Performance, power and agency : Isaiah Shembe's hymns and the sacred dance in the Church of the Nazarites.
This study examines the sacred dance in the Nazaretha Church and Isaiah Shembe's hymns as “agency” and not “response” (Coplan, 1994: 27). A number of studies on the Nazaretha Church and Isaiah Shembe posit that Shembe created his popular texts (especially the sacred dance) as a response to colonialism and the oppression of black people. In countering such a proposition I argue that in exploring the sacred dance we need to look at the motivation for members to participate in the dance. With that view in mind, I examine the sacred dance and the hymns as examples of a popular culture which is both „transnational‟ and „transglobal‟, to use Hofmeyr‟s terms (2004). This is because it is common in the Nazaretha Church that members taking part in the sacred dance claim to be doing so on behalf of their dead relatives, as it is believed that ancestors are able to participate in those dances through the bodies of their living relatives. In return, those in the ancestral realm will reward the living performers by offering them „blessings‟. In the Nazarite Church, and through performances like the sacred dance, the physical and spiritual worlds are perceived to be integrated. I therefore examine these hymns and performances as examples of popular culture “that is more than sub- or trans-national, [that] is trans-worldly and trans-global” (Hofmeyr, 2004: 9). In other words, I examine the sacred dance as performances and the hymns as texts whose audience is not only living people but also people in heaven. This means my study goes beyond the view that Nazarite performances are rituals of empowerment for the members, a majority of whom are economically, socially and politically marginalised (Muller, 1999), to look at them as significant on their own account. In undertaking the abovementioned task, I examine these hymns and performances in relation to “oral testimony of their significance to the people who [perform] and [listen] to them” (White, 1989: 37). Oral testimony of dreams and miracles suggests that Nazarite members who take part in the sacred dance do so primarily because of the imagined relationship between the individual and divine power. As Mbembe states, “it is the subject‟s relation to divine sovereignty that serves as the main provider of meanings for most people” (2002: 270). I argue that Nazarite members take part in the sacred dance mainly as an attempt to “manage the „real world‟ on the basis of the conviction that all symbolisation refers primarily to a system of the invisible, of a magical universe, the present belonging above all to a sequence that opens onto something different” (270).