Music and Ministry Among Friends: An Interview With Jon Watts*

Starting this past summer, Jon Watts and I have found our paths crossing on a number of occasions: Visiting a Meeting together in San Diego, California; at my wedding in Barnesville, Ohio; at Union Station in Washington, DC. As we have been connected at surprising times and places, Jon and I have discovered an unexpected friendship that we are both convinced is a "God thing." For my part, I have come to know Jon as someone who is doing his best to be faithful to God's guidance in his vocation as a musician.

Jon is a Quaker musician and hip-hop artist who has toured extensively among Friends in the Mid-Atlantic. This April, he will be undertaking a tour (http://www.jonwatts.com/tag/two-wheel-tour/) from Richmond, VA to Boston, MA on his bicycle. I encourage you to attend one of his shows if you are able to make it. He is an extremely talented musician who is seeking to be responsive to God's guidance in his life in general, and in his music specifically.

Jon Watts is a name that is becoming increasingly well known, particularly among Liberal Friends. I hope that more Friends will get the chance to experience his unique brand of Quaker folk hip-hop, and the call to deeper relationship with the Spirit that he seeks to encourage. In the following interview, I ask Jon to share about his life as a traveling musician, and how he negotiates the relationship of his art and his call to ministry. I trust that you will find getting to know Jon as rewarding as I have.

Micah Bales
Coordinator of Young Adult Engagement
Earlham School of Religion

What is the edge for you between being an artist/performer and being a minister?

Jon WattsI see this as two different questions… artist and performer, so I’ll split it up.

Artist

One of my favorite Quakers Jim Corbett said “Verse can make false inspiration obvious, even when a line almost fits… a line that fails to fit is obvious to meta-conscious awareness, which recognizes contrived inspiration the same way it recognizes an idol.  A line that fails to fit holds attention in the present, while the composer stops to listen for the line that has meta-conscious approval.”

People with a gift of ministry have that gift whether we name it and support them in it or not.  When I am writing a song, I am being faithful to God.  Period.  If I’m not, we’ll all be able to hear it, because the song will suck.  

You know that one line in your favorite artist’s most recent album that makes you cringe when you hear it?  Yeah, that’s the “not God”.  That artist had to meet a deadline or forgot what it was all about for a moment and forced it through.  Sometimes it takes a painful amount of waiting.  But that’s better than releasing crappy songs.

Performer

In the Fall semester of my senior year at Guilford College I wrote a paper for a music history course on the relationship between the Early Friends and musical expression.  The rumor about Early Friends is that they were 100% opposed to music.  What I found is that this is more true of the Quietists… the second generation and on, when things became more formulaic.

So what I found about the 1st generation is that they were opposed to the high-society baroque music.  I uncovered this great story about a successful composer named Solomon Eccles who burned his violins in a public square in London when he joined the Quaker movement. They were also focused on purging from their worship any practice that was not an expression of direct experience of God, so hymns were out with the rest of the formal liturgy.  But my understanding is that messages that rose to the level of ministry in Meeting but were in song form were acceptable.

My experience is that improvisation is the purest form of musical worship.  Songwriting has it’s place, though… often I am going deeper with the same songs that I wrote years ago and have played again and again.  It helps if I include some improvisation, though, to keep it fresh and interesting for me and leave more space for Spirit to enter the room in the energy of the present moment… I think sometimes playing a song written at another time risks the danger of forcing the present moment to adhere to the energy of a different moment, which will just fall flat, in my experience.

But people love written songs that they’ve heard before and know the words to.  And I love recording.  So there’s an interesting balance to be struck there, between being totally faithful in the present moment and playing the songs from the CD that people will be taking home with them.  I’ve satisfied that balance by improvising the banter between songs, and often I’m making up parts of the guitar lines on the spot.

In what ways do you hope your music will minister to people?

Jon WattsI've found that it's not helpful for me to form expectations about how my music/ministry will be received.  Hoping, worrying - these get in the way of my being a faithful vessel.

Ways that I've seen God transform audiences/congregations through this music: a going deeper, a breaking open, a renewed interest in spiritual/historical exploration.

When performing for a predominantly Quaker audience, what is the real source of inspiration for you - the thing that gets you excited and keeps you searching for another Quaker gig?

I’m a musician because I love God.  That statement might freak some people out… no these are not Christian praise songs.  I just mean that I love the universe, this life, living in my body, breathing and feeling things!!!!  Some people are musicians because they love to party, they love to drink, or they love socializing.  That’s fine, but I don’t fit into their scene.  

I am going to be experimenting with playing some bars on my upcoming bike tour, but my past experiences haven’t been great.  Most folks in bars aren’t super interested in depth or challenging concepts in their music.  They just got done with a long work week and want to relax or go a little wild.  I also don’t really fit into the Christian music scene and there’s not enough buzz yet to draw a crowd to a big seated venue.

So I’m creating my own scene.  I have been going to Quaker gatherings for a year and a half now, doing anything from workshops with groups of nine-year-olds to presenting for retirement communities.  I love all of it.  Quakers tend to be thoughtful communicators, caring employers, deep listeners and great hosts.  I think that’s a lot more than most songwriters can say about the folks who are hiring them (if they are getting paid gigs at all).  I know that I am very blessed.

Who are your mentors and role models, for life?  

Jon WattsEvery person I have ever met has taught me something about how to be a responsible, loving and faithful human on this Earth (and something about how not to!).  I guess I can identify a few folks who have been more-than-average influential… the staff of the QLSP program at Guilford College, many of the folks at Pendle Hill (staff and resident students in my year of ’06-’07).

For your music?  

Wow, there are just so many bands and songwriters right now making amazing, deep, inspiring, Spirit-led music.  I’m listening to Regina Spektor’s new one right now.  Sufjan Steven’s was huge.  Bon Iver and his old band Deyarmond Edison, Noah and the Whale, Josh Ritter, the Arcade Fire, Mason Jennings, Joanna Newsom, Iron and Wine… yeah.  Too many to list.

For your ministry?

I came into this exploration as a musician and the label ministry is helpful for me to be faithful and hold up what is truly important.  I really haven’t seen many other folks following this path, though I am glad to see some of my peers exploring the concept also.  I do take some of my cues from the Early Friends, like traveling with an elder, which is just a great idea!  I wish that all musicians had the opportunity to be supported in their exploration of faithfulness and held accountable by someone who is familiar with their path.  It’s really made a huge difference for me.

What kind of support do you receive from Friends in providing accountability for your ministry?

I have organized several support committees in the different communities I have lived in since Guilford, with varying degrees of success.  I try to stay in touch with those Friends who support and challenge me and help to maintain perspective on the bigger picture.  I also give a feedback form to each group that I share music with… which is very helpful for accountability and also a necessity for collecting the testimonials that are listed at www.jonwatts.com/testimonials  And of course, I always try to travel with and elder when I can.

How did you know that you were called to ministry? 

I knew there was something that was deeper about the songs I was writing and I was encouraged to be more responsible about considering their impact and my own health in their creation and sharing.  I will always write songs, whether we call it a ministry or not.  Also, exploring the term ministry offered the opportunity to create a more worshipful space than is typical for performances, which provides more of a possibility that Spirit will be present in the room.

What has been hard about being a Quaker in the ministry?

I really wish there were more of a framework in Liberal Quakerism for folks who have been made responsible for a gift of ministry.  Spiritual support, accountability, financial compensation… these are all things that I’m making up as I go along.  I like meeting with FGC’s traveling ministry group every summer, but I often find that it is a somewhat foreign concept in individual Meetings.  I think that’s changing, though.  And I have a lot of hope, considering the number of Meetings that have looked me up on the web and invited me to come out, and some of the truly amazing experiences we have had together.  I really think that traveling ministry is part of the web that weaves The Religious Society of Friends together and makes us strong, and I think that the possibility of reviving it as a widespread practice could be close at hand.

Your most widely-heard - and controversial - song, "Friend Speaks My Mind," presents Quakerism from the perspective of a youth growing up in Baltimore Yearly Meeting's Young Friends program.  Could you share about your experience growing up in Baltimore Yearly Meeting and how that relates to your own self-understanding, your faith as a Friend, and your music and ministry?

Sure!  Growing up in Baltimore Yearly Meeting was so amazing and fun.  Being a camper at Shiloh and Catoctin, a counselor at Shiloh and a Young Friend in BYM were really just invaluable experiences.  I couldn’t have asked for a more amazing group of programs to supplement the education that I was getting in the rural Virginian public school system.

Having said that, I found that when I arrived at Guilford College there was a lot about my faith that I didn’t know and hadn’t been encouraged to explore.  I remember distinctly a conversation with one of my mentors in the Quaker Leadership Scholars Program in which he questioned whether I came to QLSP as a practicing Quaker or just a cultural one.  

After three subsequent years of spiritual seeking, I was living at Pendle Hill and feeling some resentment towards my home Meeting, Baltimore Yearly Meeting and Liberal Quakerism in general for not providing me with a more comprehensive spiritual toolbox.  I wrote the song Friend Speaks My Mind as an experiment, to embody the person I had been before Guilford College and see if I could practice loving compassion toward him.  I felt that God was calling me to go back and fall in love with Liberal Quakerism again, to ground that relationship in love (and to have the humbling experience of representing that which I was feeling critical of!).  Now I hope that it is clear when I am attending FGC, or my home Meeting, that I don’t hate that form of Quakerism or think that their way of practice is wrong, but I do think there is a lot of growth and work to be done there. 

Jon Watts is a Quaker spoken word poet and instrumentalist who seeks to be faithful in his songwriting and presentation.  He looks back to the Quaker model of traveling ministry as he helps move the Religious Society of Friends forward into the age of the internet. To learn more about Jon and his current musical tour, you can visit http://www.jonwatts.com