Searching for the Prophetic in Hip-Hop

Hip-hop as a recorded art form is over 30 years old, and for much of it’s lifespan it has been disjointedly debated for things as far-ranging as being the wellspring of urban black creativity, to the source of many of the pathologies that plague urban communities. Throughout this debate, critics have portrayed hip-hop as a two sided musical form with commercially successful do anything for money rappers on one side, and “conscious” rappers on the other. In some ways this stratification is informed by Malcolm X’s now famous “house slave” / “field slave” slave construct: the house slave is willing to do anything to curry favor with the master, while the field slave constantly looked for ways to subvert the master’s authority.

Yet just as Malcolm’s construct was incomplete because in its rage at the system it failed to acknowledge the existence of the “workshop slave” — the slaves who asserted their humanity and through personal skill and acumen were able to buy their families’ freedom — a reading of hip-hop as being driven by the forces of commerce and consciousness ignores another aspect of hip-hop creativity: prophetic hip-hop. By prophetic I don’t mean predicting the future. Instead, I mean prophetic in the context established by the black church in America as best illustrated by the Negro Spiritual, “There Is a Balm in Gilead”.

The spiritual was a response to the verse in the Bible’s book of Jeremiah that asks, “Is there no balm in Gilead? / Is there no physician?” The song answers this question, “There is a balm in Gilead to make the wounded whole / There is a balm in Gilead to heal the sin-sick soul”. This pithy, cogent lyric summarizes the prophetic tradition of the black church: the bearing of witness to the suffering, and the justice, love, hope and liberation needed to make the wounded whole and heal the sin-sick soul.

In my findings of the prophetic in hip-hop, below, some readers will notice that contemporary hip-hop artists like Immortal Technique, Truth Universal, Uno the Prophet, and the ever reliable veteran rapper Paris are missing. They are not mentioned in a prophetic sense here, because there is a difference between conscious hip-hop which the aforementioned artists represent, and prophetic hip-hop, on which I am elaborating. Conscious hip-hop is more politically and culturally motivated than prophetic hip-hop, and focuses on drawing the listener to a particular way of thinking.

Similarly, though my conception of the prophetic in hip-hop comes from the black church, I also deliberately omit Christian rappers. Though there are excellent Christian rappers such as Lecrae and Curvine, their message is concerned more with proselytizing and directing people to Christ than speaking to the secular conditions that impact peoples’ souls daily.

That is the qualitative difference between the conscious and the Christian versus the prophetic: while conscious hip-hop takes more of a propagandized, abstract approach and Christian hip-hop is concerned first and foremost with Christ, prophetic hip-hop bears witness to the human condition in graphic, uncompromising terms. The songs that I describe below speak cogently to one or more of the themes of suffering, justice, love, hope, and liberation in a personal way. Though some of these songs are viewed as “positive” many are not, and none have a religious or political agenda in the way that Christian or conscious hip-hop does.

Suffering

In thinking about hip-hop songs that depict suffering, I didn’t want to go with just the obvious choices like Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five’s “The Message” or Geto Boys’ “Minds Playing Tricks on Me”. Both songs do a good job describing the mental anguish associated with aspects of life in the inner city, but I felt that there were songs that were darker and more challenging in their depictions of suffering. Mobb Deep’s “Shook Ones Part II”, and NYOil’s “Y’all Should All Get Lynched” fit the bill for different reasons. On its surface, “Shook Ones Part II” appears to glamorize violence. In fact from its very first lyric:

Word up son, word

Yeah, to all the killers and a hundred dollar billas

(Yo I got the phone thing, knowmsayin’, keep your eyes open)

For real niggas who ain’t got no feelins

The song’s purpose seems to “big up” a criminal lifestyle in the ghetto, and as the song goes on, it attempts to portray this lifestyle as superior to any other in the ghetto. Yet at the root of its misplaced bravado is a sense of desperation and hopelessness, as evidenced by the acknowledgment of “real niggas who ain’t got no feelins”. That lyric references a spiritual numbness that is the worst form of suffering, because it makes it that much easier to spread suffering and dysfunction.

This spreading of suffering is evidenced in “Y’all Should All Get Lynched”. NYOil’s take on the criminal persona present in “Shook Ones Part II” is to annihilate it, and in a most pernicious way — through a lynching. Some may look at NYOil’s response as a form of justice, and perhaps this is the case, but I see it from the perspective of cold calculated murder, which requires the very same spiritual numbness depicted in “Shook Ones”. So rather than being a plea for justice, “Y’all Should All Get Lynched” is a plea for a release from the suffering induced by the spiritual numbness that has taken up residence in so many black urban communities.

Justice

I’ve selected three songs that speak to justice on different layers. Though violence is a recurring motif of each song, each song’s relationship to justice is from the point of view of the victimized. Unlike NYOil’s “Y’all Should All Get Lynched”, which as I said spoke more to mental suffering via frustration and was more about exorcising “demons” than actual justice, De La Soul’s “Millie Pulled a Pistol on Santa” is about a male high school social worker beloved by the school’s male students, but unknown to them, is also sexually and physically abusive to a female student at the school — his daughter.

When the girl tells the male students about the abuse, they don’t believe her, and she takes justice into her own hands and shoots him as he plays Santa Claus at Macy’s. In the case of “Millie Pulled a Pistol on Santa”, De La Soul asks and answers the question, What is a young girl supposed to do when somebody who is supposed to take care of her, in this case her father, instead abuses her?

Much of hip-hop music comes from a place where artists believe the “system” is against them. In that regard, “Millie Pulled a Pistol on Santa” represents not only the very real victims of sexual abuse, but also the victimized and the voiceless in black society, who feel their backs are against the wall and take retribution into their own hands. Retributive justice is also tackled by Eric B and Rakim’s “Casualties of War”, but in a more complex way. (Written in 1992, the song seems to anticipate the events of 26 February 1993 and 11 September 2001.) Rakim’s rap describes a black Muslim-American fighting in the Gulf War, overcome by ambivalence about the war on two levels: the first level is that as a black man, he’s not sure who or what he’s fighting for, and when he realizes he’s fighting against fellow Muslims, he decides to shoot the general but makes it look like the “enemy” did it.

Though this brand of “justice” is difficult to stomach and not sympathetic in the way that Millie’s was, “Casualties of War” is not merely a song about an individual questioning the validity of a war he is fighting. In depicting the emotions swirling around in the mind of a Muslim-American involved in a war against fellow Muslims, it raised a much larger question about the consequences of such a war in the following lyrics:

Cause it ain’t no way I’m going back to war

When I don’t know who or what I’m fighting for

So I wait for terrorists to attack

Every time a truck backfires I fire back

I look for shelter when a plane is over me

Remember Pearl Harbor? New York could be over, G

Kamikaze, strapped with bombs

No peace in the east, they want revenge for Saddam

By depicting instances where a person takes matters into their own hands, “Millie Pulled a Pistol on Santa” and “Casualties of War” are ultimately about “an eye for an eye” type of retribution. Yet ironically, the most vilified and controversial of the justice songs is the one least concerned with retributive justice. NWA’s “Fuck Tha Police” has often been characterized as a song that simply advocates violence against the police. Yet from it’s opening line, “Fuck Tha Police” is a song about young black men having their day in court with the police department. The overly aggressive lyrics are done in the form of testimony, and though much of the talk “on stand” is about violent retribution against police officers, this violence is never actually executed. Instead, the song ends with the police department being found guilty of being racist and oppressive (though the language is a bit more raw), and the officers in question crying out that the verdict is a lie and that they too “want justice”.

In admitting violent testimony, “Fuck Tha Police” acknowledges the violent “solutions” portrayed in “Millie Pulled a Pistol on Santa” and “Casualties of War” as valid, but by ending the song in a guilty verdict instead of a murder, it merely hints at retribution, and in fact speaks to a longing for restorative justice — the ideal form of justice to ensure a harmonious society. That notwithstanding, each of these three songs show the complexities of getting justice as posited by those who believe themselves to be the victims of an unjust system.

Love

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.

Hope

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.

Liberation

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.

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