Back in 1998, a friend and I saw the animated movie The Prince of Egypt, which retells the story of Moses. As the film opens, we see images of slaves laboring under the desert sun, while overseers bark orders and crack whips. A chorus of baritone voices belt to the rhythm of their toil, building as they call out to God for their freedom: “Deliver us, to the promised land!” To my friend and I, both brought up in Black churches, this opening number felt familiar. This was a “negro spiritual,” and though its subject was the Hebrews of Exodus, it would have fit just as well in a film about slavery in North America.
“Set Me Free,” the latest single from gospel rapper Lecrae, featuring YK Osiris, employs much of the same imagery as The Prince of Egypt’s “Deliver Us.” The bouncy, anthemic track pays tribute to God while making allusions to the bondage of slavery. Lecrae conjures the sight of chains, repeatedly imploring God to “take these shackles” from his feet. It’s powerful imagery directly rooted in Black trauma, but like The Prince of Egypt, its message of liberation reaches beyond specific cultural categories. “Set Me Free” reflects not only a tradition of Black worship, but also a prevailing biblical message about freedom.
In “Set Me Free” we experience Lecrae’s struggle and triumph. He says he’s “been through so much.” “People talking down on me,” he laments. “I swear these people at my throat. . . . they won’t let me be.” He never specifies who “these people” are, only that they restrict his freedom. “You can pick a side if you wanna,” he says. “You already know who I roll with.” In this battle with his unnamed enemies, God allows Lecrae to “rise up on ’em like the tax rate.”
When we look at this song in the context of Black worship, a familiar fight begins to take form. The image of Moses, for example, demanding his people’s freedom from bondage, has influenced the ways Black faith communities have framed their own hope for liberation from systemic oppression. We hear this in the popular spiritual “Go Down Moses” and its refrain, taken directly from Scripture: “Let my people go!” The song is also associated with abolitionist Harriet Tubman (who was referred to as “Moses”) and her role as a conductor for the Underground Railroad. Author Zora Neale Hurston’s novel, Moses, Man of the Mountain, borrows from African folklore and southern Black dialect for its depiction of the enslaved Hebrew people. What this affinity with the Hebrews of Exodus suggests is that freedom from oppression is not only possible, but inevitable and ordained by God.
When we look at this song in the context of Black worship, a familiar fight begins to take form.
Beyond the book of Exodus, we get a bigger picture of the type of freedom that God provides. The story of Joseph presents another example of bondage and divine rescue. Sold into slavery by his jealous brothers, Joseph’s ability to read dreams earns him favor with Pharaoh, delivers him out of slavery, and leads to a position as an Egyptian governor. It is in this role that Joseph is able to save a nation from famine and eventually exercise forgiveness and mercy on his brothers. In another tale, the prophet Daniel is rescued from his own imprisonment after divine protection in the lion’s den, a feat that inspires King Darius to declare the sovereignty of God throughout the land. And Jonah is famously held captive as well—not in chains, but in the belly of a fish—until he, too, turns to God. With his rescue comes the rescue of the people of Nineveh. Lecrae tells us in “Set Me Free” that he “got the memo, read the message,” and found his “purpose” in gaining his freedom. Indeed, these biblical stories show us that true, complete freedom only comes with reliance on God, and that our individual salvation has implications for the salvation of others.
So yes, as a successor to the “negro spiritual” and to a tradition of Black worship, “Set Me Free” employs rhetoric and images attached to a specific cultural community. Yet Lecrae’s bigger message need not be limited to members of that community. To embrace the spirit of that message is to embrace what the Bible teaches us about liberation. Ultimately, the song is concerned about collective freedom. It’s meant to energize its listeners, with simple lyrics ready to be chanted by whoever is listening. We all wear shackles that keep us immobilized—if not physically, then spiritually.
While we are all feeling trapped these days, it’s important that, when the moment of freedom arrives, we not only appreciate it but make use of it and share it, careful not to hoard it like so much toilet paper. When we are set free, be merciful to one another, be a beacon of hope, and an example of God’s love and power. Fight on behalf of the freedom of others. And when those shackles finally fall from your feet, the first thing you should do is dance.