“Son, thou now beholdest
The souls of those whom anger overcame;
And likewise I would have thee know for certain
Beneath the water people are who sigh
And make this water bubble at the surface”
The United States has a long history with anger, and though this may sound bad when read aloud, in truth some of our most pivotal changes occurred in moments of outright, nationalist rage: The Boston Tea Party, the Revolutionary War, Pearl Harbor, the Race Riots, the 1968 Democratic Convention, May Day, March on Washington… not to mention 9/11, Freedom Fries, and the Patriot Act. These moments, predicated on anger, unleash the kind wrathful fury that, for good or bad, define the nation that must then endure them.
Take for instance the recent Baltimore riots, a collective response to the death of Freddie Gray, that saw hundreds of citizens collect in the streets and voice their outrage at law enforcement’s continued abuse of power. Like the protests that came in the aftermath of the 2014 shooting of Michael Brown, these mass actions only made the news because of the anger they effused, eliciting headlines that ranged from the benevolent – “Rally in City Center” – to the fear-mongering – “Stadium put on lockdown as protesters take over Baltimore streets for Freddie Gray rally.“
The narrative thread that corporate news outlets such FOX News and CNN seized upon was a longstanding cultural trope, “The Angry Black Man,” that unpredictable spectre of savage inclinations, doomed by the very audacity of his having an opinion; moreover that this selfsame opinion should be anything but the like of say a minstrel or pickaninny – for anything beyond a complete acceptance of his lot in life was in itself a revolutionary act that promised to tear down the gates of civilized society. On the Right, this figure has long conjured deep-seated fears of losing one’s white privilege (and white women); on the Left, he elicits respect, admiration, and renewed interest in the causes of Social Progressivism, Revolutionary Communism, and the Black Power movement. Neither side, however, would be comfortable with him dating their daughters.
Here again with see that fear and respect are not simply antonyms, nor are they just complimentary. Rather, it’s as if they occupy the same space at the same time, trading off appearances depending on how the quantum light of hot media happens to strike them. For just as the big news outlets, towing the line of unspoken white privilege, portrayed the protestors in Baltimore as primitive savages come unhinged from their shackles – and then later as ‘thugs’ – the independent media and activist networks surrounding issues of race relations were seeing them for what they really were: angry indeed, but only at the complete lack of respect for black and brown lives that has been normalized in the US.
Finally, in the Spring of 2015, with the riots in Baltimore, our long history with anger finally made one thing crystal clear: when white people of European descent are angry and explode, we enact a national holiday to celebrate their outburst in perpetuity; when brown people explode, we bolt our doors, claim that it’s the criminal act of a few deviants, and demand that they be locked up and forgotten.
It would appear that anger is not democratic.
Forthwith to the Fifth Circle
The endless night growing weary, and with a gentle caveat that “loitering is forbidden,” Dante and Virgil quickly pay leave to the Greedy in the Fourth Circle, coming posthaste to the humble beginnings of The River Styx. You may recall this much storied tributary in many a Greek myth, wherein it traditionally marked the boundary between Earth and the Underworld, or the living and the dead. With the full force of the Roman Catholic world now behind him, however, Dante’s Inferno places the Styx far underground, where the Christian world has always hid its lingering paganisms. Here, in the gloom of Hell, the Styx presents as just one more inconvenient impediment for our two morose explorers, humbly gurgling from behind some rocks, finally coalescing into a broiling marsh full of ooze, sewage, sorrow, and sinners – making for a transitory boundary between the first four circles and the remainder of Hell.
If you hadn’t guessed, the Styx is itself the Fifth Circle of Hell, home to the Wrathful – those ‘whom anger overcame.’ Chief among them is Greek legend Phlegyas, a former king who wound up in Hell after his anger overcame him and he torched a well regarded temple dedicated to the Greek god Apollo. It was Virgil himself who placed Phlegyas here in the former’s Aeneid, so imagine that awkward moment when the latter is asked to ferry both Virgil and Dante across the water:
As he who listens to some great deceit
That has been done to him, and then resents it,
Such became Phlegyas, in his gathered wrath.
While sailing through these waters, our duo spies the true nature of the damned who call the Fifth Circle their home. Some fight upon the shores of the water, forever doomed to wrestle and bite each other, whereas others lay nearly dormant under the water, burbling sullenly to themselves. All are guilty of the sin of Wrath or Anger.
To a musical lay person, perhaps an obvious choice of musical genre to represent the Wrathful might be heavy metal or gangtsa rap, what with their emphasis on seething, violent lyrics, irrational chord progressions, or perhaps their general disregard for subtlety. But allow me to dispel this rash inclination as one befitting the mere philistine, and hereupon offer another, more nuanced suggestion.
Before I do so, let me first meditate on that mischievous phantasm we call gangsta rap: that much maligned, though often celebrated, sub-genre of hiphop which, to its credit, had become a mere cliché (read: casualty) of the Nineties-era Culture Wars while still in its relative infancy. It was charged with corrupting our youth and likewise weakening the very structure of society. Attacked most prominently for its “violence and demeaning imagery,” Doug Simmons of the Village Voice asked the obvious question, “does reality shape rap or does rap shape reality?” (Doug Simmons: “Gangsta Was the Case,” Village Voice, March 8, 1994, 63).
This wasn’t the first, nor the last time that a particular genre, or even a subset of musicians, has been accused of corrupting society. The more educated among us are quick to remind that “jazz music was accused of ‘turning modern men, women and children back to the stages of barbarism’; now it is the turn of heavy rock and gangsta rap to take the blame for delinquency and sociopathic behaviour.” (The Music Instinct, Philip Ball pg 385)
In defense of gangsta rap, and hiphop proper, lays the simple truth that those most railing against it were, by and large, privileged, evangelically-minded white people, for whom the genre seemed to perfectly crystallize “The Angry Black Man” discussed above. There were vestiges of this specter lying around everywhere one looked at the turbulent end of the Twentieth Century: Louis Farrakhan, Spike Lee and his Malcolm X, Al Sharpton, Jesse Jackson, Rodney King. These harbingers of the Multicultural Uprising simply scared the bejesus out of good, Christian white folk, and helped to propel the GOP into the zero sum game of racial politics that it currently finds itself in today.
“For the black youth, however, the music would speak to his general economic experience of power-lessness [sic], while asserting his black masculinity and perceived gender superiority within his ethnic group.” – Roy Shuker (from Understanding Popular Music)
Indeed the musical stylings of NWA, Cypress Hill, Schooly D, Ice-T, Sister Souljah, et al., seemed to propel a strong movement of African-American empowerment throughout the Nineties. Still, the allure of gangsta rap slowly faded, as the country dragged its feet closer and closer to the edge of the millennium, hauling behind it four centuries of socially disruptive baggage, pushing ahead of it loads of triphop, drum and bass, dubstep, and the occasional boy band. And all the while we as a nation remained wholly committed to an irrepressible and utterly consumerist fate.
But then, somewhat coyly, out of the ruins of gangsta rap and the loathsome culture wars that helped weaken its foundation, came the Brooklyn/Staten Island hiphop crew The Wu-Tang Clan. As if to caution against the pitfalls of gangsta rap to the throngs of inner city youth that were its prime demographic, The Clan’s first major single, Protect Ya Neck, dealt with anger and wrath in the following manner:
The Lone Ranger, code red, danger!
Deep in the dark with the art to rip charts apart
The vandal, too hot to handle
you battle, you’re saying Goodbye like Tevin Campbell
I’m gonna get mad deep like a threat, blow up your project
Then take all your assets
Cause I came to shake the frame in half
With the thoughts that bomb shit like math!
Note the intelligent response to violence, the invocation of one’s lyrical art, the equation of explosives to math…and Tevin Campbell. Yet, despite their posturing a mere standard deviation away from the gritty, unsubtle style of gangsta rap, the Clan, with their unpredictable stage personae and the diversity of their pre-millennial crowds, somehow managed to sound even more authentic, more real, and more urbane than any previous hip-hop artist that had preceded them. In one album The RZA, The GZA, Method Man, Inspector Deck, Old Dirty Bastard, Raekwon the Chef, U-God, Ghostface et al. had put to rest nearly a decade of cultural argument, with a rhetorical flare that gangsta rappers sorely lacked, and a street cred that the over-privileged Beat Poets would have sold their heroin for. These self-styled lyrical gangsters had cultivated a much-compelling aura while simultaneously re-appropriating the language of violence and wrath, elevating it to the unprecedented level of urban poetry.
Compare Wu-Tang’s thoughtful, intelligent response to urban sparring with the guileless lyrical stylings of Eazy E’s Real Muthaphuckkin G’s:
Motherfuck Dre, motherfuck Snoop, motherfuck Death Row
Yo, and here comes my left blow
Cause I’m the E-A-Z-Y-E and this is the season
To let the real motherfuckin’ G’s in
Or the tautological oration that Ice Cube is well known for, both in the studio, as well as on the screen:
Fuck that shit, cause I ain’t the one
For a punk motherfucker with a badge and a gun
To be beating on, and throwing in jail
We can go toe to toe in the middle of a cell
Thank you Ice Cube… really, really good stuff there…
Wu-Tang seemed to collectively understand what we established at the start of this post: that anger was, for the black and brown person, a sinful enterprise, doomed to failure. However, in Dante’s time, one’s proclivity to anger or wrath was not likewise bifurcated along racial lines. While taking in the horrors of the fifth circle, for example, Dante has a run-in with his longtime archrival Filippo Argenti in the Fifth circle, who is here in part because his family took all of Dante’s assets, forcing the noble bard to leave Florence; this same family actively opposed Dante’s intended return from exile (during which time Dante conceived of the original idea for the Divine Comedy); and finally, in a move that is classic Late Middle Ages, Filippo reportedly slapped Dante once in a fit of rage. Yet despite the lurid satisfaction one might expect from confronting one’s nemesis in the pits of Hell, it is precisely at this point that Dante begins to realize that he too has committed the sin of wrath (among others), and that he must find an alternate path in life.
In some ways it is clear that Dante’s purpose in penning the Divine Comedy was to mediate his own sins. After all, by turning his wrath into a series of epic poems, he likewise set straight much of the cultural turmoil in his native country of Italy. To wit, prior to the Comedie, there really was no one “Italian” language to speak of. As I stated in part 4 of this series, so widely read were his poems that they eventually established a new, national identity for Italy.
6.)The Fifth Circle: Liquid Swords – The Genius/GZA (1995)
Wu-tang has many great albums, starting with Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) and continuing with many spin-offs, such as The Gravediggaz, Method Man’s classic Tical, and Raekwon’s Only Built 4 Cuban Linx…. Understandably, it’s difficult (read: impossible) to choose that one, perfect album that crystallizes the slums of Shoalin and the Fifth Circle of Hell. That said, consider the regal elegance of GZA’s Liquid Swords which, in a manner quite distinct from other nineties-era Wu-Tang offerings, revolutionized the way we think about wrath. Shoalin monks, ninjas, samurai battles, blood oathes: all evocative of a fuedal Japan. These metaphors elevated urban street violence and gang warfare to something akin to Eliot Ness, Al Capone, and Bugsy Siegel. In a style that was perfected by RZA during the Nineties, we have here audio clips lifted straight from hokey Japanese kung fu film Shogun Assassin, and the Willie Mitchell classic, Groovin:
Consider Duel of the Iron Mic, with its use of violent metaphors to evoke a lyrical battle, recalling the intelligent rhymes of Boston rappers Mr. Lif, Akrobatik, Aesop Rock, et al., without resorting to the trash talk that rises to the surface of even the best of Biggie/Tupac-style feuding:
No peace, yo the police mad corrupt
You get bagged up, dependin’ if you’re passin’ the cut
Plus Shorty’s not a Shorty no more, he’s livin’ heartless
Regardless of the charges
Claims to be the hardest individual
Critical thoughts, criminal minded
Blinded by illusion, findin’ it confusin’
Consider Labels, RZA’s ode to the fecklessness of the record labels (which had killed off many contemporary hip-hop projects such as Cee-Lo and Andre 3000’s The Dungeon Family), wherein he loads heaps of lyrical wrath on the likes of A&R, Atlantic Records, and others:
Finally, consider B.I.B.L.E (Basic Instructions Before Leaving Earth), wherein an unaided Gravediggaz alum Killah Priest invokes that same religious text that no doubt much inspired Dante in his own writing. On the surface, this rambling ode to the scriptures is as out of place on Liquid Swords as it would be anywhere in the Wu-Tang catalog. Likewise, neither GZA, nor any of the Clan appear on this track, and it could therefore be easily dismissed were it not for an appropriately close reading of the lyrics:
The white image, of Christ, is really Cesare Borgia
And … the second son of Pope Alexander
The Sixth of Rome, and once the picture was shown
That’s how the devils tricked my dome
These allusions are very typical of Killah Priest’s ouvre who, like Dante, forgoes much of Wu-Tang’s violent lyrics for his own brand of overtly religious and spiritual overtones. And though Dante died over a century before Roderic Borgia (i.e. Pope Alexander VI) had even been born, the subjective parallels here are striking to say the least. Despite B.I.B.L.E.‘s apparent incongruity with the remainder of Liquid Swords, I would argue that the manner in which this track elevates the discourse surrounding the so-called ‘ghetto lifestyle,’ as well as the urban violence that seethes within it, is completely in line with the entire album, and much of Wu-Tang’s vital output.
I could continue this ruse and tell you that everything you have just read, and perhaps much more that I could only imply through lazy allusion, is responsible for why I chose Liquid Swords for the Fifth Circle of Hell. It’s true the intelligence that GZA brings to the table is nothing short of revolutionary. Recent data analysis reveals what you and I already have already known for some time: that when it comes to lyrical genius, the GZA is superior:
Statistical analysis aside, the only reason I would ever turn to this record is the first minute and a half. That moment, where the Shogun Assassin monolog ends, and the Willie Mitchell organ theme begins, whereupon RZA’s simple and hypnotic beats crossfade in, is completely arresting to your garden variety, high AF college student from upstate New York. This short, utterly brilliant slice of music turned my ears on not only to the sounds of nineties-era Staten Island, or the fabled monks of Shaolin, but to a love for hiphop that, to this day, stays with me:
I’m on a mission that niggas say is impossible,
but when I swing my swords they’re all choppable.
The Good, the Bad, and the Thuggee
Let us finally retreat from the sullen shores of the river Styx, likewise from the hinterlands of the Island of Staten, and let us instead glimpse one final time at the barren moorings of gangsta rap and its scuttled attempts to liberate the ‘Angry Black Man,’ as he lay awash in the cultural swells that threatened to all but consume him in the Eighties and Nineties. ‘Twere it not for legendary gangsta rap emissaries like Tupac Shakur, this fabled genre would have all but have faded into pre-millenial obscurity, holding little agency here in the twenty-first century.
Tupac, as you may know, is regarded as something of a martyr-figure by the demographic he represents, and his presence looms large over rap music specifically and popular culture generally, just as his electronic ghost occasionally haunts the errant outdoor festival:
But Shakur’s legacy remains not just via the miracles of modern technology. Indeed one of gangsta rap’s most beloved vestigial paradigms was popularized by this ‘thug life’ enthusiast himself. We obtained this cultural meme via the original ‘Thuggee,’ a roving band of assassins who originated in fourteenth century India. Near their untimely end at the hands of the British Empire, the Thugee were feared as a lawless and loosely organized horde of murderers. But early on in their existence, they were respected by many as organized assassins or ‘crime families.’
Here again we see an almost metaphysical coexistence between fear and respect, the two seeming opposites occupying the same space. In like manner, one might be persuaded to liken the Thuggee to a similar band of roving Muslims, the modern day terrorist group ISIS. Marauding throughout Iraq and Syria (at the very least) at the time of this writing, ISIS regularly claims responsibility for many a terrorist attack, and holds sway over a good many cities in the Middle East (notably Mosul, Raqqa, and Ninewa).
To the extremist end of the Muslim world, ISIS’s stated mission of reinstating a worldwide Islamic caliphate makes them heroic, and therefore much respected. In fact, they purportedly just opened their own hotel. However, to moderate Muslims, and to the rest of the world, ISIS’s tactics, motives, and mission are not only antithetical to the teachings of Islam, but a great many in the Middle East and elsewhere have nothing but fear for them, and rightly so.
Unlike ISIS, which has only recently formed in response to a disastrous US-led coalition beginning in 2003, the Thuggee’s history is long and unwieldy. But it can be summed up thusly: the Thuggee went from being hired mercenaries to irredeemable thugs within the span of five centuries, eventually being completely neutralized by the British Empire in the mid-1800s, without trial or much fanfare. Along with the good and the bad, the Thuggee were essentially swept under the rug of British Colonialism, but so infamous was their ‘reign’ that the abbreviated ‘thug’ is still with us today, often invoked as a respectful term when applied to rappers of the gangsta persuasion.
However, this word sometimes pops up in a more classist, racist context, as it did during the Baltimore riots of 2015, when that city’s mayor, Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, called those protesting the criminal death of Freddie Gray, ‘thugs’:
It is very clear that there’s a difference between what we saw last week between the peaceful protests … and the thugs, who only want to incite violence and destroy our city. I’m a life-long resident of Baltimore. Too many generations have spent their lives building up this city to have it destroyed by thugs, who in a very senseless way are trying to tear down what so many have fought for.
And despite what Jonah Goldberg would spout off in the National Review, his casual use of the word ’thug’ in the white-bread, conservative pundit circles of Washington DC society – clearly outside of any racial context, right? – does not make it any less racist. As openly gay video game developer David Gaider famously tweeted, “Privilege is when you think something is not a problem because it’s not a problem to you personally.”
Barrett Holmes Pinter of the Daily Beast, discussing recent comparisons between the words ‘thug’ and ‘nigger,’ argues that both can be either oppressive or empowering – expressing either an undercurrent of fear or the most explicit respect. He goes on to sum up Tupac’s stroke of brilliance when the rapper opted to have the term ’Thug Life’ tattooed across his chest:
Tupac’s embracing of the word, in effect, said that black Americans have been unfairly called this word for far too long, and that now we need to start employing the word so that we can impact the discussion and the word’s usage. It is not a justification for non-black voices to refer to blacks as thugs, but rather the appropriation of insult as a mechanism for social discourse.
Tupac Shakur, one of the last great gangsta rappers, had effectively turned the genre on its head, appropriated the loaded term ‘thug,’ and thereby empowered generations of black youth to be better than how the privileged classes would portray them. Despite CNN and FOX’s abysmal reportage of the Baltimore riots, who as matter of course sent their correspondents in droves after the violence began, yet were nowhere to be found just a week beforehand when peaceful protests were taking place, a new narrative is emerging from Baltimore: one of marginalized minority youth who, in reality, are quite peaceful, very well organized, and have a strong message that promises to affect real change to US policy at precisely the time when some of our nation’s most high-level politicians are launching their presidential campaigns.
Case in point, on May 6, 2015, Baltimore’s mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake went from brashly referring to the protesters as ‘thugs’ to calling on the Justice Department to conduct a full civil rights investigation into her city’s police force. Finally, it would appear, the genius of Wu-Tang and Tupac’s intelligent response to violence is paying off.