“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.