Can You Hear It? | Sojourners

Can You Hear It?

Hip-hop, spoken word, and the voice of prophetic ethics.

JUSTICE-CONSCIOUS clergy and theologians have been drawn to the Black Lives Matter movement by resonating eschatological beliefs and prophetic ethics. However, movement motivations differ for many of the millennial activist leaders whose ethical sensibilities and theological worldview are not framed necessarily by doctrinal faith, ecclesiology, or trust in the church as an arbiter of God’s right and wrong.

Instead these millennial activists, unlike the boomers allied with them, relate to ethical messages found in popular cultural streams of hip-hop and spoken word that voice this generation’s pervasive questioning about theodicy—the presence of good and evil—in the world. These lyrical works articulate a generational critique of lived experiences that warrant further ethical and theological analysis. The challenge for the church and its faith leaders is: Do we listen?

In a Sojo.net post last August, I noted that the 2015 anthem chant “Hell You Talmbout,” by Janelle Monáe and Wondaland, voiced an ethical polemic on prevalent state-sanctioned practices of extrajudicial injustice. The chanted names of those killed serve to demand their remembrance as persons. As a rallying cry across the nation, the call-and-response lyrics convey a hymnody challenging the anonymity of invisibility.

Similarly, rap artist Kendrick Lamar’s 2015 song “Alright” was rapidly adopted in the Black Lives Matter movement as a counterhegemonic anthem that pushed against police violence with a first-person examination of mortality on the margins.

Lamar’s lyrical messaging in “Alright” linked cultural expression with socio-theological meaning to craft a survival ethic. Intentional use of the N-word sears the embedded consciousness of an older generation for whom the term is historically tied to the evils of slavocracy and Jim Crow segregation. However, Lamar intentionally turns to the signifying trope and demoralizing images that cast “othered” black and brown bodies into racially pejorative stereotypes. In the present millennial context, the N-word is used as a catchphrase of familiarity among peers but is also acknowledged as a pejorative used by police to identify or label black bodies—as many audio-visual recordings of incidents attest—while extrajudicial methods are physically applied. Use of repetitive lyrics in “Alright” amplifies an epistemological and ethical conundrum about systematized oppression. But do we listen?

Wouldn’t you know—we been hurt, been down before
N----, when our pride was low, lookin’ at the world like, “Where do we go?”
N----, and we hate po-po; wanna kill us dead in the street fo sho
N----, I’m at the preacher’s door
My knees gettin’ weak, and my gun might blow
But we gon’ be alright

The images in the video for “Alright” expose, with satirical irony and stark reality, that lived experiences in neighborhoods on the brink of ghettoized existence are linked to systemic control by powerful, privileged forces. Lamar’s juxtaposition of a bodily spirit in flight creates tension between the evils of oppression and a spiritual will to survive. This theoethical tension is captured when a voiced recognition of the “evils of Lucy” (Lucifer) all around is jolted into silence when a uniformed figure fires a single gunshot that sends Lamar’s black body careening off the high perch of a street light.

Yet, despite the raw realities, Lamar threads a countermessage throughout, a call to survival connected to a theological belief that God (if real) will prevail—“if God got us / Then we gon’ be alright.” Such ethical messaging in spoken word lyrics have both allegorical and secular-sacred significance that grounds the Black Lives Matter movement exhortation to “stay woke” for a millennial generation. Spoken word in popular culture gives public exposure that exponentially increases awareness of social disparity. Thus we are challenged, just as the gospels give Jesus’ admonition: Let those with ears to hear, listen!

For public theology, the secular-sacred avenues of messaging in the public square are not new. Neo-soul artist Erykah Badu often used her lyrical lens to raise socio-critical questions in releases such as “On & On”: “If we were made in his image then call us by our names / Most intellects do not believe in God but they fear us just the same.”

These lyrics specifically challenge a social order as well as recognize that all humanity being created in the image of God does not prevent one part of humanity from disdaining or fearing another. Badu also critiques a hegemonic view of intellect by arguing that it does not guarantee enlightenment. In many instances, the social commentary in Badu’s and other artists’ lyrics intentionally clash with images in the accompanying video, heightening an unsettled sense of awareness in the listener/viewer while the artist essentially deconstructs the normative tropes of “what really is truth?”

For example, in Badu’s video presentation of “Window Seat,” the frame opens with a voice-over of a radio news flash on the arrival of a dignitary motorcade somewhere in the city, possibly to signify that all media attention is turned in that direction. An anonymous woman parks, places coins in the meter, and begins to walk the city streets. Meanwhile, lyrics and images focus on her innermost thoughts, perhaps a rehash of tenuous relationships or self-reflection on her mental and emotional sense of place. The black female symbolizes those marginalized by their reality; as she walks, she appears lost in her own thoughts and seemingly invisible to the passersby.

Don’t want nobody next to me
I just want a ticket outta town
A look around and a safe touch down…
I just want a chance to fly
A chance to cry and a long bye-bye

Dynamics suddenly change as she sheds clothing every few steps. Is this a shedding symbolic of layers of pain that covered up her life force, or possibly smothered her very being? The camera pans on disinterested passersby who do not acknowledge or understand internalized feelings of being wronged and invisible. Yet their external reactions—symbolic of society—change suddenly as they try to avoid the immediate vicinity around the nearly naked body. The lyrics critique marginality while the video viewer is fixed on a body nearly free of normative vestiges of respectability—that assuredly must appear as a bodily threat to the world she inhabits.

Viewer sensibilities are further jolted when that body is killed—shot down as strange, unwanted, “other,” with little reaction from onlookers. The exposed body lies dead in the public streets like Ferguson’s Michael Brown, Cleveland’s Tamir Rice, New York’s Eric Garner, or Chicago’s Rekia Boyd and Laquan McDonald. It spurs theoethical questions as a young woman’s smiling face appears in the camera lens—perhaps to signify resurrection or rebirth? 

For the millennial protest activists, the critique of societal systems in which such killings occur today are not far from dynamics in scriptural accounts that hint at oppressive structures conspiring to crucify a rabbi on Golgotha. Lyrical messaging in popular culture represents the disruptive politics of a millennial movement that pushes against the alleged “respectability politics” of more conservative churches and clergy leaders. Millennial activists call us to a public theology in the mode of a more radical gospel message. But do we listen?

BADU’S CONTEMPORARY Lauryn Hill captures another angle of the rawness of survival ethics with potential theological insight through lyrics that also stake a claim on Jesus’ imperative: Let those with ears to hear, listen. Hill invokes Bob Marley’s theological lens for her words in “Forgive Them Father”:

Why for you to increase, I must decrease?
If I treat you kindly does it mean that I’m weak? ...
Forgive them father for they know not what they do ...

The impact of popular culture on listeners, young and old, might be for entertainment on the surface. But other dimensions of the artistic messages are illumined when heard and viewed with ethical and theological eyes and ears. Black neo-soul lyrics and hip-hop spoken word messages offer a worldview, a mosaic of experiences, and a visceral reaction to unjust realities that simultaneously grips and convicts privileged notions of what is normative, ethical, and morally acceptable. Lyrical messaging also amplifies public square dilemmas central to the ethical platforms of the Black Lives Matter movement, including an awareness of mental illness and depression as possible manifestations of oppression.

In the theoethical framing of popular cultural messaging, it is possible to grasp the social critique, engage to challenge injustice, and follow the path to band together healing and faith as a means for survival. Use of these lyrics and videos also spark classroom engagement with fervent discussion of praxis. I use Stacey Floyd-Thomas’ ethical frames from her book Mining the Motherlode to demythologize and demystify negative responses to black being and body. In the womanist ethics classes I’ve taught, male and female seminarians grapple with what the images and lyrics signify for them as a contextual re-membering of body. Today’s opportune question is how do we engage these messages for deeper theological discourse and ethical application? Let those with ears to hear: Listen!

This appears in the February 2016 issue of Sojourners
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