Hip-Hop and the Creative Influence of a Postmodern Spirituality
I have not written a narrative in a few months and I thought my next piece would be a personal summation, synthesis, critical reflection, and coming to grips with the nomination of President Trump, but the energy for such a discourse has waned within me. What I previously wrote about him in Elections & the Biblical Text will have to suffice. As an aside however, the shoving of Prime Minister, Dusko Markovic at the NATO Summit is shameful and speaks to a broader issue of climate. While I waited for a spark to get back to writing, angst turned to patience for this literary project. For me writing is medicine, healing, sharing, manifested love, and social justice toward a critical consciousness. I refuse to write until the motivated fire is fully ignited, and then I cannot stop until absolute resolve is reached. The 2017 Kendrick Lamar album DAMN., brings me to this narrative and critical reflection. We will ultimately use the album as a scaffold to juxtapose and assess postmodern influences on a biblical worldview and spiritual motif.
From multiple segments and walks of life, I heard rumblings, acclaim, and awe about the new album. I rarely purchase hip-hop anymore, but if or when I do, it is more of an intellectual project and temperature check of the global ether emitted by American and international pop-culture. Our world is changing. Trends are changing. Mores and folkways are changing. People are changing. A subtle and overt shift is sweeping through the winds of humanity. I have been in deep contemplation about shifts and transformations, and the new Kendrick Lamar album brought me to a crystalized zenith of reflection and inquiry.
For a solid portion of my twenties, I lived in the studio making hip-hop records under Self Only Music, with my cousins and spiritual brothers (Wesley Williams and Jason Heard), producing the tracks. When the penetrating creation of hip-hop music has been savored and experienced in the studio from start to finish, you listen with a different anticipatory ear. It is beyond the simplicity of copping an album to add to your collection for mere enjoyment and pleasure. Under this notion, listening to a new album or your own newly recorded song, the night you leave the studio, is rooted in a journey of critical listening transcendence. Music, rhythm, vibration, bass, is the creation of God and designed to transfix, mesmerize, push, and inspire the soul and spirit. Not only is the Kendrick Lamar flow melodic, when you couple it with the hypnotic keyboard harmonies and bass, it can send listeners into a realm of escapism. It is rhythmic wizardry – loaded with creative instinctive genius.
Upon purchasing the new Kendrick Lamar album, I listened a few times in my car. My car has a factory sound system, nothing special. I was not listening just for lyrical content, but for the nuance of every break and entrance of lyrical flow on the offbeat. Like a magnet, my goal was to track the innovative usage of the bass drum, kick-drum, hi-hat, snare, keyboard, samples, and every tricky-slick melodic tune and hook introduced. True hip-hop heads and musical artists know you can only capture so much of the musical magic from your car or home sound system. When time is truly ripe to dive into an album or song for all of its psychedelic hidden offerings, it requires a quality headset, a dark undisturbed room, and shut eyes. It is at this moment the true artwork and studio brilliance, with every movement of the board and mix of sound(s), is captured, processed, and treasured. This deeper phase of musical engagement is holistically reserved for the esoteric elect.
Again, I had already listened to every track in my car, but it was now time to be immersed in the music meditatively. Upon arriving home after a Wednesday evening counseling session and Bible study, like a dope fiend, I rifled my house for my son’s phat Sony Gold Play Station headphones and a device to play my CD. It was not until I listened in the dark with thumpin headphones that the spark arose to write. Days later I listened with Beats and heard even more musical layers and depth. Hip-Hop through quality headphones allows you to hear, decipher, negotiate, process, and discover studio frequencies and surround sound gymnastics that are missed on traditional sound systems. DAMN. is American, complex, Compton, contradictory, forward, gangsta, Hip-Hop, hood, intellectual, melodic, metaphoric, metaphysical, misogynistic, raunchy, raw, spiritually complicated, violent, and vulgar; all with an awkward search, acknowledgment, and attempted reverence for God. The new album is not a catalog of songs, (for me) it boasts as a codex of 14 seamlessly narrated short films. Almost every track contains a vibrant synergistic flow that stylistically and rhythmically traverses with every verse or story. It is the essence of cinematic song. As an artistic participant, I have been out of the game for a while, but this is the first album I have investigated that has songs-within-songs, beats-within-beats, flow-within-flow.
Of course, my children think I am old, so when they saw the Kendrick Lamar album on the front seat of my car, my son said I was trying to be cool. I do not condone or personally listen to explicit lyrics, so I was waiting for my children to question my album selection. I was anticipating their critique and the placing of my spirituality on musical trial. They are hip-hop fans as well, but they did not think their father was relevant enough to have such an album. Nevertheless, I informed them that my listening absorption of DAMN. was an intellectual assignment in postmodern fluidity and trajectories. While driving them to school I played the song BLOOD, the only cut I knew did not have profanity, and the look on my son’s face after the gun blast was priceless. I am sure that was the exact reaction Kendrick Lamar desired. I had to listen to Blood thrice before I caught and made a theological connection. DUCKWORTH ending the way BLOOD begins is masterful, musical, and lyrical symmetry.
So why did DAMN. bring me to crystallization and out of my writing vault? In short, it was the embedded contradiction and reckless cultural and theological privilege that perfectly encapsulates, fosters, and influences a postmodern worldview and ethic. This is a complex reality inside and outside the ekklesia of the Christ. If hip-hop was not uninhibited and cerebrally dangerous, it would not have its current global and cultural infiltration. Our world is reckless, risky, and postmodern; thus hip-hop serves as an authentic, potent, seductive, and majestic mirror.
Analysis, Modernity, Postmodernism, & Church
Though perhaps unintentional, there is an un-reverential and awkward attempt to venerate God that hovers and haunts the album. Open for interpretation, but it appears that the opening track “Blood”–conjures the image and conception of Matthew 6:25–“For whosoever will save his life shall lose it: and whosoever will lose his life for my sake shall find it.” Theologically, life from a divine perspective does not start until we are lost in Christ. This premise will be a thrust of the discourse moving forward. East Oakland’s own, A. Doulos of Kerusso Music, formerly Ant Diddley Dog of Bad-N-Fluenz, uses the slogan, “Wanna Live – Die First” (Galatians 2:20 & Romans 6:4), to promote the critical importance of what it means to die in Christ before true living commences. Doulos and his new album The Proclamation is a perfect and real-time example of what it means to break free from the blinding shackles of postmodernity, exchanging them for an uncompromised obedience to the gospel of Christ.
Modernity often refers to established customs and institutions that influenced epistemologies, customs, and cultures during the 1600s through the early 1900s. Such constructs were rooted in silos of Eurocentric hegemony but were consciously and unconsciously adopted globally because of European supremacy, imperialism, and coloniality. Postmodernity arrived in the mid-1900s and introduced a thirst for intellectual reformation and the reframing of axiologies, patterns, customs, religious ideals, theology, and God. The new album is a powerfully bold stream of postmodern consciousness, embraced by many as a form of spiritual freedom and enlightenment. As will be shared later, it perfectly illustrates and advances the new religion and spirituality of the 21st century. The album is unshackled trend-setting, and trailblazing hip-hop. Like the lyrics of Tupac, Kendrick Lamar is apt for the professorial dialectic and Socratic process in university classrooms. In DNA he referred to his message as “that TED Talk.” It is a mix of music and a social justice movement? Kendrick leaves the corny commercial rap gimmicks and tricks to others and keeps his style strictly Compton. In Element he said, “I be hangin’ out at Tam’s, I be on Stockton, I don’t do it for the ‘Gram, I do it for Compton.”
Though inspired by hip-hop greats before him, Kendrick is his own and will ignite artists, dialogue, and thinkers for years. Based on my observation, what makes his 2017 album edgy, intellectually dangerous, perplexing, sacrilegious, and evidence of a postmodern America and world, is his brazen audacity and construction to integrate an album with misogyny, vulgarity, sex, violence, profanity, storytelling, the Bible, and God into one corpus. Taking its nods from the liberating license of postmodernism, it’s as if Kendrick has manufactured his own formula for religion and spirituality.
Under the guise of postmodernism, DAMN. is a hip-hop masterpiece, but in viewing it through a biblically spiritual lens we must determine and negotiate the boundaries of its praise. We must also ask, using the 2017 album as a scaffold, how has postmodernism impacted the church, through a subtle creation of a religion-within-a-religion, claiming to be exclusively spiritual, espousing a belief in the authority of God? Throughout the album, there is a paradox and contradictory paradigm. That is what makes the manifestation of art powerfully smooth. Art is complex, witty, elusive, evasive, unapologetic, unaccountable, irresponsible, and often carnal. Postmodernism says live, think, behave, as you please. It mandates the questioning of all things and institutions, inclusive of the tenets, reality, and purpose of God. God has no issue with questions, but He detests irreverence. Revelation 18:9 says, “And the kings of the earth, who have committed fornication and lived deliciously with her, shall bewail her, and lament for her, when they shall see the smoke of her burning.” The elect can seek to live deliciously, but if the church adopts such a sly mentality, it stands as an audacious push against the power, certainty, centrality, and Chief Corner Stone of the Scriptures (Ephesians 2:20; 1 Peter 2:6).
Before jumping into deeper spiritual/biblical paradigms and a zeal for critical consciousness, ownership, and accountability, we shall examine a few more paradoxical realities. In YAH Kendrick said, “I’m not a politician, I’m not ‘bout a religion. I’m a Israelite, don’t call me Black no mo. That word is only a color, it ain’t facts no mo.” What is worthy of analysis is not only the concept of Kendrick Lamar claiming Israelite status but not religion, but his disowning of the racial label Black, while spewing the n-word. Artistically such lyricism liberality can work, but philosophically and theologically it can be considered tricky, contradictory, and culturally damaging. However, under a postmodern epoch such liberties are embraced, promoted, and commended.
On some level DAMN. purports a belief in the Scriptures because in YAH he says, “Deuteronomy say that we all been cursed.” Thus under postmodern management of the Scriptures, they can be used to ones benefit, embracing some passages, while strategically and conveniently forsaking others. Has this type of spiritual surmising entered the church? Have Christians unconsciously accepted a postmodern philosophy toward God, creating a new internal religion and spirituality? As discussed by A. Ralph Epperson in his classic book, The Unseen Hand: An Introduction to the Conspiratorial View of History, he correlates postmodern formations with secular humanism and situation ethics. The major glitch is that, under a God-ethic, humanity does not have the authority to create spiritual and religious norms and then demand God to approve of them. Yet, this is the plea and behavior of postmodernism. It is a radical doing-away with God on His terms, fraudulently exchanging Him for a way that seemeth right. The proverbial writer said, “There is a way which seemeth right unto a man, but the end thereof are the ways of death” ( Proverbs 14:12). Additionally, God said through prophet Isaiah, “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, saith the Lord. 9 For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts”(Isaiah 55:8-9).
As a collective, where is the church now and what is her outward evidence of holiness? Is she (the people) walking in a postmodern sleep or pushing forward in righteousness? The divine biblical concept of justification does not condone sinful rationalization. Dr. Cornell West said in a 2015 lecture:
“Integrity has to do with what is the quality of your courage and your willingness to bear witness radically against the grain, even if you have to sacrifice something precious, including your popularity, in the name of integrity? That’s what Du Bois was talking about. And let us be very clear, that to be fundamentally committed to integrity makes you counter-cultural in an age of mendacity.”
Are you spiritually, religiously, biblically counter-cultural, or are you swimming in this epoch of postmodern mendacity? If we move with the current waves we will be swept up by “Even him, whose coming is after the working of Satan with all power and signs and lying wonders, 10 And with all deceivableness of unrighteousness in them that perish; because they received not the love of the truth, that they might be saved” (2 Thessalonians 2:8-9).
In DUCKWORTH we find a discrepancy between the words that pop from the Kendrick Lamar rap booth microphone and what can be purchased. What I heard on my CD was “God is one funny (bleep bleep). A true comedian, you gotta love him, you gotta trust him”, but through my digital version, “Life” is orated and “God” is deleted. How does one rationalize such an incredulous and irreverent representation of the Most High? On the Genius lyrical website I discovered this quote and explanation: “In the physical copy or the leaked version, Kendrick says “God”; whereas in the digital release, he says “Life.” What is this really about?
This is a true paradox. How can one represent God with such a profane nexus? Is the digital copy a form of repentance? Did Kendrick Lamar ultimately conclude, “I cannot represent God that way?” Though perhaps unintentional, the CD version continually launches a diminishment of a sovereign God into the postmodern hip-hop ether. Under postmodernism, people feel they can contort God under any essence, image, or context they desire. It is a classically rash example of situation ethics. Through such conditions, the context determines the morality of the behavior, as opposed to a holy authorized and divine edict. God becomes secondary, or at best, a collaborative partner as opposed to the sovereign Creator.
The Postmodern Theological Hijack
Within a postmodern motif God, religion, and theology is commandeered and seized for personal appropriation, under the guise of pseudo-spirituality. Kendrick Lamar is a deep, introspective free thinker, thematically integrating biblical concepts throughout his album. In YAH, Kendrick states he is not about religion, while also claiming to be an Israelite, referencing Deuteronomy. Despite a track being entitled GOD, through ELEMENT Kendrick says, “Put the Bible down and go eye for an eye.” FEEL is a critique and plea for prayer, mentioning “The feelin’ is toxic, I feel like I’m boxin’ demons. Monsters, false prophets schemin.” In LOYALTY Kendrick and Rihanna exclaim, “Anybody you would slide for? Anybody you would die for? That’s what God for?” In PRIDE he said, “See, in a perfect world, I’ll choose faith over riches.” In response to a fallen humanity, Kendrick Lamar said about God, “He’s been perfect.” In XXX he said, “To the spiritual, my spirit do know better.” Part of the anthem in FEAR rings:
“Why God, why God do I gotta suffer?
Pain in my heart carry burdens full of struggle
Why God, why God do I gotta bleed?
Every stone thrown at you restin’ at my feet.”
Kendrick also raps in FEAR, “I’m talkin’ fear, fear of losin’ loyalty from pride, Cause my DNA won’t let me involve in the light of God.” FEAR also reports, “The shock value of my success put bolts on me. All this money, is God playin’ a joke on me? Is it for the moment, and will he see me as Job? Take it from me and leave me worse than I was before.”
Like the God/Life lyrical controversy in DUCKWORTH, FEAR opens another subliminal discussion between the CD and digital version. The CD version of DAMN. does not include the Hebrew/Israelite intro and outro speeches of Cousin Carl, regarding Deuteronomy 28. Only the digital version captures both conversations. What is the reason for this nuance and theological differentiation? I purchased the CD first, followed by the digital download three days later. I noticed the discrepancy while listening to the CD, realizing the online lyrics included a dialogue omitted on the CD, but captured on the digitized download. Why is it omitted or reversed?
Through one portion of DUCKWORTH it recites, “Give ‘em a soul, so they can make their own choices and live with it.” In DNA Kendrick Lamar also said:
“I was born like this, since one like this
I transform like this, perform like this
Was Yeshua new weapon…”
Chronicled above are just a few of the God and biblical references in DAMN. Under a postmodern motif, scriptural, theological, and religiously linguistic conceptions are superimposed with no strict adherence, reverence, ownership, or obedience to God. Under postmodern intellectualism, society becomes its own god, stealing from the cadence and vocabulary of the only True God. As God exchanged with Moses:
“And Moses said unto God, Behold, when I come unto the children of Israel, and shall say unto them, The God of your fathers hath sent me unto you; and they shall say to me, What is his name? what shall I say unto them? 14 And God said unto Moses, I Am That I Am: and he said, Thus shalt thou say unto the children of Israel, I Am hath sent me unto you” (Exodus 3:13-14).
“It was always me vs the world, until I found out it’s me vs me”
(Bēkon & Kid Capri, DUCKWORTH).
Postmodernism is slippery and incongruent. Opinions, facts, and anchors change on an intellectual whim. Bēkon and Kid Capri above, capture it perfectly. This is not about an external world, it’s rooted in an internal spiritual war. Thus for the deeply religious and spiritual Christian, are some people playing church? Is your Christian etiquette shifty and conditional? Do you develop your own rules and justifications as you trek the ordeals of life? Is your private spirituality categorically different from your public spirituality and ethereal manifestations? Are you collectively the church or do you play church? The struggle is not with or about him, her, them, or that; it’s against us and the strongholds we refuse to un-grip. Is your Christianity of a postmodern breed or are you wedded to the ancient path of holy writ? There is a distinct difference in following God vs. pursuing your personally scripted ways – with a few sprinkles of God-language. Christ said, “If ye love me, keep my commandments” (John 14:15). He further said, “He that hath my commandments, and keepeth them, he it is that loveth me: and he that loveth me shall be loved of my Father, and I will love him, and will manifest myself to him” (John 14:21).
The combinations, formulations, lifestyles, and preferences through postmodern thrusts are endless and not always negative. A postmodern mindset can properly critique white supremacy, slavery, sexism, hegemonic powers, etc., but the Way and power of God precede modernity and postmodernity. God is eternal, operating outside the construction and limitation of time. Is your sexuality postmodern? Is your church attendance postmodern? Is your biblical worldview postmodern? Is your faith postmodern? Is your love and obedience conditionally postmodern? Is your God postmodern? More importantly, is the eternal God of heaven your God, or (like Israel and the golden calf) have you created your own?
Kendrick Lamar and DAMN. provide us with a generative opportunity to fixate on the exclusive authority and sovereignty of God. What does it take for your holy obedience to move away and shift into a carnal and harmful postmodern ethic. In XXX Kendrick Lamar said, “Leave him in the wilderness, With a sworn nemesis, he’ll make it. Take gratitude from him I bet he’ll show you something’, woah.” When gratitude in your life is overcome or replaced by hardship, what spiritual moves do you make? Is there righteous evidence to your spiritual posture, or are you a spiritual imposter and religious hoax?
Holy Spirit Hoax
Initially, I was unsure if the 2017 Kendrick Lamar album embraced the New Testament, but upon deeper listening it is clear that LUST quotes a portion of James 4:4, “Ye adulterers and adulteresses, know ye not that the friendship of the world is enmity with God? whosoever therefore will be a friend of the world is the enemy of God.” Specifically, Kendrick Lamar says, “Lust turn into fear. Lately, in James 4:4 says Friend of the world is enemy of the Lord. Brace yourself, lust is all yours. That element alone brings the complete counsel of God into the dialogue. Many seek to ignore Kendrick’s flirtation with Scripture, but unlike most hip-hop artists, this album is saturated with his personal biblical framework and worldview. As recorded in Acts 8, when the Ethiopian eunuch was asked by Phillip if he understood what he was reading in Isaiah 53, he responded, “…How can I, except some man should guide me?” (Acts 8:31). Postmodernism operates under a Western epistemic and cares little about formations of Eastern guidance. Neither the Bible or Christianity is Western, they are both deeply and organically Eastern. Western postmodernism prefers to kick God out of the picture and subvert the Scriptures to an out-of-context, non-binding, and out-of-touch logos.
The Holy Spirit plays a role, but due to mismanagement and a failure to fully embrace, it seems like a hoax. Jesus said to His disciples, “If you were of the world, the world would love its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, because of this the world hates you” (John 15:19). So the people of God live in the world, but are not of it. Despite that reality, such individuals cannot be ignorant to the things of the world. Even deeper, Christians must develop a biblical worldview that must be applied to global formations, manifestations, and changing generations. This is not to justify or excuse ungodly postmodern realities, it’s about developing an understanding of the developments and influences.
Those who live according to the holistic corpus of the Scriptures are challenged and equipped by the Holy Spirit to live sanctified. When we elect to not live according to and under the power of the Holy Spirit, we make the Holy Spirit appear to be a hoax. There must be clear and distinctive evidence in the life of the believer. How are you living?
In the era of postmodernity, people claim they are spiritual, but not religious. Such phraseology sounds sophisticated and astute, but it is really mirage and way of professing a life lived by self-developed rules that are believed to be superior to the directives of God. For those who live and comport with such a philosophy, if the mandates of God do not engender comfort and ease, they are rejected and ignored. Being religious and spiritual hang together, simultaneously informing each other.
Through hip-hop decrees and accolades, DAMN. is one of the best to ever be produced and written, yet remain critical and circumspect in your worldview reflections and do not get caught in the postmodern trap of popular and ungodly spiritualized facades.
Dr. Ammar Saheli, Ed.d, MS, PPSC