I have just become aware of the meaning two pieces of modern culture, of which I was completely ignorant. Finding this out has been an eye-opener for me.
I had never thought about why people started to wear their jeans half way down their bottoms with their undies showing, no belts and no shoe laces. If the truth be told I thought ‘That is just ‘homie’ culture and I have no contact with it. Then I thought ‘Pull your pants up!’, which is the same reaction that many parents had to my generation when they said ‘Get a haircut! I can’t tell if you’re a boy or a girl!’
But then I learned this: In US prisons, where the population is huge, and mostly black,(10% of the US black population is in prison at any one time), they take away belts and shoelaces in order to prevent people’s using them for self harm. Of course the pants of the prisoners are going to fall down! It is a short step from that location to the street, so that wearing jeans ‘low’ and having no shoelaces becomes a form of protest. In prison a person has to suffer the indignity of being treated like this. On the street, by choosing to dress in this way, people who feel oppressed are claiming back their power, and flinging the act of those who have power over them, back in their faces. What a creative thing to do. Ghandi would have been proud.
I also had no idea about Rap Music either. I could tell, just from listening, that it was the kind of music that emphasised rhythm over melody. That is true of a lot of African drumming, for example, and of the samba groups in South America and of flamenco in Spain. Mostly in the West we have gone down the route of melody and harmony as the dominant facets of our music, and ignored, more or less, the complexities of rhythm. So a superficial look at these two kinds of music can illustrate a difference that points to the African American origins of rap.
But then I heard that ‘rap’ is short for ‘rhapsodising’. Here is the picture. As in ancient Greek culture, a person is valued for their ability to speak fluently, poetically and convincingly about an issue. What the Greeks called ‘rhetoric’, we call ‘rapping’. A lover might ‘rhapsodise’ about the qualities of his girlfriend to win her love (think Petrarchan love poems or Shakespeare’s sonnets!) Rapping is also a good medium for speaking out against the way that people have been treated. It has been borrowed by all kinds of people who feel that they have been mis-understood or silenced in order to speak their truth. I saw two Muslim girls on the TV yesterday doing their own ‘rapping’ about how they have been treated for wearing the Hijab.
The show that I saw about rap music also said that the rise of the digital age made the ‘sampling’ of music possible and so the people who were producing this music were freed from the sometimes oppressive tactics of big record companies who in days gone by owned the means of production and reproduction of music, which was very expensive.
What impressed me was that I had absolutely no idea that behind these forms of music and dress lay liberation movements, and the desire of people who have been oppressed to find their voice.
I said above that ‘Ghandi would have been impressed.’ But Jesus would have been impressed too. His advice to people with little power about what to do in the face of power corresponds more to rap music and wearing jeans ‘low’ than much that happens in Church. He says ‘If someone takes you to court for your shirt, then give him your cloak too!’ The implication is that this will shame them for what they have done. This is exactly the same form of protest as wearing jeans ‘low’ and having no shoelaces. He says ‘If a Roman soldier forces you to carry is pack one mile, then shame him by going two! He says ‘If a person gives you a back hander by hitting you on the left cheek, shame him by offering the other!’ These are forms of protest against inhuman treatment.
I loved the Oakland Interfaith Gospel Choir when they came here during the Jazz Festival. As a mostly black choir, they have direct experience of and continuity with the slaves that gave rise to the spirituals that they sang. Their singing was a form of protest and solidarity. We’re sort of used to that. We know about the wailing of lament, or about the surrender of singing ‘love songs to Jesus’ that are much a part of Pentecostal Churches. But I would love to get some people to tell us about rap music. I did see a church where the dominant form of music was ‘rapping’ for God. I feel as though there is a whole generation and cultural form that is very close to what Jesus was on about, which I have missed out on. So I ask myself ‘If the kinds of protest that are at the heart of rap music are close to the kinds of protest that Jesus recommended, how come we don’t know these people? My awareness has gone from saying ‘This is just young people being different’ to saying ‘These are important forms of protest that I ought to know about.’
It is true that the salms, and the laments of the bible offer great resources for the protest of the poor. I’d love to hear the psalms ‘rapped’ so that that connection could be made in Church!
That is the thing that troubles me the most. How is it that we can allow ourselves to live in such a bubble that we do not have to come into contact with the depth of these new cultural forms. How can we as a whole not see the connection between rapping and the psalms, as an obvious thing?
The splintering of society that began on the 1960’s with the quantum leap into Rock and Roll has just kept going. Now, with choice about what we see, it is ever easier just to have our own prejudices reinforced by what communities we belong to. I’m glad that we are organising a trip to visit our Muslim and Jewish neighbours. But I think that it ought to be a part of our official life that we make a policy to keep on exposing ourselves to movements and cultural forms that we would otherwise not have anything to do with. If we do not, we risk losing touch with Jesus too