As soon as Joy Bostic heard Kendrick Lamar’s Grammy award-winning album DAMN., she knew she had to develop a class around it. It became the basis for her well-received “Religion and Popular Culture” course.

“He was speaking to so many feelings I was having, and I really understood he’s speaking to where a lot of people are,” said Bostic, associate professor in the Department of Religious Studies, describing the exhaustion and anger she felt after unarmed African-American teenager Jordan Edwards was shot and killed by a police officer in April 2017 in Texas, as a car in which he as a passenger drove away.

Though the standard course registration timing had passed, she listed the course online as an option for students. By the next morning, she received a call from the department assistant asking if she wanted to put a cap on registrations; nearly 50 students had already signed up.

In the fall 2017 course, Bostic and her students examined the religious aspects of Lamar’s work. The course became a new take on similar concepts she had discussed in another of her popular classes, one exploring singer-songwriter Beyoncé’s Lemonade album, which was first offered in spring 2017 and is being taught again this semester.

Since the Lamar class, Bostic has offered variations on the course two times, analyzing other big moments in popular culture with aspects of afrofuturism, such as the 2018 release of the superhero film Black Panther and music by Janelle Monáe, a genre-crossing singer-songwriter with R&B, hip hop and funk influences.

“It’s important to understand the context out of which these art forms are created and the various meanings that they hold for the artists and for the [African-American] communities,” Bostic said.

From past to present

Though Bostic’s classes emphasize religious studies in a modern-day context, her research extends to the 19th century, focusing on how black women forged their religious identity and engaged in activism at a time when others defined how they were perceived.

In response to student activism and working with Marilyn Mobley, vice president of the Office for Inclusion, Diversity and Equal Opportunity, Bostic has played a fundamental role in establishing the new minor in African and African-American Studies as the program’s faculty director.

“What I hope students will take from the program,” she said, “is the significance and importance of black history as not only American history, but as global history, and that we’ll see these as integral parts of who we are as a culture.”

Learn more about the program.

Through her work, Bostic has demonstrated how those women managed to define themselves through their religion—and especially how they incorporated aspects of their African ancestry into their spiritual beliefs.

“I think that was really important because we have a history of denigrating black and African culture,” Bostic said. “Even within religious studies, there still is not a wholesale recognition of African and African-derived religion in the larger study of religion. We still have this East-West split. We leave out the southern part of the globe.”

But Bostic doesn’t. She’s examined African religions and how aspects of those practices influence and shape African-American culture today. For example, Beyoncé’s Lemonade references Yoruba, a West African religion, culture and ethnic group Bostic has studied.

That’s where Bostic’s research comes full circle for students—using present-day popular culture with roots in African religion.

“When I look at black popular culture, I’m looking at ways in which artists draw from diverse religious sources and ideas about death, sex and the body, and what it means to be human,” Bostic said. “They do it as a way to affirm and to assert their own humanity in a culture and a socio-historical space in which their humanity is often denied or marginalized.”

Find out more about Bostic in this week’s five questions.

1. What new hobby would you pursue if you had more time?

It wouldn’t be a new hobby. I’ve been doing textile art, working with fabrics, making wall quilts. I want to get back into visual, textile art and combining my love for sewing and photography.

2. Where is your favorite spot on or near campus to work, read or study?

The Cleveland Museum of Art atrium.

3. What new place would you most like to travel?

I’m actually on my way to Bahia in Brazil in June. I’m really looking forward to that trip and eating really great food and participating with some of the activist communities there.

4. If you could learn another language, what would you choose?

I would like to work on my Twi, which is an Akan (one of the Asante peoples) dialect of southern and central Ghana.

5. What’s your favorite thing about Case Western Reserve?

My colleagues and my department because we just have great relationships. They’ve been very supportive of my work, but also we’re just great friends. Also the students. I found the students here to be very hard-working and just very genuine in the desire to learn new things. They’ve taught me a lot and helped expand my horizons in ways I hope that I have reciprocated.