Hip Hop Mysticism

INTRODUCTION

Three years ago, in 2008, I lost a very dear friend who was also my mentor: Rev. Michaël Ghijs, a priest and conductor of Schola Cantorum Cantate Domino, the choir I have been a member of for nearly 20 years. I remember going through all kinds of different emotions while preparing and rehearsing songs for the funeral. One state of mind prevailed, however, one of great gratitude.

This was enhanced by a particular experience which, in hindsight, contained the seeds of a new and unexpected discovery. The weeks after the funeral I became acquainted with the spiritual power of hip-hop, rap and r&b music – by spiritual I mean the power this music sometimes has to address the paradoxes and complexities of ‘reality’. You might ask how that came about. Well, the days before the funeral I was also involved in a creative project at the Jesuit high school where I’m teaching religion. Together with one of our music teachers and a disparate ‘bunch’ of younger pupils I don’t actually teach, I had prepared an acoustic arrangement of Heaven, a hit love song by Canadian rocker Bryan Adams. The night of the ‘concert’ (actually a ‘happening’ with all sorts of dramatic acts) I went from rehearsing for the funeral to the stage at our school and back. I didn’t even bother my bike got stolen during the process.

Everything I experienced during those days was of an immense intensity. My senses were sharpened. That particular night was a high point in that respect. We performed the song Heaven at our beautiful little Baroque church. Laura accompanied on the piano, introducing first singer Sandra – a ‘black beauty’ who sounds like pop diva Alicia Keys. At the same time I kind of improvised a second voice – falsetto during the verses and then a ‘bass line’ each time the chorus kicked in. Tim took over for the second verse, while Soufiane led the ‘backing vocals’ together with Mieke, my colleague. The so-called ‘bridge’ was sung by Angela and Charlotte, two Philippine girls testifying that they indeed belonged to a ‘singing nation’.

It was a wonderful moment, and one of great comfort to me. I’ll always be very grateful for what that ‘bunch’ of young people gave me that evening. The way Rev. Michaël Ghijs always tried to make young people discover their own gifts and talents was present right there. In allowing me and the audience to hear their voices, the eleven, twelve and thirteen year olds brought a message of hope to this world. It was a moment of sheer beauty. They sang, not to ‘gain’ anything, not because it was ‘useful’ in any way, but because they received the opportunity to ‘be’, to ‘shine’ and to ‘enjoy’. In the weeks that followed I more and more discovered how Rev. Michaël Ghijs had been a model for me, and how much I imitated him in dealing with youngsters. Both some of my qualities and flaws can be attributed to him, and I’m willing to accept these flaws because I know they come from someone I love. So it’s definitely true I learned a lot from my mentor, but I also learned, and keep on learning, a lot from my pupils – and maybe this willingness to learn from youngsters can also be traced back to how Rev. Michaël Ghijs related to his choristers.

Working together with Laura and Sandra, for example, opened me up to the fascinating world of hip-hop and r&b. They both performed a song by Alicia Keys. Surprisingly perhaps, I discovered traces of Christian mysticism in this music.

 

So, in this post, I’ll try to point out some ‘mystical elements’ in the world of hip-hop and r&b. I’m guided by two articles on hip-hop and a course by Thomas Merton (1915-1968) on Christian mysticism:

– Alison Burke, A Deeper Rap – Examining the Relationship between Hip-Hop, Rap and Adolescent Spirituality (New Zealand Journal of Counselling 2008; Volume 28/2; p.25-40).

– Christina Zanfagna, Under the Blasphemous W(RAP): Locating the “Spirit” in Hip-Hop (Pacific Review of Ethnomusicology, Vol.12 – Fall 2006).

– Thomas Merton, An Introduction to Christian Mysticism – Initiation into the Monastic Tradition 3, Cistercian Publications, Kalamazoo, Michigan, 2008 (Monastic Wisdom Series: Number Thirteen; edited with an introduction by Patrick F. O’Connell; preface by Lawrence S. Cunningham).

1.      MYSTICAL UNION AS A TRANSFORMATION OF LIFE

THROUGH BAPTISMAL VOCATION AND MARTYRDOM

Thomas Merton starts off with a definition of The Oxford Dictionary to describe the mystic person. – Merton, p.29: What is a “mystic”? {The} Oxford Dictionary says: “An exponent of mystical theology; also, one who maintains the importance of this – one who seeks by contemplation and self-surrender to obtain union with or absorption in the deity, or who believes in the spiritual apprehension of truths inaccessible to the understanding.”

It is important to stress how this self-surrender should be understood. It does not imply masochism or the glorification of suffering (‘dolorism’) in any way. Merton refers to the martyrdom of Polycarp to make clear martyrdom is not something we should ‘seek deliberately’. As far as contemporary Christian thinkers are concerned, next to Thomas Merton also René Girard is right for having pointed out possible misunderstandings of Christian sacrifice and martyrdom.  – Merton, p.45: Martyrdom is a gift of God – it must not be sought deliberately by our own will (see Martyrdom of Polycarp, c.4; Fathers of {the} Church, Apostolic Fathers, p.153 – [Footnote here: This chapter mentions one who “had forced himself and some others to come forward voluntarily” and then apostasized; it concludes, “For this reason, therefore, brethren, we do not approve those who give themselves up, because the Gospel does not teach us this.”]). But it should be accepted with humility and joy when God offers it as a great gift.

In the introduction to Merton’s course on Christian Mysticism, Patrick F. O’Connell elaborates on this issue and makes clear how Christian sacrifice and self-surrender should be understood as a change in the way people lead their lives (and not in a simple ‘replacement’ by one life through the destruction of another). – Merton, Introduction, p.xxiv-xxv: […] It is only through dying to the alienated, sinful self and rising to new life with and in the resurrected Christ that one shares in the divine life of Trinitarian love. Asceticism is initially identified, based on Mark 8:34, with taking up one’s cross (19) through self-denial and following Christ, and is linked to martyrdom as a participation in Christ’s death and resurrection that in Ignatius of Antioch becomes an early articulation of mystical union (43). But the paschal journey is not restricted to the literal surrender of life in physical martyrdom: this pattern must be reproduced in any authentic Christian spiritual life. As Merton summarizes, what the martyr undergoes physically every Christian must undergo spiritually.

The pattern of the ‘paschal journey’ as a ‘change of life’ is sacramentally sealed and established by baptism. – Merton, p.46: Martyrdom is a second baptism. It is the perfect fulfillment of our baptismal vocation. In baptism we die to the world and rise in Christ sacramentally. In martyrdom we do so in all truth. To baptize is to symbolically communicate that every human being has a vocation to live a life that is not guided by envy, jealousy and self-assertion (which are the building blocks of what the Gospel calls the life of ‘this world’).

In short, the mystical experience as an experience of union with God through Christ is a liberating experience, not in the sense that our ‘earthly’ and ‘bodily’ conditions are destroyed, but in the sense that these conditions are transformed by being directed at their ultimate goal. Because we are conditioned by the limits of a bodily, mortal life we didn’t choose for ourselves, we are able to experience ourselves and the whole of reality as a gift handed over to us (‘beyond our will’). So before we can ask how something or someone can be useful to us, we are confronted with the fact that everything and everyone simply ‘is’ – even if we don’t ‘need’ the things and neighbors we are confronted with. The ultimate goal therefore, from a mystical ‘point of view’, is precisely to creatively preserve everything handed over to us. In this sense mysticism has to do with a non-utilitarian attitude towards nature and respect for the ecosystem. It also implies valorizing others because of who they are, not because of their eventual ‘usefulness’.

Theologically speaking, this means discovering these others as ‘imitations’ or ‘images’ of Christ – Him being understood as One revealing our true nature as belonging to and shaped by others and, ultimately ‘the’ Other (likewise: ‘Christ belongs to his Father’ and is an ‘imitation’ of his ‘Father’). – Merton, p.128: The logos of a man is therefore something hidden in him, spiritual, simple, profound, unitive, loving, selfless, self-forgetting, oriented to love and to unity with God and other men in Christ. It is not an abstract essence, “rationality plus animality.” It is however the divine image in him. More deeply it is Christ in him, either actually or potentially. To love Christ in our brother we must be able to see Him in our brother, and this demands really the gift of theoria physike [p.127: Theoria is contemplation of the splendor of divine wisdom in Christ with nature [Elias] on one side and law [Moses] on the other, both looking to Him as to their fulfillment. In the full development of theoria they both disappear and we see Christ alone.] Christ in us must be liberated, by purification, so that the “image” in us, clothed anew with light of the divine likeness, is able connaturally to recognize the same likeness in another, the same tendency to love, to simplicity, to unity. Without love this is completely impossible.

In other words, to become imitators of Christ means to become loving human beings, and love seeks to be ‘materialized’, ‘incarnated’. It means to valorize our body and our material, natural world to its full potential. True Christian mysticism therefore is not manicheistic, it doesn’t separate the ‘soul’ from the ‘body’ or ‘earth’ and ‘heaven’ in a Cartesian, dualistic split.

Merton, p.128: […] the vision given by theoria physike shows us that all creatures are good and pure. This is the first thing, the complement of the active detachment in apatheia. Evagrius declares, following the desert tradition (especially St. Anthony) that “nothing created by God is evil”, and St. Maximus adds, “nothing created is impure.”

Merton, p.127: Von Balthasar says: “The meaning of each natural thing and the meaning of every law and commandment is to be an Incarnation of the divine Word; to realize fully its proper nature or its proper law is to cooperate fully in the total realization of the Word in the world”.

2.      THE MYSTICAL MEANING OF THE LANGUAGE OF THE SENSES:

SPIRITUALITY AT THE ‘CROSSROADS’

Pseudo-Denys the Areopagite (5th, 6th century AD) was the first to use the term Theologia Mystica (Merton, p.136). The adjective ‘mystical’ was first used by Clement (c.150-c.215) and Origen (185-254), and their understanding of the word already makes clear the close connection between mysticism and theology. – Merton, p.67-68:  The Greek classical term, mystikos, refers to the hidden rites of the mystery religions – not to a hidden experience, but to the mystery which is revealed only to the initiates and through which they pass. […] Christian use of the term mystic (mystikos): Clement and Origen take over the pagan term and use it in reference to the spiritual (mystical or typological) sense of Scripture. For them the mystical sense is the real sense. To discover the mystical sense is to penetrate to the real meaning of revelation and hence to penetrate into the hidden things of God, the mystery of Christ. This mystery, the mysterion of the Cross, is the central reality of all cosmic life: the salvation of the world, the recapitulation of all in Christ. Hence […] the “gnostic” is the man who has entered into the “mystical” understanding of Scripture. Originally, the mystical sense of Scripture is: (a) that which points to Christ; (b) that which deals with invisible realities of faith; (c) that which is spiritual and not carnal, i.e. not involved in {the} “letter” of the Law and of Scripture. It cannot be too often repeated that this “mystical sense” of Scripture is not a hidden idea about God or a mere complex of difficult or secret truths. It is a reality experienced and lived. One might say that for the Fathers the letter tended to be doctrine and law, the spirit tended to be reality and life. Their theology was therefore not simply constructed with the literal elements of revelation, or of God revealed in the mystery of Christ. Hence it is clear that already to enter into the mystical sense or real sense of Scripture, which is interior and spiritual, one must “die to” the letter, to the exterior and apparent meaning; one must “go beyond”, one must “stand outside” (ekstasis) the apparent meaning. This does not necessarily imply a strict opposition between the letter and the spirit, but simply a fulfillment of the letter in the spirit.

In other words, the ultimate goal of studying the Scripture is to be able to experience life ‘in Christ’. Merton seems very much in line with the earliest traditions of Christian mysticism when he warns against a separation of ‘mystical experience’ and ‘theological inquiry’:

Merton, p.65: [The treatment of divinization by the Fathers in the Anti-Arian controversy] makes very clear the close relationship between mysticism and theology. In a certain sense it shows them to be one and the same thing. By “mysticism” we can mean the personal experience of what is revealed to all and realized in all in the mystery of Christ. And by “theology” we mean the common revelation of the mystery which is to be lived by all. The two belong together. There is no theology without mysticism (for it would have no relation to the real life of God in us) and there is no mysticism without theology (because it would be at the mercy of individual and subjective fantasy).

Theological study forces us to reorient our focus towards ‘revelation’. It draws our attention to something we didn’t create ourselves. We didn’t write the Bible and we didn’t create the Christian tradition. Therefore theological study is a preparation, a spiritual exercise to guide our attention towards ‘the Other’ – and therefore also towards our neighbors, approached, not as ‘objects’ of our practical concerns (by which we are only interested in others insofar as they respond to the needs we create for ourselves) but as ‘irreducible beings’. The more you get to ‘know’ someone else in the sense that you lovingly experience his or her ‘being’, the more you might want to develop a language to express, share and communicate that experience. The ongoing theological articulation of Christianity not only tries to do this, but it also establishes the fact that the experience of the God of Christ, of Love itself, is ultimately not communicable. However, to realize the irreducible character of God we should – paradoxically – continue to develop our language! So-called ‘spiritual’ or ‘mystical’ experiences that are used to dismiss responsibility for the development of theological dialogue and that are used to disguise actual intellectual laziness should be questioned at any time. Patrick F. O’Connell explains Merton’s view on the connection between the experience of love (mystical union) and the desire to study and ‘know’ the Christian theological traditions:

Merton, Introduction, p.xxvi: Merton much preferred the idea maintained in his own Cistercian tradition, that love was itself a way of knowing (“Amor ipse notitia est” [84]) to any sharp dichotomizing of knowledge and love. Though he made no pretensions to being a systematic theologian himself, Merton makes clear in these lectures that he considers solid systematic theology neither a threat nor a distraction to contemplation, but its vitally necessary foundation.

So, no dualistic ‘Cartesian split’ between ‘body’ and ‘soul’, ‘earth’ and ‘heaven’, ‘theology’ and ‘mysticism’. This desire to transcend manicheistic tendencies once again becomes very clear in the way mystics make use of the language of the senses to convey a glimpse of their deeply felt spiritual experience. – Merton, p.82: […] the experience of God by the spiritual senses is in fact more direct and more immediate than the perception of a sensible object by the bodily senses. The mystic has to appeal to ordinary sense experience in order to attempt to express an experience which is ineffable because even more immediate than an experience by the exterior senses. We must understand when the mystic says he is “touched” by God it means that he experiences not only something analogous to a bodily touch but far more, in a spiritual order, which cannot be expressed directly.

Already in the Bible ‘spiritual bliss’ is expressed in ‘earthly’ realities. – Merton, p.83: […] It is quite true that when the Bible wishes to express the experience of God it is always in the language of the senses. But at the same time we must realize that there must be a distinction between genuinely spiritual experience which is eo ipso not sensible, and an interior spiritual experience in which the senses (of the body or at least the interior senses) have a part. [See Ps. 33 (34):9.]

Merton sees no dichotomization between the ‘bodily’ and ‘spiritual’ senses. – Merton, p.91: Mystical experience is spiritual, and it reaches the senses in a spiritual way through and in the spirit. The “spiritual senses” are thus the senses themselves, but spiritualized and under the sway of the spirit, rather than new spiritual faculties. Also interesting in this regard is Merton’s reference to Gregory Palamas (1296-1359): Merton, p.91-92: {See} Gregory Palamas, The Defense of the Holy Hesychasts (tr. In French by Meyendorff): “That which takes place in the body coming from the soul filled with spiritual joy, is a spiritual reality even though it is active in the body” (Meyendorff I:334-5). “The spiritual joy that comes from the spirit into the body is not at all corrupted by communion with the body, but transforms the body and makes it spiritual” (id.). Such spiritual activities do not carnalize the spirit but “deify the body” (id. 342-43).

On the other hand, Merton also warns against an ‘unordered’ use of the senses. – Merton, p.135-136: […] when sense attains to the material object, the spirit attains to the spiritual logos of that object and the sense pleasure is forgotten. There may indeed be a coincidence of contemplation in the spirit and suffering in sense. Let us be careful not to be misled by legitimate protests against “dolorism” into asserting that the senses have {a} right to more than is naturally due to them—that is to say, to emphasize sense satisfaction as a natural flowering of the spirit, when such satisfaction has to be disciplined and brought into subordination by suffering and sacrifice. Again this ‘sacrifice’ should not be understood in a masochistic way – as something which is desired because of painfulness itself. It should be understood as a state of wakefulness, really as a ‘freedom’ of the illusory concerns of this world (caused by self-assertion or envy – René Girard would call this ‘mimetic desire’) to really direct oneself towards ‘the Other’. – Merton, p.304: It is one of the characteristic doctrines of St. John of the Cross [1542-1591] that unless one is passively purified of all imperfections by the divine action, one cannot attain perfectly to union with Him; also, that our cooperation, which is absolutely necessary, consists more in disposing ourselves to accept God’s action, without placing obstacles in His way, rather than in any positive action of our own (on the higher levels—in the lower levels of the spiritual life the initiative belongs to us, and this must not be neglected; if one is not generous in sacrifice in the beginning, one cannot go on to the more difficult and mysterious work of cooperating with the mystical purifications sent by God).

3.      HIP-HOP, R&B AND MYSTICISM

Thomas Merton and, this time to a lesser extent, René Girard guided me to get a basic understanding of the way the mystical traditions of Catholic Christianity look at human beings and (their place in) the world. In this final, third ‘chapter’ I’d like to raise the question if and to what extent modern-day hip-hoppers and r&b artists are continuers of this tradition. Of course most of them never received a proper theological training, but they nevertheless experienced moments in their life they clearly refer to in biblical and Christian terms, indeed experiences we could call ‘mystical’. They also seem able, although not always but many times, to convey their experiences of ‘unity with God’ – in other words, of moments in their life almost completely in line with the demands of agape, of Love – in accordance with a ‘Catholic’ theological framework as described by Thomas Merton. Maybe this is more true for hip-hop than for r&b, although there is a very close connection between these two predominantly African American music genres with respect to their origin. – Burke, p.27: The origins of hip-hop can be traced to black “rhythm and blues” music; to the early days of black slavery in America and its gospel songs; to reggae and Rastafarian culture, and to West Africa where, centuries ago, ancient traditions and folklore were passed down through generations by a select group of revered members of communities who were known as griots. These storytellers orally recited both tribal history and real-time events, to the rhythmic accompaniment of the beat of drums. Today’s rap and hip-hop artists, having resurrected these verbal skills, are considered by many to be modern-day prophets, “the new griots… the wellsprings of true knowledge… tell[ing] the real story of the ghetto” (Imani & Vera, 1996, p.170).

3.1 STORIES OF IDOLS IN POPULAR CULTURE – 2PAC AS A ‘HERO’

First of all, hip-hop is an important cultural phenomenon for many adolescents in this world, especially for those who have a difficult time growing up (like most of us?). Like other popular music genres, the world of hip-hop contains a host of ‘heroes’ and ‘idols’ functioning as ‘role models’. René Girard is right to have stressed the importance and tremendous impact of mimetic processes (i.e. processes of imitation) in human life. The impact of certain hip-hoppers, presenting themselves as ‘models for imitation’, should not be underestimated:

Burke, p.28: In their journey of self-discovery, adolescents push boundaries, test new ground, experiment with different personae, and find a sense of security by identifying with a larger group. While originally created as music by and for the black community, today’s hip-hop is a genre that appeals across all cultures and ethnicities internationally. In the words of Dimitriadis (2001), hip-hop, “[i]f nothing else… speaks to the urgency with which youth from all across the economic, ethnic, and racial spectrum are trying to define and redefine themselves in the face of massive and ever-present uncertainties about identity” (p.xii). In this postmodern age, more than ever before, young people are experiencing and struggling with the impact of such issues as poverty, high unemployment, broken families, lack of parental support, and uncertain futures. See also p.29: It is well recognized that adolescents adopt the mannerisms of their heroes through the process of modeling. With respect to hip-hop, this is visible in adolescents’ adoption of the same dress code, values, language, and symbols as the artists use: they walk the walk and talk the talk.

Empathizing and identifying with someone else is but a first step in a spiritual enterprise. When hip-hop artists are experienced as mere idols by their fans there’s a good chance both artists and fans alike will fall victim to self-referential mechanisms of masochism and sadism. Then any type of ‘otherness’ disappears. Identification indeed can degenerate into an unhealthy desire to take the place of someone else by attempts to take over his or her very ‘being’. Some fans sacrifice their own identity to become another person – to become a flat imitation, a copy of their divinized idol. True spirituality, on the other hand, has to do with the desire to ‘love’ and ‘know’ the other. We can only know others if we don’t ‘destroy’ them by completely ‘absorbing’ their personality. Imitation in a Christian sense therefore has nothing to do with becoming mere copies of Christ and his life (for example, Christ doesn’t want us to literally get crucified), but with taking the life of Christ as an inspiration for our own life, in our own historically defined time and place. Eventually, that’s also how the more talented hip-hop and r&b artists experience their art. Imitating the artists they look up to themselves means to be as creative as these predecessors. It also means recognizing that ‘no man is an island’. Watch for example the induction of legendary pop artist Prince into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame by Alicia Keys, and how grateful she is for his legacy

– CLICK TO WATCH:

In any case contemporary artists, in turn, ‘give’ themselves to be an inspiration for other people, especially younger people so they can find their own ‘place’ and ‘vocation’ in life.

Burke, p.33-34: Rap lyrics narrate the life experiences of the artists, and it is through stories that individuals come to understand themselves, their place in society and their relationship to others. In a study of adolescents’ constructions of self, history, and identity, Dimitriadis (2001) found that the most influential narratives are provided by popular culture. Most of hip-hop’s raps are centered on a small number of what Dimitriadis (2001) refers to as powerful psychologised figures whose stories – their characters, plots, messages, and powerful symbols – are extremely important in respect to adolescent identity. One such example is the life story of Tupac Shakur, an American hip-hop artist who was killed when in his early twenties. When alive, Tupac drew on myths for his lyrics, and myths have since been created around his life and death.

Much of what Tupac spoke of in his raps centered on a violent and criminal lifestyle. He portrayed himself as invulnerable, living a life of crime whereby all problems were settled with violence, promoting himself as being invincible to any form of retribution. He would verbally attack other rappers, show defiance toward any form of law and authority, but at the same time expressed respect and tenderness towards women, in particular his mother. Since his death he has been “resurrected” and become something of an icon to young people, for through his songs he was an inspiration to many who identified with his stories in their everyday lives. Despite his death, it has been suggested that Tupac has come to represent the modern-day archetype of invulnerability, and indeed, because some believe he knew of it in advance, the events surrounding his death have been likened to the crucifixion, and Tupac as a willing participant in his own sacrifice (Dimitriadis, 2001).

In the telling of these specific narratives, hip-hop artists express themselves creatively through a unique form of language that Shute (2005) believes is an artform in itself, one that has strong links to poetry. He draws attention to the artists’ concentration on delivering lyrics against a minimal musical backing, although the rhythmic qualities are built around the rhyme structure of the lines. Each song track has a beat, a base line, and a single melody line, with the lyrics remaining of fundamental importance at its core. In this way, hip-hop links to the history of poetry which exists somewhere between the spoken and singing voice. Shute (2005) points to poetic techniques that hip-hop artists have adopted, such as the use of alliteration, assonance, metaphors, and similes. In addition, words are deliberately misspelled so as to emphasize the language’s individuality, and to suggest new meanings.

Yet beyond this take on hip-hop storytelling as a means for mere self-assertion, Alison Burke once again points to the spiritual underpinning of this particular art-form. The ultimate goal of hip-hop is to create a sphere for connections between human beings:

Burke, p.36-37: Hip-hop is more than just music. It is a culture, a way of life that provides not only a unique form of language and dress code but also a value system that raises self-esteem and instills pride in indigenous ethnicity as its rappers call their listeners to unite as a people, take pride in their race, and learn their language. In describing how individuals’ spirituality and soulfulness work together to form the foundations of human life, Moore (1992) has said that the “goal of the soul path [is] to feel existence… to know life first hand, to exist fully in context. [That] spiritual practice is sometimes described as walking in the footsteps of another… [and accordingly] [t]he soul becomes greater and deeper through the living out of the messes and the gaps” (p.260). Hip-hop and rap fulfill this spiritual practice and goal of the soul path as their artists speak of the realities of life in the raw as they are experienced. The artists tell the truth; they “tell it like it is.” They form a creative and powerful voice that calls to the masses globally, and to individual souls at a deep experiential and emotional level, and in so doing they speak into the soulfulness of adolescent spirituality.

3.2 A ‘CHRISTIAN’ UNDERSTANDING OF SACRIFICE IN HIP-HOP – 2PAC AS A ‘MARTYR’?

From what Alison Burke wrote on 2Pac and on hip-hop storytelling in general so far, it would be tempting to conclude the world of hip-hop shows nothing but a misunderstanding regarding the person of Christ and his life. Instead of writing a story about an invulnerable, invincible hero, the Gospels display Christ as being prepared to take a vulnerable position. Instead of describing a person who was prepared to sacrifice himself in order to gain a ‘higher’ status for himself, the Gospels display Christ as someone who is prepared to suffer only because he doesn’t want others to sacrifice their lives for him. Jesus believed God, whom he calls his Father, demanded ‘compassion, not sacrifice’ (Matthew 9:13). That’s why he always took sides with those who didn’t receive compassion, with those who were on the brink of being sacrificed. Hence he always ran the risk of being sacrificed himself. Indeed if, for example, he took sides with an adulterous woman against a crowd that wanted to stone her (John 8:1-11), he could have been stoned himself, but of course he hoped the crowd would turn to compassion. Christ certainly was not on a ‘suicide mission’. The Gospels tell he fled his attackers several times, until finally, there was no escaping them anymore. He didn’t want others to fight for him, because that would maybe imply their death. So Christ died ‘so that others could live’. His love for others was stronger than his fear of his own suffering and death. Finally, the stories of Christ’s resurrection show his followers could also believe the God of Jesus (the Compassion and Love – ‘Agape’ – he lived by) doesn’t want sacrifice (the resurrection can be described as ‘the Father’s refusal of the death of the Son’).

Rapper DMX clearly understands the nature of Christ’s sacrifice when he prays (in one of his famous Prayers): ‘If it takes for me to suffer, for my brother to see the light, give me pain till I die, but Lord treat him right.’ Listen to an excerpt from this prayer

– CLICK TO WATCH:

Many other hip-hop artists seem to experience this kind of sacrifice, this martyrdom, as a true locus for meeting with God (in other words, for ‘union with Love’). Indeed, ‘to die for your brother to live’ is to transform your life to a creative Love which ultimate goal it is to let others come alive and to give them the opportunity to ‘live fully’. That’s why a lot of rappers embrace the potential martyrdom as a result of their life ‘on the streets’ as a ‘baptism’, as a transformation of their life by God. The terminology rappers use to express their ‘mystical’ experiences shows a remarkable resemblance with the earliest traditions of Christian mysticism. Many a rapper seems to lead a ‘liminal’ life, a life ‘on the edge’, ‘on the crossroads’, discovering the unexpected, creative power of Love and finding light in the darkest of places. Christina Zanfagna sums up the contradictions of life on the streets and the spiritual power gained from these in her very interesting essay:

Performers and listeners of hip-hop claim to undergo ecstatic experiences – proof that spirituality resides in so-called profane expressions as well. Without the luxury of having religion and spirit exist outside of daily life, Michael Eric Dyson appropriately labels hip-hop’s unique brand of spirit-seeking “ghetto spirituality, street religion, urban piety” and “thug theology” (2003:280). The inherent contradiction in these terms reflects the explosive hybridity and “trickster” nature of hip-hop culture, often embodied in African American folklore and literature as the divine trickster, Esu Elegba. Hip-hop’s spirituality – its mystical allusions, contradictory images, and profaned exterior – can be “tricky” and elusive to the average outsider not borne of or “baptized” in the streets. Prodigy of rap duo Mobb Deep talks about the comforting presence of God in what seems to be an “evil” situation on the track “Shook Ones Part Two”:

            If I die I couldn’t choose a better location

            When the slugs penetrate you feel a burning sensation

            Getting closer to God in a tight situation

Similarly, Brooklyn MC, the Notorious B.I.G., who has had an inconsistent relationship to organized religion, hints at the spiritual purification that comes with the blow of his 9mm, in the song, “Long Kiss Goodnight”:

            My nine flies, baptize, rap guys

            With the Holy Ghost, I put holes in most

Both of these excerpts resonate with Cheryl Keyes’s interpretation of the “crossroads” – one of rap music’s most potent Africanisms – which she describes as “recalling the imaginary location where life ends and death begins” or “the place where all spiritual forces or creations are activated” (2002:219, 1996:235). But these spiritual forces are often secreted in the thorny arenas of sexuality, suffering and materialism. Furthermore, the difficulty of revealing the sacred underbelly of rap music is due to its allusive character. Conjuring up the African nexus again, Keyes explains that rap’s poetic speech is a continuation of the linguistic practices developed by enslaved Africans in the New World, who “devised ways by which to encode messages about their condition” (1996:22).

Alison Burke comes to similar conclusions as Zanfagna when she refers to hip-hop as a ‘spiritual practice’:

Burke, p.35-36: Describing hip-hop as a spiritual practice, Taylor (2003) refers to it as being liminal, liberatory, and integrative. The nature of hip-hop discourse is such that it creates, within its audience, agency of protest, action, social comment, and therefore of liberation. Taylor (2003) views the hip-hop artists’ narratives – in relating their criticisms of society and the challenges and indictments they make against hypocrisy and inequality – as being “a struggle for liberatory experience amid entrapment” (p.119). He suggests such actions form spiritual practices that are also liminal, as the discourse is placed “on a threshold… between entrapment and liberation” (p.122). Perkinson (2003) likens the impact of hip-hop and rap to that of shamanism, as he views adolescents as living on a threshold between the death of childhood and the life of adulthood which they are not entitled to join until their late twenties. In this respect, because much of hip-hop focuses on death and “echo[es] with transcendent and tragic power” (p.143), it is liminal, sitting on the threshold between one world and the next.

In an interview with digital magazine Vibe 2Pac describes the experience of liberation exactly in these terms. He refuses a dualistic view, meaning that he doesn’t consider liberation as a destruction of one ‘bad’ world (‘earth’) in favor of another and second ‘good’ world (‘heaven’). Though it would be tempting to flee the problems of this world in an imaginary ‘paradise’, especially in the case of 2Pac and other rappers who are sometimes confronted with extremely violent situations, 2Pac doesn’t agree with this dynamic. He clearly understands words as ‘heaven’ and ‘hell’ in a ‘spiritual’ sense, thereby avoiding his faith would become an easy ‘opiate for the masses’ – he even warns against (organized) religion because in his view it often operates in this way. Here are some words from 2Pac from the interview with Vibe:

‘[…] I believe God blesses us, I believe God blesses those that hustle. Those that use their minds and those that overall are righteous. I believe that everything you do bad comes back to you. So everything that I do that’s bad, I’m going to suffer for it. But in my heart, I believe what I’m doing in my heart is right. So I feel like I’m going to heaven. I think heaven is just when you sleep, you sleep with a good conscience – you don’t have nightmares. Hell is when you sleep, the last thing you see is all the fucked up things you did in your life and you just see it over and over again… Because you don’t burn. […] There’s people that got burned in fires, does that mean they went to hell already? All that [heaven and hell] is here. What do you got there that we ain’t seen here? What, we’re gonna walk around aimlessly like zombies? That’s here! You ain’t been on the streets lately? Heaven [is here] now, look [referring to his plush apartment]. We’re sitting up here in the living room – big screen TV – this is heaven, for the moment. Hell is jail. I’ve seen that one. Trust me, this is what’s real. And all that other shit is to control you.’

2Pac understands the material world in the same way the earliest mystics of Christianity understood it: as a ‘given’ – something we didn’t create ourselves –, as a ‘creation’ handed over to us. The right attitude towards this material world therefore is to consider and treat it as exactly that: as something we ‘received’, something which does not belong to ourselves and which we should respect out of respect for the One who gave it to us. So, from this ‘mystical’ point of view, we should never try to get rid of our ‘bodily’ and ‘material’ conditions, but we should continuously allow our attitude towards ‘the natural world’ to be transformed. This means, essentially (and as 2Pac testifies it), to realize that ‘we don’t belong to ourselves’ but ‘to others’. It means our ‘blessings’ are not our own merit, but the result of opportunities given to us by these others and by the One who ‘created all’. 2Pac is very much in line with the Scriptures when he considers ‘salvation’ as a transformation of this world we live in (and not as a destruction of this world). In line with Judaism, he understands God’s blessings in very ‘materialistic’ terms. Again, some of his words from the interview with Vibe:

‘I’m not saying I’m Jesus but I’m saying we go through that type of thing [the confrontation with violent and dangerous situations] everyday. We don’t part the Red Sea but we walk through the hood without getting shot. We don’t turn water to wine but we turn dope fiends and dope heads into productive citizens of society. We turn words into money. What greater gift can there be? So I believe God blesses us, I believe God blesses those that hustle.’

Watch 2Pac saying the words you just read

– CLICK TO WATCH:

Maybe 2Pac depicts the transformational power of God’s creativity best in his beautiful short poem The Rose that grew from Concrete:

Did you hear about the rose that grew from a crack in the concrete?

Proving nature’s law is wrong it learned to walk without having feet.

Funny it seems, but by keeping its dreams, it learned to breathe fresh air.

Long live the rose that grew from concrete when no one else even cared.

Listen to the poem

– CLICK TO WATCH:

3.3  THE ART OF ‘BLACK MUSIC’ AS ‘LIBERATION THEOLOGY’

Soul artist and r&b singer songwriter Alicia Keys begins her album The Element of Freedom with a reference to a quote by Anaïs Nin (1903-1979): ‘And the day came when the risk it took to remain tightly closed in a bud was more painful than the risk it took to bloom. This is the element of freedom.’ This metaphor of a flower opening up is closely related to the poem of that other black artist discussed in the previous paragraph, rapper 2Pac. Alicia Keys links freedom to ‘taking risks’. Her ancestors, the Afro-American slaves, would have understood this very well. They always expressed their longing to become free by singing Psalms and by referring to the Old Testament book of Exodus. Reggae legend Bob Marley (1945-1981) even had a hit song by the same name, wherein he compares the black struggle for freedom to the journey of Israel out of Egyptian slavery. The black struggle for freedom of course entailed many risks. Sometimes it seems indeed safer to remain imprisoned than to strife for liberty. In the story of Exodus the Israelites long for their time as captives of Egypt several times, because their flight through the desert is a time of great incertitude. However, as the late and great Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. (1929-1968) has shown in really imitating Christ, sometimes the fear of being ‘unsafe’ is overwhelmed by the desire to save the oppressed. King was convinced the biblical God wants the oppressed to become free. To consider yourself as an ‘image’ of that God means then that you desire to become a liberator of the oppressed yourself. This means peaceful opposition against systems of oppression, because in experiencing yourself as a liberator of the oppressed you indeed refuse to become an oppressor overall, including not wanting to become an oppressor of your ‘enemies’. Martin Luther King Jr. certainly became an embodiment of peaceful resistance against the forces which eventually demanded his sacrifice.

2Pac already referred to dualistic systems which try to install different kinds of oppressions: oppression of the ‘body’ by the ‘mind’, of a ‘natural’ world by a ‘supernatural’ one, of so-called ‘decadent black’ communities by a so-called ‘righteous’ and ‘white’ ‘civilization’. By looking more closely to the world of black music today, I discovered that black hip-hop and r&b artists are heir to the protest songs of their ancestors. I discovered that their songs sometimes convey deeply spiritual, even mystical experiences. This little investigation also convinced me that, maybe now more than ever, we need artists ‘outside the box’ to inspire us to enjoy ourselves, each other and the world as a whole ‘without ulterior motives’. So that we give ‘what we didn’t create ourselves’ the liberty ‘to bloom’. I sincerely hope every one of you might meet a person in his life like I met in Rev. Michaël Ghijs, our late choir master.

The final words of my longest post so far (and perhaps forever) are from Zanfagna and Thomas Merton – just to make you think a little ;-). Zanfagna’s depiction of hip-hop’s erotic language and symbolism resembles the mystic’s use of ‘the language of the senses’ to express the mystical experience.

Zanfagna: Is it possible that the seemingly blasphemous pairing of sexual and religious symbols in rap videos, where men don diamond encrusted crosses in Jacuzzis full of eager and thonged women, clinking flutes of champagne, actually speaks to a deep spiritual awareness? As theologian Tom Beaudoin has argued, “offensive images or practices may indicate a familiarity with deep religious truths” (1998:123). One must understand the authority of “official” sacraments to forcefully de-valorize them. Likewise, it takes a true believer in the power of worship to turn curses into praise, the word “nigga” into a nomination of the highest respect. Pieties may be permanent qualities in human life, but the shape they take changes through the years. My point here is not to defend the use of degrading terms, but to acknowledge that such rhetorical devices are making a serious philosophical attempt at grasping a practice of inequality that is very real. Marcyliena Morgan’s application of “semantic inversion” in hip-hop language ideology (2001) and Lucius Outlaw’s concept of “symbolic reversal” – a reversing of symbolic meanings – exemplify the move by hip-hoppers to perform such inversions (1974:403). Just as the blues attempted to dissolve the puritan ethos instilled by white slave masters, hip-hop delivers ironic protest as it turns traditional Christian imagery on its head. Such protest involves a process of reflection and projection that transforms symbols of oppression into symbols of critique and empowerment.

Listen to some excerpts of contemporary ‘black’ music and catch a glimpse of its spirituality

– CLICK TO WATCH:

Zanfagna: To understand the spiritual tradition within black music, one must be familiar with the African American approach to tapping spiritual energies through media, images and vernaculars that European-American culture tends to regard automatically as profane (Royster 1991:60). Returning to the hot tub scene, it is possible to interpret this context as metaphor of a person in the waters of a spiritual struggle, simultaneously wrestling with and delighting in bodily pleasures and religious beliefs, ultimately resisting the destructive legacy of the Cartesian split. By pushing the limits of excess and hedonism, hip-hoppers hint at the other dimension of their being: their stripped down and naked souls. This scene may also speak to the ubiquitous presence of the sacred in popular culture and places regarded as unholy. For many hip-hoppers, their faith in a higher power is not divorced from their sexuality or the material wealth; they are all “in bed” with each other – in the all-inclusive gumbo of life. Rap music also serves as a public outlet for confession and admission. Outkast raps, “We missed a lot of church so the music is our confessional” (1998). They treat music as the sacred wooden stall where one confesses their weaknesses and wrongs, and also where one professes their faith, loyalties and love. And what makes the sin a “sin”, the wrong a “wrong”? Outkast continues:

            Sin all depends on what you believing in

            Faith is what you make it, that’s the hardest shit since MC Ren

In other words, morality is fluid, contextual, and self-prescribed. Hip-hop artists apply a sense of playfulness to serious subject matter to reach their own spiritual Truth.

Well, reading on how black artists also profess their faith with their art, I couldn’t resist to add some words by Alicia Keys once more. This time she’s talking about her faith and God

– CLICK TO WATCH:

Merton, p.132: Maximus sums it up: “The whole world is a game of God. As one amuses children with flowers and bright colored clothes and then gets them later used to more serious games, literary studies, so God raises us up first of all by the great game of nature, then by the Scriptures [with their poetic symbols]. Beyond the symbols of Scripture is the Word…” […] By the logoi of things the Divine Creator draws men who are attuned to logoi, the logical men, logikoi, to communion with the Logos. When a man has been purified and humbled, when his eye is single, and he is his own real self, then the logoi of things jump out at him spontaneously. He is then a logikos. […] here we can see the importance of theoria physike for sacred art. The sacred artist of all people should be a logikos. Hence it is not true that he does not need to be purified. He must in some sense be one who has attained to the summit of apatheia—not of course in the conventional way in which the average pious Catholic might conceive it. He does not necessarily have to be fully respectable in a conventional sense. A kind of unconventionality may be in him a form of humility and folly for Christ, and part of his apatheia. We must not forbid the artist a necessary element of paradox in his life. Conformism will perhaps blind him and enslave his talent.

Merton, p.62: In the De Incarnatione, Athanasius tells us to consider the works of Christ and recognize that they are divine, to realize that by His death (Athanasius by no means ignores the redemptive death of Christ) He has given us immortality, and that He has become the choregos in the great work of divine providence. (Note {the} implicit comparison of the economy of redemption to a dance.)

THE END (FOR NOW)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s