Read Between the Lines: Telling Time in the United States Using the Bible and Rap

by Chris Karnadi
12 April 2017

On the morning of November 9, 2016, disoriented and confused, much of the United States groggily checked the political time hoping that Donald Trump’s victory was simply a bad dream. This rude awakening, however, proved to many that racist realities still dominate American society: Donald Trump’s victory is the harsh reality, and the dream that dissipated on November 8 was the progressive hope in the improvement of the United States. That dream was seeing our first Black president and believing that life had permanently gotten better for non-white Americans. Any (white) delusion that racial progress has been made in this country was shattered on November 8, 2016, and ground into the pavement from January 20 onward. But as President Donald Trump presses on in the executive office, the nation must ask itself why his victory was so shocking for many. The nation must become better at telling time. To attempt to properly read our times, I want to turn to two intertwining voices, one ancient and one contemporary.

I know it’s an unpopular book for many understandable reasons, but I like reading the Bible. It’s still a meaningful book to me, but it does take creative strain to see how the ancient text makes sense of this world[1]. Theologian James Cone reads the Exodus narrative as a paradigmatic example of the liberation theme throughout scripture[2]. Slave spirituals like “Wade in the Water” also appeal to the Exodus story as a means of making sense of suffering and cultivating hope for deliverance. The story of the Exodus has been used as a narrative structure to make sense of the African American experience in the United States and is useful for making meaning out of today’s political situation for all Black and brown bodies, including myself. All important in this application of Exodus to modern life, however, is the question of plot placement. Where in the story are we? Are we looking for some sort of Promised Land after a divine deliverance? Triumphal trumpets of this kind were sounded after President Barack Obama won the election in 2008. We were supposedly entering an era when America had dealt with its racial history, but current events call for a reinterpretation of the times. We are not entering the promised land of racial equality; instead, we are still in Egypt demanding freedom and threatening plagues. In America, there has been a long history of voices demanding freedom, from Frederick Douglass to Malcolm X, and now to Alicia Garza from the Black Lives Matter movement; but our people have yet to be truly set free.

We threaten plagues until we find freedom. If police brutality is not seriously dismantled, then water will turn to blood. If young Black men and women are not freed from the cruel hand of mass incarceration, then locusts will strike famine into this land. If Native Americans’ rights are not protected, then thick darkness will cover the United States. If racial justice is not served to the downtrodden people on the racial margins, sons and daughters will die.

This prophetic urgency for the repentance of America is not only my own interpretation of the Bible; it’s also prevalent in rap. “It’s time to wake the fuck back up,” says Joey Bada$$. This rapper from New Yorkdropped thestirring single”Land of the Free” on Inauguration Day, pulling back the curtain on the persistent racism of the United States and the lie that it has successfully moved to a ‘post-racial’ era. He raps about “AmeriKKKa” and testifies to its inadequate repentance:

300 plus years of them cold shoulders

Yet 300 million of us still got no focus

Sorry America, but I will not be your soldier

Obama just wasn’t enough, I just need some more closure

And Donald Trump is not equipped to take this country over

Let’s face facts ’cause we know what’s the real motives

And the land of the free is full of free loaders

Leave us dead in the street to be your organ donors

They disorganized my people, made us all loners

Still got the last names of our slave owners

Joey accuses this country of building its success off of the labor of Black people while keeping them in chains and under threat of death. He calls the wealthy of America free loaders and organ harvesters, gaining perverse capital from the bodies of the Black and brown. The United States may have the most productive economy in the world, but it has many debts to pay.

Joey tells this history as a means of both protecting the youth and pressing them to enact change. The music video accompanying “Land of the Free” portrays Joey as a savior and educator of young Black youth, stepping between a firing squad of white police officers and chained Black men and women and dancing as he prevents further carnage. He even gets lynched by the KKK, made up of hooded police officers gathered around a burning cross, in a Christological substitution which causes those previously shot in the video to be resuscitated. Joey portrays himself as a pastoral figure in the Black community. He crouches with elementary age children and teaches them, “Can’t change the world unless we change ourselves.” He claims to be the voice inciting the youth to act: “I’m just a black spade spawned out the nebula / And everything I do or say today is worthwhile / Will for sure inspire actions in your first child.” This prophetic and political rapper offers a crushing critique of the true nature of American freedom but focuses on building up the Black community to bring social change.

If America retains the hardness of its heart toward the people who have been whipped into building this country, another plague may come with vengeance too great for the United States to bear. In the words of Tupac, resurrected in Kendrick Lamar’s conclusion to To Pimp a Butterfly, “Next time it’s a riot there’s gonna be, like, bloodshed for real. I don’t think America know that. I think America think that we was just playin.” We need to read our times much more seriously as one of a crossroads between long overdue repentance or political disaster. Either we respond positively to the voices of the marginalized and enact mass repentance for the deeply racial implications of our national history, or the United States may dissolve as its oppressed seize freedom. This country needs to wake up and check the time. The hour hand of the Bible cries “Let my people go!” and warns of coming plagues for the hard of heart. The minute hand of contemporary rap tells us that the time to act is short before forcible change. And the second hand keeps ticking, waiting for our response to the cries of the oppressed.

Chris Karnadi is a Master’s student at Duke Divinity School. He loves seeing and sharing beautiful things.

[1] Karl Barth, Epistle to the Romans (London: Oxford University Press, 1933), 7.

[2] James Cone, A Black Theology of Liberation(Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2010), 2-3.

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