While justice can be seen as a discrete event responsible for delivering people from a specific misdeed, love is an ongoing process. In talking about any type of music, you will find a preponderance of love songs, whether they be a romantic love, puppy love, or a lustful love. However, in speaking about love in the context of the prophetic tradition, I’m talking about agape (wonder), or unconditional love. The two songs that exemplify this type of unconditional love are Nas’ “One Love” and Tupac’s “Keep Ya Head Up”.
“One Love” is a simple song in the form of a letter from a young man in the projects to his incarcerated friend. Though we’re not sure, we can assume that the friend is not unjustly imprisoned, and that he most likely was selling drugs and may even have been involved in violence of some sort. In short, this friend could have been one of the characters in Mobb Deep’s “Shook Ones Pt. II”. But where NYOil calls for the lynching of such characters, Nas offers them love and sustenance through a letter about what’s going on in the neighborhood, while offering encouragement to stay strong in prison.
Where Nas is concerned with the paticular, Tupac’s “Keep Ya Head Up” is an expansive, anthemic song of unconditional love that begins by addressing the misogyny present in many communities, but goes well beyond misogyny and into territories of apathy and self-loathing. Some have characterized this as a song about hope, but I disagree. This song is about wonder, through and through. The soothing tone of the song gives Tupac a ministerial authority. When Tupac says, “Tupac cares if don’t nobody else care”, one could see him actually listening to DeLa Soul’s Millie or Rakim’s Gulf War soldier and preventing them from taking justice into their own hands.
Granted, the song has a smattering of pro-black sloganeering and quasi-political analysis, but it avoids chiding people for not knowing the source of their plight, nor does it preach and plead for people about the need for a political agenda. Instead, it calls for the community to bring love to the community in order to save it.
Though hope may spring eternal, where the prophetic tradition of hip-hop is concerned, it is somewhat deficient. Most of the hip-hop songs that do have hopeful themes are of the “rags to riches” or “I’m politically conscious” or “I got saved by Jesus” variety. Perhaps this is an important observation about hip-hop music, for while R&B songs of the late ‘60s and early ‘70s like Curtis Mayfield’s “We’re a Winner” and the Main Ingredient’s “Rolling Down the Mountainside” were relatively commonplace, hip-hop music, be it commercial, conscious, or even Christian, seems to struggle with hope as a theme.
Nonetheless, if hope is defined as a reason to live with confident expectation of good occurring at some point in your life, the song that stands out is Method Man and Mary J. Blige’s collaboration “I’ll Be There for You / You’re All That I Need”. This could also be classified as a love song, but neither the Mary J. character or the Method Man character need to be encouraged or convinced of the outcome of their love. They know it will be good, and it is this knowing, this confident expectation, that places this song squarely in the realm of hope.
Finding a song about liberation was difficult, not because songs of liberation in hip-hop don’t exist, but because of the type of liberation with which they are concerned. For example, though Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power” and Truth Universal’s “Freedom or Death” are certainly about liberation, they come at it from a conscious rap perspective. In the prophetic tradition, Black Star’s “Respiration” is the best example of what I’m after.Though this is not any easy song to listen to, and requires multiple listens to get a grip on it, it is rewarding once you do grasp it. The song uses city life as a metaphor for oppressed living, and the three rappers on the song—Mos Def, Talib Kweli, and Common—each wrap an assortment of poetic observations related to themes of suffering, justice, love and hope in the city around the following refrain:
So much on my mind I just can’t recline
Blastin holes in the night til she bled sunshine
The night symbolizes the spiritual numbness that is a byproduct of oppression. “Blastin holes in it” represents the quest for liberation. The trio of rappers are sharp enough to know that the quest for liberation isn’t liberation itself, which is why the night has to bleed sunshine. In other words, when the night has finally “bled out”, then spiritual numbness will be replaced by the energy and vibrancy associated with an unencumbered life—i.e, a liberated one. Such is the ultimate goal of the prophetic tradition.