Dr Claudette Carr tackles the Profane and the Prophetic in Popular Culture in her thought provoking piece on Locating Lauryn Hill’s Consumerism.

2010 A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To Cure Parkinson's - Show“If everyone is a product of this society, who will say the things that need to be said, and do the things that need to be done, without compromise? Truth will never start out popular in a world more concerned with marketability than righteousness. It will initially suffer ridicule and even violence- yet ultimately it is undeniable. All of humanity is living in a dream world, but suffering real consequences.

The above quote by Lauryn Hill,  is armed with a similar prophetic exigency that can be found in George Orwell’s, Nineteen Eighty-Four , and captures succinctly the spirit of Hill’s ‘Mission’:

I know that you don’t wanna hear my opinion

But there come many paths and you must choose one
And if you don’t change then the rain soon come
See you might win some but you just lost one “

Again, beautifully juxtaposed against Orwell’s assertion:  “Freedom, is the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.” 

These are indeed, interesting and critical times, marked by a trenchant postmodern distrust of moral absolutes and all things certain. And yet, we still yearn for liberation cloaked in the polemics of emancipatory projects, constituted by a plethora of differing struggles for social justice. It is de rigueur to break down the geo-politics of how these struggles for recognition are constituted, with reference to  buzzwords such as, intersectionality:  a more inclusive and critically reflexive approach, to understanding the multifarious and overlapping ways in which discrimination and oppression impact different social identities in society.

However, I am writing this piece with a different purpose in mind, that which sets out, a short contextualisation of  Lauryn Hill’s latest release, Consumerism: Letter’s From Exile– Part I,  linking this to the Jeremiadic aspects in her previous works, (particularly, Lauryn Hill MTV Live And Unplugged) and that of the Irish singer, Sinead O’Connor’s, Theology.

Firstly I want to highlight here,  how much a hermeneutics of gender is lacking in relation to what Cornel West, describes as prophetic pragmatism in the context of popular culture. Pragmatism at its best, West asserts “because it promotes a critical temper and democratic faith without making criticism a fetish or democracy an idol.” Secondly, a caveat here, noting that there is much more in between the binary than the title of this piece  suggests: The Profane and the Prophetic, within popular culture,  encompasses a very broad church and also includes secular narratives within various musical genres. Thirdly, echoing Cornel West’s Jazz Philosophy of Prophetic Pragmatism, rather than throw the proverbial baby out of the bath with the bath water, I opt for a retrofitting of different theoretical positions, drawing from African-Centered,  Eurocentric and androcentric thinkers (of all hues), who have omitted accounts of the role of gender and  the prophetic in popular culture.

The list of influences are dangerously long and for purposes of brevity, I will not include them all here!  But the most obvious to mention, is the Judeo-Christian epistemological framework, in which the  prophetic and the profane are discussed. Contrary to popular belief, Christianity was not introduced to Africa by European missionaries who arrived in the 19th century, and perhaps even less widely known, some Jewish communities in Africa are among the oldest in the world, dating back more than 2700 years, before Orthodox [Rabbinical] mainstream Judaism. African Jews are also constituted by  ethnic and religious diversity and difference.

Although we hear  much about  the identities of the main players in the Bible, including Jesus and the major and minor prophets, often described as ‘Jewish’ in ethnicity, arguably, this still falls back on a hermeneutics of  ‘Jews’ as Chosen in the nationalistic sense. Jesus, challenged this idea of Jewish ethnic absolutism throughout the gospels. It is quite common for the  term ‘Jew’  then,  to be conflated with ethnicity — that is, exclusively synonymous with the experiences of Ashkenazim (Eastern-European Jews) and the single story, of the holocaust narrative. Ironically, such grand  theological narratives fail to note that, many Old Testament scholars, particularly, European scholars of the 18th, 19th and early 20th century, had written their books and commentaries on the Old Testament from the perspective that there were no people of colour mentioned in the Scriptures.

Secular Levites and Old Time Prophets

From Vincent van Gogh, Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera, to Jean-Michel Basquiat; from Johann Sebastian Bach, George Frideric Handel, Mahalia Jackson, Paul Robeson, John Coltrane, The Last Poets, and Gill Scott Heron, to Public Enemy, Mos Def (Yaslin Bey) and Talib Kweli (Black Star), MeShell Ndegeocello, Tracy Chapman, and Lauryn Hill; from Woody Gutherie, Pete Seeger, Bob Dylan, Nina Simone, Joni Mitchell, and Joan Baez, to Sinead O’Connor, the Clash, the Jam, and Radiohead; from The Chamber Brothers, Curtis Mayfield, to Bob Marley and the Wailers(Peter Tosh and Bunny Wailer), Steel Pulse, and Linton Kwesi Johnson, the prophetic is alive with the sound of music.

A few of the above are not for obvious reasons, what I describe here as ‘Secular musical Levite’s’, but artist who have expressed the spiritual and prophetic in their work. Unfortunately, like W.H. Auden, I too lament what he called the “prudery” of “cultured people” who frown upon religious belief with dismay, finding theological terms “far more shocking than any of the four-letter words.” Unlike his contemporaries, W. H. Auden remained alert to the transformative power of Christianity to change human lives, and though terribly neglected by cultural critics, he also thought about its power to shape and inform art.

lauryn-hill 3

All of this to say, that today when we talk about the ‘religious’ in music, we are usually referring in lay terms to a particular genre of music, more specifically, within the commonly known Judeo-Christian framework —  gospel music. How many times have you read an article to be accosted with the cliche of the rhythm and blues singer, the pop singer (usually black), or backing singer, who started their musical career in the church? Few other rhythm and blues  artists embody this cliche, with as much ribald, as the troubled Neo-Soul genius and media labelled  ‘sex-god’, D’Angelo, talking here about his comeback in a 2012 GQ magazine interview:

Shame, guilt, repentance—D’Angelo knows them well. To say that he was raised religious doesn’t begin to capture it. He’s the son and the grandson of Pentecostal preachers. To D’Angelo, good and evil are not abstract concepts but tangible forces he reckons with every day. In his life and in his music, he has always felt the tension between the sacred and the profane, the darkness and the light.

“You know what they say about Lucifer, right, before he was cast out?” D’Angelo asks me now. “Every angel has their speciality, and his was praise. They say that he could play every instrument with one finger and that the music was just awesome. And he was exceptionally beautiful, Lucifer—as an angel, he was.”

D’Angelo refers here to the prophecy of the fall of the King of Tyre — a typology of Lucifer which can be found in [Ezekiel 28:12-15]

You were the seal of perfection,
full of wisdom and perfect in beauty.
13 You were in Eden,
the garden of God;
every precious stone adorned you:
carnelian, chrysolite and emerald,
topaz, onyx and jasper,
lapis lazuli, turquoise and beryl.
Your settings and mountings were made of gold;
on the day you were created they were prepared.
14 You were anointed as a guardian cherub,
for so I ordained you.
You were on the holy mount of God;
you walked among the fiery stones.
15 You were blameless in your ways
from the day you were created.

I have always been fascinated by the role Ethiopianist discourse plays, within the Judeo-Christian narrative and Liberation Theology. My own understanding of Ethiopianism, as a woman of African-Caribbean descent, is first of all shaped by my Christian faith and prior to this, by the centrality of notions of Ethiopia as the promised land  in Rastafarnian discourse and the return to the homeland of a trickling of Rastafarians, to a little known place, called Shashemane in Awassa, the Southern region of Ethiopia.

Paul Gilroy, also points towards the transmission of Ethiopianism through the , “popular Pan-Africanist and Ethiopianist vision inherent in reggae” which were, “carried to all the corners of the world as an unforeseen consequence of selling the music of Jamaica beyond the area in which it was created.”

Gilroy further notes, “Thus the role of external meanings around blackness drawn in particular from black America, became important in the elaboration of a connective culture which drew these different ‘national‘ groups together into a new pattern that was not ethnically marked in the way that Caribbean cultural inheritances had been.

The decentering of [counterfeit]‘Israel’ and the white Godhead, is very much at the heart of Ethiopianist narratives in reggae music. Significantly, Shabtay (2003) has noted the emergence of an Afro-Jamaican/American-Israeli subculture, which identifies with black music such as reggae and rap. Through this musical genre, black identity, is adopted by young Ethiopian Jews as a means of highlighting their alienation from Israeli society: “Israeli identity appears to have been missed out on the way, or at least to have been appropriated to a much lesser extent.”

This brand of Ethiopianism, is constitutive of a form of response and resistance,  against exclusion and  racism, that emanates from a dominant religious discourse depicting a white god. The quest for representative black theological perspectives, that cohere around a black God, can be traced back to the ‘prophetic’ enunciation of  the Jamaican Black Nationalist leader Marcus Mosiah Garvey, inspired by Psalm 68:31:

 “Princes shall come out of Egypt; Ethiopia shall soon stretch out her hands unto God.”  –which rastafarians interpreted to be Emperor  Haile Selassie I. Thus Garvey’s Ethiopianism,  is captured in the following quote:

“If the white man has the idea of a white God, let him worship his God as he desires. If the yellow man’s God is of his race let him worship his God as he sees fit. We, as Negroes, have found a new ideal. Whilst our God has no color, yet it is human to see everything through one’s own spectacles, and since the white people have seen their God through white spectacles, we only now started out (late though it be) to see our God through our own spectacles. The God of Isaac and the God of Jacob. We Negroes believe in the God of Ethiopia, the everlasting God – God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Ghost, the One God of all ages. That is the God in whom we believe, but we shall worship Him through the spectacles of Ethiopia.”

The prophets described in the Hebrew Scriptures, although religious, stood on the margins of the social power structures and were often ostracised as outcasts by political and religious leaders because they challenged the ‘ungodly orientations of society, especially when the status quo remained unchanged.

As well as the omission of people of colour from the Bible, women are either hidden or are conspicuously silent  in mainstream Judeo-Christian, theological exegesis. That said, six women in scripture can be identified as possessing the title of prophetess: five under the old covenant and one Anna, is mentioned in the gospels. In addition, Philip is mentioned in Acts as having four daughters who prophesied, bringing the number of prophetesses mentioned in the Bible to ten. Conversely, a woman in the book of Revelations calls herself prophetess but she is considered a false prophet.

There are other occasions in scripture, where women also prophesied, but it is not clearly delineated as such. These women include: Rachel (Gen. 30:24), Hannah (1 Sam. 2:1-10), Abigail ( 1 Samuel 25:29-31), Elizabeth (Luke 1: 41-45), and Mary the mother of Jesus (Luke 1:46-55).

New Wineskins /Old WineSkins: Lauryn Hill and Sinead O’Connor

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“What is a poet? An unhappy man who hides deep anguish in his heart, but whose lips are so formed that when the sigh and cry pass through them, it sounds like lovely music…. And people flock around the poet and say: ‘Sing again soon’ – that is, ‘May new sufferings torment your soul but your lips be fashioned as before, for the cry would only frighten us, but the music, that is blissful.”
― Søren Kierkegaard

So all of this  assists us in framing a few examples of the profane and prophetic, I have been meditating on over the years as it relates to the role of ‘artists’. As mentioned previously, I wanted to focus on Lauryn Hill’s MTV Live and Unplugged,and Sinead O’Connors Theology, to highlight the role of women and the radical application of the prophetic, evident in the lyrical content of their music.

I make fleeting reference here, to Jay-Z’s,  Magna Carta: Holy Grail and Kanye West’s, Yeezus, and their joint effort – Watch The Throne, which you can read about in more detail here. Nevertheless, in terms of the profane, I am very curious as to why these Jigga and Ye,  get a pass to preach that, which might be considered by those of the Christian faith, a ‘blasphemous’  false gospel.

A great deal of mainstream commercial hip-hop, seems perennially engaged with inverting the Christian theological narrative, promulgating a slew of metaphorical and profane ironism’s, thus keeping the Church In The Wild entertained.

It is not surprising then, that mega-church-ianity’s ‘pulpits pimps’, such as those depicted in the new reality show  LA Preachers, justify their materialistic lifestyles in this way : “P. Diddy, Jay-Z, they’re not the only ones who should be driving Ferraris and living in large houses,”  (cast member Bishop Ron Gibson, a former gang member who now ministers to 4,500 people each week at Life Church of God in Christ).

In this discursive terrain of the ‘counterfeit gospel’, rappers are gods and Pharaohs, representative of a ruling elite (and by the way, carry striking family resemblances, to the Egyptian Pharaohs) who notably, held the children of Israel in captivity for four hundred years — prophetically recounted in the Peter Tosh song of the same name: Four Hundred Years, Four Hundred Years…. And Still The Same Philosophy. Perhaps it is worth noting here: The Children of Israel, escaped Egypt with all the bling, once owned by the Egyptians!

“Corporate greed in Jesus name.”

Arguably, this particular representation of rap ( in its profane incarnation) has become more pronounced and can also be seen in the music of J. Cole– Born Sinner, and Lil Wayne’s, Rebirth ( Drop The World).  Personally, I would sincerely appreciate a little more religious  diversity on this front, and would love to hear a bit more from Allah, Buddha, and so on, in the narratives of mainstream commercial hip-hop ‘artists’.

Hints of the prophetic have always been evident in the music of Lauryn Hill, going back to the Fugees referencing Bob Marley on their debut album The Score,  reflecting a melange of their own brand of black ‘liberationist theology’, that evolves into a more enunciated theological perspective, in MTV Live and Unplugged.  For example, in Peace of Mind, Hill shares, what appears to be her calling, that can be compared to the calling of the Old Testament prophet Isaiah:

“Touch my mouth with your hands, touch my mouth with your hands
Oh I wanna understand, the meaning of your embrace
I know now I have to face, the temptations of my past
Please don’t let me disgrace, where my devotion lays
Now that I know the truth, now that it’s no excuse
Keeping me from your love, what was I thinking of?”

~ Lauryn Hill

“Then said I, Woe is me! for I am undone; because I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips: for mine eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts.

Then flew one of the seraphims unto me, having a live coal in his hand, which he had taken with the tongs from off the altar:

And he laid it upon my mouth, and said, Lo, this hath touched thy lips; and thine iniquity is taken away, and thy sin purged.

 Also I heard the voice of the Lord, saying, Whom shall I send, and who will go for us? Then said I, Here am I; send me.” [Isaiah 6:5-8]

The songs on MTV Live and Unplugged take on a more distinctive Christian narrative, albeit not in the same vein as mainstream Christian religiosity — that of the likes of Joel Osteen, Joyce Meyer or the  T.D. Jakes and Creflo Dollar, type fundamentalists, who advocate the prosperity gospel all day, every day. Far from it. Lauryn Hill, is positioning herself in the tradition of the Old Testament Prophets, as an outcast — as Hannah Arendt puts it: a Concious Pariah.

So it is interesting to observe, two of the biggest commercial mainstream popular artists — Kanye West, who alongside the title of ‘god’,  recently described himself  as a “messenger” and also, launched his career on Lauryn Hill’s back, sampling (and ironically, diluting the message of the track) the hook: It all falls down, taken from the Mystery of Iniquity; the second, being the now infamous Miley Cyrus, who named her inspiration for Wrecking Ball, as Sinead O’Connor. Interestingly, both Hill and  O’Connor,  refused to be co-opted into either of the narratives — of West and Cyrus,  who appear to be ‘preaching’ a different message about  ‘freedom’  ‘rebellion and ‘rights’ in their music than their more seriously and artistically oriented counterparts. The juxtaposition  between these artists is quite pronounced.

Both Lauryn Hill and Sinead O’Connor are renowned for being artists of integrity, whose lyrical content, is both socially conscious and spiritually profound. Themes of freedom,  justice and liberation are articulated in their music, within the prophetic tradition of the likes of John the Baptist —  also referred to  as the voice  of one crying in the wilderness,  whom Jesus described in this way: And from the days of John The Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven suffereth violence and the violent take it by force (Matthew 11:12).

Indeed, the opening quote  by Soren Kierkegaard (in this section):  “what is a poet?”  is reminisent of the prophet Ezekiel’s (33:32):

And, lo, thou art unto them as a very lovely song of one that hath a pleasant voice, and can play well on an instrument: for they hear thy words, but they do them not.

God  in calling the prophets,  prepares them and forewarns  them as in the case of Isaiah, Jeremiah and  Ezekiel, that he is sending them before a “stiff-necked”  rebellious people, which happened to be their own people. This is the reward of the prophet: A prophet is not without honour, but in his own country, and among his own kin, and in his own house. All the prophets can do in the face of the rebellious House of Israel, is to set their face like flint whilst delivering the message of God.

In closing, it is interesting to note, how those looking to have their flesh stroked, never quite get to grips with the music of Sinead O’Connor and Lauryn Hill. The songs highlighted here, represent more than a hook, a groove or dope beats. In the case of Kanye West and Miley Cyrus, name dropping Hill and O’Connor, is as far as it goes: they are clearly savvy enough, to know the uncompromising stance and artistic credibility attached to both, and therefore seek kudos by association.

It is however, a different story concerning the job description of a prophet. In the superficial world of materialistically driven commercial hip-hop and pop culture, Lauryn Hill’s Consumerism is the antithesis of  our current neoliberal status quo, and more specifically, the spiritual aporia at the heart of  the  Music Industrial Complex. Few mainstream pop artist covet the title of ‘mad’, ‘bad’ or ‘sad’ outcast — titles lazily ascribed to the likes of  Hill and O’Connor.

I realise this is a somewhat lofty contextualisation, in which to thrust this imperfectly flawed duo, but to all intents and purposes, it will suffice;  I fall short of deifying, either as God.

There is a different objective in the work of Sinead O’Connor, as represented in Theology, and the continuing evolution of Lauryn Hill in the prophetic tradition, as represented in MTV Live and Unplugged, Neurotic Society, and now Consumerism, than many mainstream artists, whose sermons, uniformly focus on, a vacuous amoral anything goes ‘gospel’: do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the  law.

Rather like the Prophet Jeremiah, whose own people had him imprisoned and thrown into a miry pit, because they did not like his message much, as it did not tickle their ears or confirm their rebellious ways; they cried “prophesy smooth things.” In response, Jeremiah cried : “Oh that my head were waters, and mine eyes a fountain of tears, that I might weep day and night for the slain of the daughter of my people!” [Jeremiah 9:1].

The urgency in the message of Lauryn Hill’s Consumerism echoes the cry of the weeping prophet Jeremiah and perhaps it is in this context, that the transition from pop icon to ‘prophet’, reflected in her more recent music, might be best understood.

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Source: Copyright 2014, Dr Claudette Carr.
About Dr Carr:

Dr Carr is the founding Director of the Jethro Institute for Good Governance (JIGG), and has over seventeen years experience lecturing in International and Community Development, Youth & Community Work, Social Work, and Social Policy, at Brunel, Birbeck, Lucerne University of Applied Sciences (Switzerland) and the University of Westminster. Alongside Lucerne colleagues, as Principal Lecturer, Claudette  co-ordinated the programme for the MA in International Community Development.    As the London Course leader, she successfully facilitated the Summer School in International Community Development at Westminster. In Partnership with J!GG, The Sylvia Pankhurst Memorial Committee, and the University of Westminster, Claudette has set up and secured funding for the Sylvia Pankhurst Scholarship for Ethiopian girls, and the Dr John Garang Scholarship for South Sudan starting in September 2012.

She holds a PhD in education and degrees in social science and applied anthropology from Goldsmiths College, and is also JNC qualified in youth and community work. Her research interest include Community politics and new social movements; black and ethnic self-organisation in the UK and Diaspora; the emergence of vernacular histories and indigenous knowledge(s) and their impact on the assertion of ethnic identity.  Her PhD thesis looked at ‘How Black History is constructed and represented in different sites of education’.Claudette is currently researching ‘Diaspora Organisations in the Horn of Africa and their role in community Governance (Ethiopia, Sudan, Eritrea and Somalia)’. She is the co-author of an open letter to the Swedish Minister of Culture, that address the recent Swedish Racist Cake controversy, and recently partcipated in the conversation- ‘Racism is No Joke A Swedish Minister and a Hottentot Venus Cake’, which will be published in a forthcoming anthology, Afro-Nordic Landscapes: Equality and Race in Northern Europe (Routledge, 2012), edited by Michael McEachrane and with a foreword by Professor Paul Gilroy. Dr Carr writes and blogs regularly and her work can be found here: http://jethroinstitute.dinstudio.com.

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