It may seem a distant memory now, but not so long ago the United States had a different president and that president had a different way of being and a different way of talking about everything. So different, it is hard to believe there is such a past. Like maybe we imagined it?
Anyway, less than twenty months ago, there was a different president and when a celebrity magazine journalist asked him what his favorite track of 2015 was he replied: “How Much a Dollar Cost” by Kendrick Lamar.
The president was not alone; a lot of people set that single onto their year’s end “best of” lists. Nobody said that president was not also a part of the mass culture; nobody said he invented cool or superseded the celebrity norms by which cool is declared. All I am saying is: remember when we had a president who listened to Kendrick Lamar?
In case you have not taken a listen to anything by Lamar, try “How Much a Dollar Cost” and dwell in the existential surveillance Lamar conducts upon himself. The track describes Lamar’s encounter with a homeless man, an occasion that leads Lamar into a detailed reckoning with his angry reaction to such begging. Lamar situates his reaction in his own solipsism (“My selfishness is what got me here”), since anybody trying to make it has no time to pause and think about what makes one man into a homeless person asking for a dollar and another man into, well, Kendrick Lamar:
And I’m insensitive, and I lack empathy
He looked at me and said, “Your potential is bittersweet”
I looked at him and said, “Every nickel is mines to keep”
Lamar does not leave it in such a miserly place, of course. And anyone who knows something about the masterworks of rap (and of lyric poetry) can predict the idiom of his resolution. Modern expressive cultures return us time and again to depictions of belief, mystical experience, and supernatural powers intervening in apparently secular scenes of self-confrontation. And so it is in “How Much a Dollar Cost.” The transient demands Lamar’s attention, and ultimately begins to shift in the rapper’s initially judgmental eyes. He becomes a figuration of a god, or perhaps he is Jesus Christ? Whatever his divine profile, we hear him, through Lamar’s rendering, tossing around Biblical referents and New Testament parables and letting Lamar know that Kendrick refused to give a dollar to someone worthy of seeing.
“Have you ever opened up Exodus 14?
A humble man is all that we ever need
Tell me how much a dollar cost”
I first connected with the work of Josef Sorett when he published this strong-voiced call to make hip hop a serious subject for the study of religion. Sorett was not the only scholar to do this: Anthony Pinn and Monica Miller blazed early routes into this topical arena (and subsequently co-edited this 2014 collection, where you can find Sorett’s 2009 essay). And Su’ad Abdul Khabeer, whose wonderful work on Islam and hip hop is excerpted here, has already introduced Kendrick Lamar to The Immanent Frame in her discussion of Black Lives Matter. But Sorett was one of the first scholars to think well about Christianity as hip hop’s insistent drop scene. “At a moment when multiculturalism and religious diversity are being realized,” Sorett wrote in that earlier article, “hip hop reveals that Christianity has maintained its centrality in American popular culture.” Some scholars of religion treat popular cultures as a treasure hunt where they can go plumbing for the image of a particular African goddess in a Grammys performance or the Christian allegorical intention behind bestselling serial young adult fiction. Even though Sorett is fluent in Christian symbols and theology, this kind of excavation is not exactly Sorett’s game. At his sharpest, Sorett is trying to see if Kendrick Lamar’s radical Christianity is the enlivening spirit for rap’s racial aesthetics, or its chronic condition.
He does so through a careful exploration of literary observers who pondered the same problem. In Spirit in the Dark, Sorett’s presenting purpose is not an overtly critical posture toward Christian influences on black literature. Rather Sorett wants to ensure that scholars studying the black modernist tradition do not fail to notice the powerful role of Afro-Protestantism. “Powerful” is actually too weak a word. Sorett wants contemporary American literature to check its secularity and the influence it has upon their readings of black expressive culture. Despite the hope by some literary critics to divest religious feeling, religious authority, and religious (un)reason from black literary arts, “religion has remained formative to the very idea and aspirations of African American literature across much of the twentieth century,” Sorett observes. In the literary tradition Sorett examines, Christianity is a problem to be engaged by black critics, not a theology to adapt or a spirit to assume.
Although several of his more prominent subjects have received substantive treatment by scholars of religion before (see in particular this excellent study of James Baldwin by Clarence Hardy), what distinguishes Sorett’s documentary approach is his interest in commentary on literature as a form of black expression. Spirit in the Dark in this sense offers a cultural history of black criticism, emphasizing the practice of anthologizing as a tool of spirit solicitation. Black literary editors hoped anthologies like The Negro Caravan: Writings by American Negroes (1941, reprinted 1969) would introduce individual black authors to a broader public and inspire readers to the energy of the collective effervescence established through their very collection in these volumes. These anthologies are not simple documentary catalogs but something more potent to the reader: something closer to a charm bracelet than an archival folder.
Within these collections, and among the vast trove of additional commentary Sorett collects, one finds many perspectives on the relationship between religion and black arts. What Sorett observes time and again is that religion is the subject twentieth-century black writers cannot not discuss. There is a dyadic inevitability to the pairing of religion and arts, Christianity and art, spirituality and black literature. In a 1946 column for the Chicago Defender, Langston Hughes wrote, “ART MUST BE like religion.” Both were able to “cross physical color lines with ease” without appearing to “have much effect on most white people’s hearts and souls.” This is a disappointing comparison for Hughes. “I am really puzzled about this, ours being a Christian country, but with so many people who are not Christ-like toward their darker brothers.”
Every thinker Sorett discusses somehow pulls together the production of art with the practice of religion, or the principles of Christianity with the practices of literature. He finds Theophilus Lewis, a black theater critic, comparing the church and theater, writing in 1927 that “each is strictly a spiritual institution.” He finds Richard Wright arguing in 1937 that the black writer “is being called upon to do no less than create values by which his race is to love, struggle and die . . . because his writing possesses the potential cunning to steal into the inmost recesses of the human heart, because he can create myths and symbols that inspire a faith in life.” He finds novelist Ann Petry indicting a nation that just gives “lip service to the thoughts of Christianity” in her 1950 essay, “The Novel as Social Criticism.” Sorett turns to the archive of black modernism to see what it says about religion, and he finds a superabundance of critique.
Do these racial aesthetics condemn or confirm the work of Kendrick Lamar? Two years after we first heard “How Much a Dollar Cost,” Kendrick Lamar dropped the video for “Humble,” to anticipate the release of DAMN., his fourth studio album. Now we had a different president. Now, too, we had a different Kendrick, one who was not only subject to religious influences, but also casting himself as one. The music video for “Humble” shows Lamar in several personae: Young Pope, street philosopher, a gangster boss Jesus at the Last Supper, golfer, cyclist, activist, soldier. Ever and always he is himself; looking unrepentantly into the camera, reflecting unrelentingly on himself, posing his blackness as an incontrovertible subject, and using his staccato voice to render imminent his every observation.
Lamar now wants to make clear how difficult it is to be him and to demand anything other than obeisance from everyone else. To be the great rapper and the super game lover (“we playin’ Tetris”), to be drug free and friend to Obama, to be critical of the world and still trapped in the world’s cheap fabrications. To be Kendrick Lamar and still be, well, humble. The chorus orders his competition to bow down to him:
Bitch, be humble (hol’ up, bitch)
Sit down (hol’ up, lil’, hol’ up, lil’ bitch)
What happened to the rapper humbled two years earlier by a homeless man flipping the script on his assumptions? Sorett, via Amiri Baraka, might say that Lamar continues to wrestle with the threat of having his blackness watered down by the influence of the West. That rather than have Christianity and capitalism control him, he becomes Christianity and he becomes the gifted capitalist.
Writing over at The Unbalanced, Brandon Daniel says: “Christianity has become a bad word. I get it completely. There are many faux Christians and Pharisees out there ruining it for the rest of us. But . . . Kendrick is a Christian, and DAMN. is a deeply Christian text.” Brandon Daniel redacts Kendrick Lamar’s act of expressive culture into the very thing Josef Sorett carefully observes as the least sure thing, as a persistent contestation. Imagining Kendrick Lamar as an author of Christian texts is like calling Aretha Franklin a Christian singer: It flattens what they, the artists, depict as a struggle, a call to power, and a laboring claim to own their voices in a world where Christianity is no simple inheritance. Josef Sorett asks us, quietly and insistently, not to do that. Not to make “Christian” a further captivity when really it is a conversation.
Kendrick Lamar raps his spirit out of the dark: into your face, onto your charts, in your ecclesial robes. For much of the twentieth century, Christianity was a problem that black critical thinkers worked to solve. Sorett demonstrates that all that aesthetic wrestling about Christianity did not diminish the critical Afro-Protestant spirit in black writing. Kendrick Lamar is similarly clear that his Christianity does not reiterate white power. It countermands it.
As we continue to think about how our aesthetics determine our politics, such a spirit may not be a bad model to behold. Maybe the imperial Kendrick Lamar of 2017 is precisely the dominating fabulist we need for these rather different presidential times.