Fellow Passengers: This week’s Promise Passage* (Judges 5) transports me to Queens, New York in the summer of 1998, when a young MC named Robin Allen, following in the footsteps of Queen Latifah, entered into the world of hip hop as the Lady of Rage. She rapped her way into the good graces of Dr. Dre and became a mainstay of his Death Row record label for several years. The title track of her debut recording, Necessary Roughness, has what strikes me as funny insertions of quirky cultural references throughout the compulsory celebration of violence. The mic stalker will wear you out like Walker. . . Get down to the roots like Haley. . . If the mic be within the reaches of my psyche I just eat it up like Mikey (I like it). . . don’t let me get heated or you might just get stretched out like Sealy Posturpedic. . . make more snap than green beans ask Mr. Greenjeans who’s the Captain. . . don’t eff around Tootsie you might get rolled up. There’s more – Parker Lewis, Mary Lou Retton, the Maltese Falcon and the yellow brick road all show up in the rhyme schemes when Robin turns to Rage. Of course, to get to them, you have to endure the violent imagery obligatory to hip hop culture. She warns her audience that she is a major threat, Rage in effect, acting with necessary roughness, a lyrical murderer who shoots from the jugular, strikes hard like Ben Franklin’s lightnin’ rod, leaving her victims scarred and charred. It’s actually fairly tame in comparison to some of her fellow Death Row artists.
For a less than tame hip hop artist who came on the scene long before Robin Allen or Queen Latifah, we turn the pages of the Hebrew scriptures to Judges 5, for the song of Deborah, the original Lady of Rage. Her song is not laced with any Captain Kangaroo cultural references, and her violence is not metaphorical. The murder she celebrates is not lyrical, but real. And if the contemporary gangsta rappers can rattle your bones with their booming bass lines, Lady of Rage Deborah has God’s bass line and the backbeat of horses’ hoofs coming through the woofers at such high volume that it causes the earth to tremble, the mountains to quake, and the sky to melt. Deborah’s song comes in the aftermath of a battle brought on by the people’s infidelity, and what really gets her going in bitter rapid fire rap curse mode is news of the cowardice of so many who had gone awol when the battle cry sounded. She does lift up one hero, though, a member of the sisterhood, the tent-dwelling woman Jael. When the retreating general Sisera of the enemy army came into Jael’s tent looking for some aid, the wily woman offered him all the comforts of home. And as soon as his belly was full and his eyes were closed, she grabbed a tent peg and hammered it through his skull. And the Lady of Rage raps: he sank, he fell, he sank, he fell, he sank, he fell.
The musicologists and sociologists who lay out the history of rap music generally talk about the turning point in the 80s when it went from bubble gum pop-oriented party music to a violent and misogynist social critique of life in poverty-stricken ghettos and a rejection of the mainstream privileged culture that spawns such a life. It seems to me they don’t go far enough back to find the musical roots that celebrate the cycles of violence. It’s present in the early music of the covenant community, well before the people had their first king. Deep and booming music was shaking the earth and quaking the mountains long before boom boxes and car stereo systems were rattling your bones. It would take a few hundred years before another Hebrew hip hopper would lead us to believe that the cross put an end to this inevitable cycle of violence. Jesus’ death busted the speakers, causing rocks to split and the earth to tremble and the tombs to open, once and for all. It just seems like the rappers and the rest of us haven’t quite gotten the message yet that there is no such thing as necessary roughness; there is always a better Way.
How about you? Where does this Promise Passage take you on your journey of faith? Feel free to comment.