I am thinking deeply this morning about the death of Rodney King. Indeed as this article indicates, King’s caught on camera ordeal and the riots that ensued months later in LA served as a catalyst for reform in police procedures in LA and around the country.
I am also thinking how King has inadvertently touched my life with his life and struggles. I was 14 and just still transitioning from New Kids on the Block to more aggressive forms of music when the tape of Rodney King’s beating made its way into my family’s living room.
A little over a year later, officers Stacey Koon, Laurence Powell, Timothy Wind and Theodore Briseno were acquitted of assault charges. It was April 29, 1992. That day the LA Riots began in protest to the verdict. For six days the city burned. There were 53 casualties of the riots and thousands of injuries.
In November of that year Ice Cube released The Predator. It was a brilliant, violent and frightening summery of the American Zeitgeist. The album references, King the trial and the riots repeatedly. Somewhere in the course of that year between the video and the verdict, I had begun listening to Hip Hop, in particular the omnipresent gangster rap of the early 90’s. I am sure that teenage rebellion, allegorical identification with the angst young urban youth, MTV and the 15 inch subwoofers in the car of my childhood best friend all had an impact on my burgeoning taste in music.
But none of that can sufficiently account for what happened when I heard Ice Cube’s “Predator” album. It was the first hip hop album – the first album in any genre really – that I thoroughly devoured. I listened to it day and night. On my headphones into the wee hours of the night it was playing. I fell asleep listening to it:
I have often said that I discovered God under the lilac tree just outside our bedroom window listening to Ice Cube. While there is a lot more to my story than that. The statement is only partially hyperbolic.
I am not kidding whatsoever when I say that listening to this album fostered the birth of my awareness and my concern for, racism, economic disparity, abuse of power and injustice. It is at least part of the reason I ended up in seminary. It is definitely directly related to why I found myself taking electives in the Hebrew Prophets when I could in undergrad and seminary.
Like the prophet Isaiah, Ice cube was part of a larger collective, a tradition of voices that pronounced judgment and yes provided comfort for people suffering from many afflictions. Both men wrote to warn and also empower a people who had been dragged away from their homeland enslaved and impoverished. There are of course ways in which the historical context and message are dissimilar. But both Ice Cube and Isaiah surveyed their land and saw “a sinful nation, a people laden with iniquity, offspring of evildoers, children who deal corruptly!” And certainly Ice Cube, like the prophet Isaiah, was a man of unclean lips living among a people of unclean lips, whose eyes had seen the disparity between the Holy and the way we live. As Ice Cube was fond of saying and would later put into a song on a subsequent album, “They wont call me N!**er when I get to Heaven.”
In the end it is Isaiah who has provided me with what I have come to believe is God’s answer, God’s eschatological or ultimate vision for a world torn apart by racism, classism, ageism, sexism, religious bigotry and persecution and a seemingly endless list of other injustices. God’s vision for a day when badges and batons will cease to be wield as weapons. A day when by God’s grace we will all do one better than just getting along. Isaiah provides nothing short of God’s vision for Heaven on earth:
In days to come the mountain of the Lord’s house shall be established as the highest of the mountains, and shall be raised above the hills; all the nations shall stream to it. Many peoples shall come and say, ‘Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob; that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths.’ For out of Zion shall go forth instruction, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem. He shall judge between the nations, and shall arbitrate for many peoples; they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more (Isaiah 2:2-4).
On the Cover
I still remember the first time I heard the name, heard the voice, saw the image of Tupac Amaru Shakur in a baseball cap, gold chain and denim jacket surrounded by a group of black men in Klan-like hoods. It was an album Dan Quayle would soon say “has no place in our society.” If anyone made a judgement based solely on aesthetics – which let’s face it most of us all too often do – there would be little wonder this album, and Tupac’s subsequent art scared the wits out of white America, my parents most definitely included.
There is no doubt that this scare factor appealed to my teenage rebellion and is part of the reason I became a Tupac fan that day. But the problem with the image, the brand that was 2Pac, is that the man that was Tupac Shakur was far too complicated and at times contradictory to ever fit into any branding niche.
Of course this is nothing that was new or revolutionary with Tupac. Our lust for two-dimensional characters and a world that can be easily divvied up into heroes and villains is as old as human nature. And the ugly cult of celebrity that is largely dependent on this kind of narrow world view was perfected by Hollywood, the record industry and the media long before Tupac’s 1991 arrival into that world. And it has continued on just fine without him since it chewed him up and spit him out on the streets of Las Vegas in 1996.
Beyond the Image
Still, there was plenty that was new, perhaps even revolutionary about Tupac. Long before his untimely death, he was for better or worse the first real hip hop martyr. His first ever run in with the law came after his first album 2Pacalypse Now was released. He received a beating from police after a jaywalking episode. He bore the scars on his face for the rest of his life. Then there was the incident that led to Dan Quayle’s public backlash. A young African American male in Texas shot a state trooper and his lawyer claimed the young man was influenced by 2Pacalypse Now and its frequent referencing of police brutality. Indeed Tupac’s first single “Trapped” is a first person narrative of a young black male harassed and even shot at by the police. In the song the character 2Pac fires back. The song ends with the line “I’d rather die then be trapped in the living hell.” The video for the song features Tupac rapping from a jail cell.
Part of what was new – at least at that time – was the particular contradictions that Tupac embodied. A dear friend of mine at seminary wrote a fine exposition of the history of hip hop for one of his final papers at seminary. In that paper, he positioned Tupac in a Genre of his own in between the socially conscious rap scene of the late 80′s and early 90′s and the gangster rap sub-genre Tupac somewhat inadvertently helped launch permanently into the multi-platinum selling stratosphere. But even this was not completely unprecedented. A few years earlier Ice Cube and Ice-T had both already sold tens of thousands of records combining the political consciousness of Chuck D and the gritty street narratives of other rappers.
The first song I heard after I saw that album cover art was actually the last song on the album. I remember it well. It was right after church. A couple of girls from my church youth group asked me if I had heard of this new guy, so new that I think they were still pronouncing his name as two-pack. The song was called “Part time Mutha.” It was a haunting and largely sympathetic look into the the lives of three single mothers. The first verse is about a woman named Cindy whose sexual exploits with men occurred one after another as they lined up in “single file.” The listener hears “That would be cool if she was a lover/but f__ that Cindy was my dope-fiend mother.” The second verse, rapped by a female guest, is the first person narrative of a teenage girl sexually abused by a step-father. She too becomes a part time mother. The twist comes in the final verse, again rapped by Tupac, is when a one-night stand leads to the male narrator also being “a part time mutha.” It was not exactly a slogan for a women’s right campaign but it was noticeably different from the way women were being talked about in other hard core hip hop during that same time period.
This pattern continued and the contradiction became more blatant with each album. Two of the four singles from his second album serve as a fine example: “I get around” a song about how Tupac and his friends from the group Digital Underground “just don’t stop for hoes” and “Keep Your Head Up” a beautifully written song in which Tupac declares:
I wonder why we take from our women
Why we rape our women, do we hate our women?
I think it’s time to kill for our women
Time to heal our women, be real to our women
And if we don’t we’ll have a race of babies
That will hate the ladies, that make the babies
So who was the real Shakur?
Tupac: part scholar, part prophet, part political activist for black males and spokesperson for African American women
Or 2Pac: at that point in time my parents worst nightmare, a young black male, angry, vengeful and yes convicted of a sexual assault charge.
Was he a hero or a villain? Could he be both? It is not my intent to defend a sometimes self-contradictory perhaps latent sexist or to call into question his undeniable prophetic voice. But it is my intent to re-humanize the demonized figure and perhaps cast a shadow on the sainted one.
On the Inside?
Another unfortunate and sometimes devastating aspect of our obsession with fame and our people branding tendencies is that we often think we know the inner workings of our heroes and villains better than we really can from a distance. I certainly felt that way about Tupac. And I was not alone.
Of the various aspects of this multifaceted man it was the paradox between macho bravado – so typical of the male dominated rap music scene – and raw vulnerability that appealed to me most. This is something that has since and often been imitated but never duplicated by any artist in hip hop. My guess is that as Tupac inevitably matured his music would have went the more peaceful and even somewhat bohemian direction of his early poetry (which has since been published) but with greater maturity. But it is a guess.
I have heard several movie critics who were big fans of his work declare he would have eventually left music altogether and developed a fine acting career.
But it is not uncommon to read on a hip hop blog something to the affect of “If 2pac were still alive rap would not be so soft.”
All sides of this complicated man had their appeal. And nobody – really nobody – knows who he would be today if it were not for his untimely death.
Tupac was truly part of the last generation that had icons – icons in the classic Hollywood sense of the word, up on the silver screen or in news papers. People who -whether we chalked them up to be heroes or villains - seemed untouchable to most of us. This has since changed drastically, at least in our perception. Now days even pop stars as big as Lady Gaga and Justin Bieber can be “friends” on facebook or twitter with 10,422,183 of their closest fans.
Now we are all icons in the smallest sense of the word. Everybody is a brand. We have brought the stories of heroes and villains first told around the flicker of campfires and eventually the glow of the silver screen down to the 13 inch screen that sits in my lap. And most of us are on one. We all have our page, our miniscule piece of the world wide web. Next to the icon is a little description of political and religious beliefs, a place for a bio and what we do for fun. We can lie until our heart is deceived that it is content or we can be blatantly and brutally honest. And then we can decide if the image another person is broadcasting to the world is what we deem to be good or bad. Are they red or blue? Believer or skeptic? We can now divide everybody up into heroes and villains, those we don’t trust and those for the time being we still do. We can relegate everyone to a category, a perceived level of intimacy or estrangement. If we want, we can assign people to an infinite number of concentric circles with varying levels of goodness or closeness. And we can do this all without ever leaving the comfort of our own home.
It would seem our lust for two dimensional characters and a world easily divvied up between heroes and villains would finally be satisfied. But we really don’t know each other any better than I knew Tupac or you know Lady Gaga. Everyone is an icon; and when everyone is an icon no one is. So many people feel more lonely, angry and disaffected than ever.
I think Tupac – at least the part of him that was undeniably a prophetic voice in the world – would say we have to change the way we eat, we have to change the way we live and we have to change the way we treat each other.If we don’t we are headed for a 2Pacalypse now, more than ever.
The old way wasn’t working. Why did we go even farther down that path? This is what happens when we do what we think we need to do to survive. Lord have mercy!
The Rodney King beating at the hands of LAPD officers was 20 years ago this night.
A little over a year later, officers Stacey Koon, Laurence Powell, Timothy Wind and Theodore Briseno were acquitted of assault charges.
That was on was April 29, 1992. That day the LA Riots began in protest to the verdict. For six days the city burned. There were 53 casualties of the riots and thousands of injuries.
In November of that year Ice Cube released The Predator. It was a brilliant, violent and frightening summery of the American Zeitgeist. The album references, King the trial and the riots repeatedly.
It was the first hip hop album I really devoured. I listened to it on my headphones into the wee hours of the night. I fell asleep listening to it.
I once told my brother that I discovered God under the lilac tree just outside our bedroom window listening to Ice Cube. While there is a lot more to my story than that. The statement is only partially hyperbolic.
I am not kidding whatsoever when I say this was the birth for my awareness and concern for justice, equality and race relations. It is at least part of the reason I ended up in seminary. It is definitely directly related to why I found myself taking electives in the Hebrew Prophets when I could in undergrad and seminary.
God has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God? (Micah 6:8).
Last year I read Dr. King’s essay “Pilgrimage to Nonviolence” originally from an article he published in The Christian Century in April of 1960. It was for a series the magazine was doing called “How My Mind Has Changed.” They asked for “statements by significant thinkers” reflecting their intellectual and spiritual development over the previous ten years. This essay has had a profound and lingering impact on me over the last year. You can find it and many other wonderful writings by Dr. King in the anthology A Testament of Hope. So in honor of Dr. King, here are a few of my favorite excerpts from this amazing essay:
“A large segment of Protestant liberalism defined man* only in terms of his essential nature, his creative capacity for good. Neo-orthodoxy tended to define man only in terms of his existential nature, his capacity for evil. An adequate understanding of man is found neither in the thesis of liberalism nor in the antithesis of neo-orthodoxy, but in a synthesis which reconciles the truth of both.”
“The gospel at its best deals with the whole man, not only his soul but his body, not only his spiritual well-being, but his material well-being. Any religion that professes to be concerned about the souls of men and is not concerned about the slums that damned them, the economic conditions that strangle them and the social conditions that cripple them is a spiritually moribund religion awaiting burial.”
“The choice today is no longer between violence and nonviolence. It is either nonviolence or nonexistence.”
“I am convinced that the universe is under the control of a loving purpose and that in the struggle for righteousness humans have cosmic companionship. To say that God is personal is not to make him** an object among other objects or attribute to him the finiteness and limitations of human personality; it is to take what is finest and noblest of our conciseness and affirm its perfect existence in him.”
*While I generally strive towards the use of gender inclusive language: e.g. humanity instead of man, I also take context very seriously in any theological articulations. To gender neutralize Dr. King’s statements would be to misrepresent his theological context as a male of almost any color or religious identity in the 1960′s. Today, Civil rights are still a work in progress. And I am so thankful that as Dr. King insists there is a personal God who cares about the whole human being and is also personally invested in the advancement of freedom for all
** Likewise, there is much good reason for us today to employ the broad range of names and titles for God from scripture, tradition and contemporary theology that don’t make excessive use of the masculine pronoun. At least as much violence has been done to women on account of a masculine pronoun as has been done to people from a kaleidoscope of skin color in the name of a white Jesus. But these are Dr. King’s words as they were; still incredibly powerful.
Lost in the World/Who will Survive in America – Kanye West ft. poet Gil Scott-Heron
I do feel “lost in the world” often. I also have been wondering for some time “who will survive in America?”
I do not write about overtly political topics very often (though of course most things are in some way way political, including the basic claim of my faith which I do often write about here, namely that Jesus is Lord).
Anyway, onto something I say even more seldom: tonight I did indeed feel proud to be an American.
I am all about separation of church and state so I have mixed feelings about this but… Indeed, I must agree with President Obama’s quoting of Psalm 46: “There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God, the holy place where the Most High dwells. God is within her, she will not fall; God will help her at break of day. ” But, while she certainly is/will be an earthly city she is not America; neither is she some rehabilitated political, Israeli state.
She is the the city of the God of Jacob, symbolic for God’s dwelling place, heaven on earth, or perhaps more accurately this world restored. And it is God his/her self that “makes wars cease to the end of the earth; breaks the bow, shatters the spear and burns the shields with fire” (also from Psalm 46).
I do believe that President Obama’s assessment of the American zeitgeist and political climate as well as his interpretation and application of Job was as appropriately humble and as spot on as any I have ever heard:
Scripture tells us that there is evil in the world, and that terrible things happen for reasons that defy human understanding. In the words of Job, “when I looked for light, then came darkness.” Bad things happen, and we must guard against simple explanations in the aftermath.For the truth is that none of us can know exactly what triggered this vicious attack. None of us can know with any certainty what might have stopped those shots from being fired, or what thoughts lurked in the inner recesses of a violent man’s mind.
So yes, we must examine all the facts behind this tragedy. We cannot and will not be passive in the face of such violence. We should be willing to challenge old assumptions in order to lessen the prospects of violence in the future.
But what we can’t do is use this tragedy as one more occasion to turn on one another. As we discuss these issues, let each of us do so with a good dose of humility. Rather than pointing fingers or assigning blame, let us use this occasion to expand our moral imaginations, to listen to each other more carefully, to sharpen our instincts for empathy, and remind ourselves of all the ways our hopes and dreams are bound together.
I concur; and again, I wonder who will survive in a polarized, increasingly militaristic and still dreadfully racist country?
Today I put the finishing touches on an essay for my “profile for ministry” an obscenely long application/résumé that I need to fill out to find my first call to a church and get ordained. This particular question asked me to “theologically address an issue facing our contemporary world.” It sounded to me like an invitation to discuss the most contentious issues in my denomination right now so I could be chalked up in a “left” or “right” camp. I hope I am wrong about that. Anyhow I chose instead to to talk about racism:
Reflecting on my experience of race and ethnicity within the Christian community and trying to assess my own attitudes on these matters two equally powerful and deceptive temptations present themselves. The first temptation is to focus on overtly racist attitudes I have encountered in a small number of others in the church and effectively locate such sickness of the heart outside of myself to a relatively small group within the Christian community. The second temptation is to identify the relatively little attention given to issues of race and ethnicity in my church experience as a positive, a testimony to how the church by and large has left the sin of racism in her past. This second temptation compounds the self deception and ignorance afforded to me by buying into the first temptation. And it substitutes the illusion of the American melting pot – which my generation seems especially vulnerable to place belief in – for true reshaping of attitudes about race and ethnicity in light of the gospel. I don’t know if it is because I write this in the north or because I write this a few decades removed from Wendell Berry’s The Hidden Wound but it would seem to me that the crisis of racial awareness in my generation is not that we find ourselves as Berry contends “condemned to be always conscious of the necessity not to be a racist” but that we are often oblivious to the fact that racism persists today in our churches, our families and even within our own hearts
“He wonders why I tell him that America’s revolution will not be the melting pot but the toilet bowl” ~ Gil Scott-Heron
The melting pot is fucking a lie. It is a lie I tell you! What we need is to respect the dignity of diversity and difference with honesty about cultural, intellectual, spiritual and ideological distinctions, not all bleeding into one. This takes the sort of epistemic humility and “moral imagination” that President Obama was calling us to tonight.
I am afraid. I am afraid of losing more friends I hold dear to ideological disagreements. When I hear about Tea Part shenanigans or Black republicans resigning from their positions out of fear I worry that another civil war may actually be possible in our country’s future. But I hope; I somehow continue to hope for something better.
Since West’s sampling leaves out one of Gil Scott-Heron’s most provocative and pertinent lines – at least to this discussion – here it is in full (warning: contains some provocative and explicit language, but beautiful and profound all the same):
Ultimately, whether it is in the hubris of Babel or the “melting pot” the only hope for making wars cease to the end of the earth; breaking the bow, shattering the spear, burning the shields with fire and establishing shalom does not depend on the powerful and important words of the 44th American president, a brilliant 20th century poet or his 21st century torch bearer.
Shalom is established by the God of Jacob. Come Lord Jesus. Come and complete the work of making all things new. But until then, come in the form of empathy, humility and understanding.