Random Thoughts: Righteous Manipulation in Israel (Sparring)
It's taken me a while to build up enough confidence to cover the work of Noname and Chance the Rapper, as there is so much context and meaning and literary device usage to cover. Instead, I'll leave all the hard work to the professionals, and cover in hopefully understandably large brushstrokes how Chance the Rapper and Noname ingrain their message of social justice into our minds through the medium of rap (more specifically, in "Israel (Sparring)")
Pitchfork eloquently described Chance's (form of) rapping as "deliver[ing] in short bursts like a flurry of punches", relating to the "concept of sparring—the dance between boxer and trainer in preparation for a fight"—used in the song "Israel (Sparring)". This flurry of verbal punches is seen throughout Chances' musical career a lot: the first coming to mind being his part in "Tap Dance" by Octave, "Angels" (and throughout Coloring Book in general), and spread across his career. However, Israel (Sparring) is not a high tempo song by any means. Chance and Noname slow down to deliver each line, reinforcing the heaviness in their words. The song's form and lyrical flow beautifully work together to fix its ideas into our minds.
In English, the teacher proposed the idea that visual and verbal queues sub-consciously persuade us of certain points when we're unaware that we're surrounded with it. For instance, an advertisement of Old Spice deodorant appeals to an audience of women who buy deodorant for "their man". The commercial presents a ripped hot guy with a deep smooth voice presenting Old Spice deodorant as making "your man" smell as nice as he looks. It also presents the images of him holding up "two tickets to your favorite thing" as he turns the tickets into diamonds (a recognized symbol of material wealth which women are supposed to yearn for). This commercial was funny, making people watch it over and over, showing it on TV a lot of times, and achieving over 56 million views on youtube. This subtle advertising tactic is used EVERYWHERE for good reason: it persuades the audience of something as they think of it often.
It sounds insidious because it IS insidious. However, this subtle messaging can be used for benevolent purposes such as impelling social justice. I am intrigued by the notion of using literary devices in rap to convey this. I had this song stuck in my head over and over, realizing that I found American racial injustice to more emotionally charge me after listening to music like this.
Lines such as "Mice will always find out a way to steal" (Chance, verse 1) and "I know they think me bumblebee" (Noname, verse 2) get stuck my head easily, the flow sliding smooth (like the voice of the man in the Old Spice Commercial) and the words humbling. The message is clear, This is what society thinks of young African American men and women: stealing "mice" and stinging "bumblebees". In addition, certain lines such as "I can't stay silent, I go violent when my violets is gray/And my roses is black" reinforce themselves just because the meaning packed into each word is so memorable.
There are so many rappers who find large audiences through a near-same formula for constructing pop songs: repeating lyrics under a pop-music beat (such as All about that Bass by Megan Trainor). Drake's Hotline Bling and—if consider him a rapper—Macklemore's Thrift Shop are great examples of rap that follow this pattern. Instead of using the medium of rap for (in Bo Burnham's words) "giving a voice to the voiceless", a newer, shallower approach rakes in the money while providing no benefit towards those in need. Many mainstream rappers use the insidious effect of subliminal verbal and musical queues to worm their way into our heads, while the music itself carries no message of awareness or social justice for those living in poverty; those without a voice.
Israel (Sparring) is not a catchy song; the flow inside of it is. Initially hooked by the title and cover of the piece, Israel (Sparring) beckons me into hearing the voice of class struggle. Many of today's rapper still abide by the bedrock of rap—bringing awareness to those who society forgets about or casts away. Kendrick Lamar is the first that comes to mind, and his album To Pimp a Butterfly revolves mainly about this issue. How easy it is to crumble over the influence of "Uncle Sam" and throw away the meaning in words in exchange for money and personal benefit. Get paid, hire writers to make your songs for you, and donate a fourth of your proceeds to helping those still out on the streets. It takes courage and strength to turn down that offer. I agree with Kendrick in this way: the meaning in his words outweighs the personal benefit gained from throwing it away.
If there's one thing I want you to take away, it's the idea behind a quote I read in a book called Thank you for Arguing by Jay Heinrichs. I forgot the quote, ok, but the idea is that the rhetorician/politician is responsible for two things: to be able to speak well, and to be morally righteous. The main reason I wrote this article was from a Nerdwriter1's last episode in his "Morality Trilogy". In the first video, Nerdwriter1 states that "essentially we are made to be manipulated, and there is no shortage of that, of course, in human history: probably in your personal history, too." (Nerdwriter1 1) I believe that manipulation and subconscious persuation through visual and verbal queues in music—even more significantly in rap music—should be a force for good. Though it isn't a choice to tune out the insideous tactics of manipulation, it can be a choice to be aware of them.
Citations, sort of: (Pitchfork 1): http://pitchfork.com/reviews/tracks/17601-gun-outfit-gotta-wanna/
(Image 1: Jacob and Angel): https://www.flickr.com/photos/ergsart/21701347213/in/photolist-4WTf5J-aoREAp-aJBJY-qvzY4L-r1ahUW-z4F5sR-zMCp1n-z8fLnB-jwQE8u-A5echx-ckwJgm-Gkq9cL-JNy5Ak
(Old Spice 1): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=owGykVbfgUE
(Nerdwriter1 1): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7aNktszr2rA&list=PLwg4AG1KkgLwmzAuPb6RuXEtpLtfdfbF-&index=1