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.