But what’s disappointing is that even Christians sling Kumbaya-related expressions around in a derogatory manner. Do they know that it’s their own God they’re mocking? Not to mention the history of an oppressed people?

The Gullah, and the broader African American community, are a people who have suffered much, and yet that suffering does not define them; it does not encapsulate their total experience. And so even as the lyrics of “Kumbaya” express sorrow, so also do they acknowledge seasons of joy: “Someone’s laughing, my Lord, kum ba yah. . . . Someone’s singing, my Lord, kum ba yah.” So whether we find ourselves in good times or in bad, we invite God to dwell in our midst and ask him to make himself known in those circumstances.

It’s time we recover the song’s original meaning. Let us sing “Kumbaya” in our church congregations and in our private lives of worship, remembering the tragedy out of which its words were born but also the promise that they’re rooted in: that “the LORD is near to all who call on him, to all who call on him in truth” (Psalm 145:18).

It may be difficult at first to overcome the feeling of silliness because of decades of negative associations—“Kumbaya” is perhaps known as the hokiest song there is—but I do hope that we Christians can get past that so that we might discover the song’s spare beauty and stand in solidarity with our Gullah brothers and sisters in the singing of it.

For a start, lend an ear to this a cappella rendition by the Glory Gospel Singers, featuring soloist Nichelle Mungo.

 

If you’re interested in learning more details about the history of the song, see “When Did ‘Kumbaya’ Become Such a Bad Thing?” by Linton Weeks of NPR, and “A Long Road from ‘Come by Here’ to ‘Kumbaya’” by Samuel G. Freedman of the New York Times.

This entry was posted in Music and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

13 Responses to Stop making fun of “Kumbaya”

  1. Christene says:

    Amen!

  2. Pingback: Walking with Jesus on Martin Luther King Jr. Day | The Jesus Question

  3. Yvonne says:

    It is a very beautiful song/saying. It is also used in the Caribbean by African descendants. Anyone who appreciates the True God Almighty our father should appreciate and sing this imploring and asking for his presence/blessings to show our appreciation and need for him.

  4. Leigh says:

    I lead team retreats and people frequently joke nervously about getting in a circle and chanting “Kumbaya.” It’s annoyed me for years but -thanks to your article -I feel like there is an excellent opportunity to educate them in the process of uncovering what it really is that they fear or dislike about the idea of having a “Kumbaya” experience. Thank you.

  5. Bon says:

    Thanks for a very clear inspiration of the meaning. Now I can play it again in piano and sing it to the most as I understood its origin. A tribute to those early African Am Christians.

  6. dequalateral says:

    This is a really good thing to read. I came across it while searching for the meaning of the word and your blog was the first I found to make a connection to the Gullah people.

  7. For whatever religious use of this song, there is a hundredfold use by wide eyed dreamers who endeavor to chant their utopia into reality. Hence, it is poking fun at these trite, stereotype people, not the song itself. These people likely have no clue of any significance, other than “Ohmmm” with more notes.

    So, direct your ire at the dufuses who hijacked your anthem, not their critics!

  8. Pingback: Kum Ba Ya: A Plea for God’s Presence | firstprescharlotteblogs

  9. Marquis Gray says:

    i have known for a long time that we should not be making fun of this song. The first time I came across the origins of this song was in a book on musical history and there was a small paragraph about it. Small though it was, it was enough to help me rethink the words of this song that I had known before that. Yes it is sad that this song is made fun of and the ones doing it don’t understand the meaning behind it. I see it now as one of the songs that has a significant place in our history as black americans/African americans and I agree with the person who commented that it is a tribute to those early African Americans and their faith in God

  10. Alisa says:

    You might want to do a little more research on this topic because the song had been around since the 1920’s. It was written by an unrmployed college professor. It became popular during the great depression as it became the prayer of most Americans. Kumbaya is pegion for “come by here.” or at least that is part of the information i have discovered with a simple seatch.

  11. I’m so glad I looked this up!

    I’m a Christian who associates this song with retreats and youth camps, and singing it around the bonfire. 🙂 I admit I never really knew much about the origin. I had always thought of it as an old song that somehow became a corny metaphor for ‘Let’s all just be friends and live in harmony and forget about how we’ve hurt each other!’
    I was emailing with a friend about a creative writing project recently, discussing plots and characters. I’d said something like “These characters just can’t start holding hands and singing Kumbaya!’ Afterward, something made me really curious about looking the song up! I guess God wanted me to understand that the song isn’t a joke, either. 🙂

  12. Rachel says:

    I have been given this song by god whom I know sings it to me to make me rest and feel safe and loved. I hear it at night to help me relax and sleep. When I am nearly there I here some one is sleeping lord Kim by ya. It is relaxing and a true joy. His presence is known and reassuring. Thank u my lord for being with me

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s