Dancing in Place on God Said No

Emanuel Padilla

“Sometimes I feel like God puts me in these really crazy, chaotic situations so I have something to write about.”

That’s Omar Apollo discussing his sophomore album God Said No. Heartbreak and longing are central themes to Apollo’s music, regardless of the language or style he employs. “I’ve definitely realized that my natural state since I’ve been a child has been longing,” he says in the same video. This has made for compelling music, but the risk for an artist who believes God causes or permits suffering for their inspiration is that they might choose to stay in pained places rather than look to move beyond them.

Despite Apollo’s creative range, God Said No is more focused than his previous releases. It is stylistically narrow, dropping some genre diversity. This album does not include a ranchera like “En el Olvido,” a hit single from his debut album, Ivory. In terms of genre, alt R&B describes most of God Said No; the vibe draws the audience directly into a crux of sadness.

The opening song, “Be Careful with Me”—with its acoustic guitar and background beats on a cajón—sets the tone, giving the album the ambience of a lo-fi-playing coffee shop where singer-songwriters are regulars. Lyrically, the song is a perfect introduction to the narrative crisis of the album: Apollo is hurting, fragile, and worried about any future attempts at love.

During an interview with Apollo on ABC News’ Prime Playlist, journalist Gio Benitez describes God Said No as “meditative.” Apollo responds, “Yeah, that’s what I wanted. I am a very . . . sit-in-your-sadness kind of guy and music kind of helps that. . .”

Perhaps it might be better to say, rather than sitting in sadness, Apollo finds himself dancing in it instead. The second track on the album, “Spite,” moves from acoustic to electric guitar. The song has a funky pop rhythm; as the title suggests, Apollo describes going out to party in revenge of a lover who “ruin[s] every night.” Here is where the listener might find a snag: the album has plenty of fun, danceable tunes, but the lyrics mostly remain stuck in sadness. Apollo dances in place, inviting the listeners to join him.

The album has plenty of fun, danceable tunes, but the lyrics mostly remain stuck in sadness.

There are exceptions—somber moments between dance beats. At one point God Said No is interrupted by the voice of actor Pedro Pascal. Playing over a melodic track of bells and hopeful electric piano notes, Pascal says this about suffering: “I remember thinking [about] the, the saying like, um, ‘It brought me to my knees.’ And it was this sort of residential area. And I remember just literally being kind of brought to my knees . . . by a park bench, and, um, and I remember asking the park bench to come alive and save me . . . ’Cause I didn't feel like there was kind of any moment past that moment. But there was, there was. . .”

Pascal testifies that the seat of sadness did not last forever. There is hope beyond the sad dance of loneliness marking God Said No. Pascal interrogates the thread suggested by the album’s title.

According to Apollo, the titular phrase is his take on the proverb, “It is what it is.” Or, in Spanish, “Lo Que Sera, Sera.” The latter is not quite a translation, as it points forward. Literally, it means that “what will be, will be.” In either case, Apollo gives the notion a personal presence. To him, the “it” that is or “will be” is God’s doing.

In that ABC interview, Apollo suggests that the phrase is not exclusively a “biblical” or theological declaration. Yet in another video, he elaborates on the title in theologically significant ways: “Sometimes I feel like God puts me in these really crazy, chaotic situations so I have something to write about. Kind of like when Freddie Gibbs said, ‘God made me sell crack so I’d have something to rap about’ . . . because I’m able to just write about my philosophical view on the world, but in retrospect, I always kind of viewed it like that: like these things happened to me so I could write about them. I can use them and then they can help people. . .”

Womanist theologians have rightly questioned the notion of “redemptive suffering”—the idea that our suffering is inherent to our becoming whole, good, and/or free. Perhaps the listener might similarly ask questions as they encounter the snag in Apollo’s dance, the place in which the beat and lyrics seem at odds. Must God cause our suffering for us to be productive? Is our suffering always the providential assertion of God’s “No”? In the context of Apollo’s album, the listener might ask, “Must I dance alone?” “Must I always dance to a suffering song?”

To these, Scripture gives a clear answer. There is an ancient Greek word to describe the dynamic of the Trinity, the way in which these three persons—Father, Son, and the Holy Spirit—are one. The word, perichoresis, is often compared to a dance. Jesus is our “Emanuel”—meaning he is with us, as we are with him—and he invites us to join the party of God, dancing with Jesus, in the power of the Spirit, to a redemptive song. The lyrical center of Scripture, the psalms, move from grief to joy, from suffering to hope, so that by the time we reach the final psalms we are invited to “praise [God] with dancing.” Scripture promises that there is a moment beyond the heartbreak. To slightly adapt Pedro Pascal on God Said No: “There is, there will be.” Amen.

Topics: Music