Windows have been SHATTERED! Doors UNHINGED! And musical communities nationwide are decrypting the profoundly effusive lyrics of J-Cole’s fifth studio album K.O.D (2018). Cole –as he’s affectionately called by fans—is no stranger to challenging unjust forms of power. His music gravitates around markers of the united state’s modernity: police violence, anti-Blackness, anti- Islam, and terrorism. Cole’s music always interrogates THIS country’s refusal to accept differences. A nation whose skeleton grows from the consumption of cultural, religious, linguistic, and cuisine diversity; yet its stakeholders are denied life. These socio-political issues and histories unfold and converge in Cole’s 2017 No. 1 single “High for Hours.”
It’s BRILLANCE laced with MAGIC!
Dreamville residents (those fans who inhabit Cole’s sonic sphere) mark “High for Hours” as a signifier of the personal and cultural unpacking performed in K.O.D. In “High for Hours” Cole—per usual—links the Black individual to his questioning of the united state’s rhetoric of multicultural acceptance. In 4mins and 15 sec., three lofty verses and a hook that insinuates suicidal ideation, Cole grapples with questions of self, citizenship, democracy, religion, hypocrisy and violence. Nonetheless, it is Cole’s grounding of self within the Black experience of the “Ville” that is of interest to me. Cole locates himself—his individual self— as a member of the wider Black community and he uses his insider status to abort the misconception of the united states as a multicultural nation. Cole’s use of “we” in the middle of verse one and his opening parsing of u.s hypocrisy, are germane to this OpEd. By isolating my analysis to verse one, the first nineteen lines, and out of that the first nine lines—which will be examined last— and the last four lines—which will be examined first— I will offer a robust and concentrated examination of Cole’s situating of self within a collective Black identity that assists in his repudiating of the United State’s Multicultural Ideal.
- American hypocrisy, oh, let me count the ways
- They came here seekin’ freedom
- Then they end up ownin’ slaves
- Justified it usin’ Christianity which saves
- Religion don’t mean shit, there’s too much ego in the way
- That’s why ISIS is a crisis
- But in reality this country do the same shit
- Take a life and call it righteous
- Remember when Bin Laden got killed, supposedly?
- For real? I thought this was “Thou shalt not kill”
- But police still lettin’ off on niggas in the Ville
- Claimin’ that he reached for a gun
- They really think we dumb and go a death wish
Anthony Appiah, in hiscomment in Charles Taylor’s Multiculturalism: Examining the Politics of Recognition (1994), underscores the importance of identity, authenticity, and survival in the quest for public recognition in a multicultural nation. However, Appiah critiques “the multicultural West” for their refusal to treat “certain individuals…with equal dignity” (161). And Appiah is concerned with how these “certain individuals” occupy problematically fixed identity categories. But Appiah’s conception of “each person’s individual identity” as having a “collective dimension” and a “personal dimension” demands parsing and application (151).
One factor that binds the above “dimensions” are social scripts: a way-of-being that is associated with specific identity groups. Appiah says “demanding respect for [Black people] …requires that there are some scripts that go with being [Black]” (162). Yes! there are intragroup scripts that make attempts at a uniformed Black identity, which Appiah denounces. However, Cole reveals the external readings of Blackness which too informs the Black existence. Cole would agree that “[Black] identity is centrally shaped by American society and institutions; it cannot be seen as constructed solely within [Black] communities” that is why his critique is unrelenting (155). Line 18 represents the Black script assigned by systems of law-and-order. These systems view Black people as dysfunctional and requiring correction. 19th century white planters created the Black pathology trope as a mechanism of control and a justification for enslavement. They argued that enslaved persons were unable to provide for themselves and required 24/7 monitoring. Like all unchecked behaviors, the idea of Black people as inherently pathological—or troublesome—persisted into the 20th and 21st centuries. And Cole is challenging that delusion.
The words “claimin’,” “he,” and “gun” are vital to Cole’s criticism. Claimin’, a shortened form of Claiming implies an assertion that something is true has occurred, and typically, the claimant is unyielding in their belief. However, a claim is often unprovable; it is mere speculation that has no solid foundation. Thus, Cole suggests the claim requires dubious consideration. And if hesitant consideration is required then the claim should be dismissed. Next, Cole uses the masculine pronoun “he” which privileges Black male victimization by these unsound claims. Cole’s use of “he” here connects to his later use of “we” (19) which situates him as member of the community of Black men harassed. For Cole, cops’ CLAIMS that a Black man/boy—often interchanged in media coverage on instances of police violence— attempted to grab a “gun” is illogical. Black children in general, but Black boys in specific, are given “The Talk” about anti-Blackness and its corresponding violence. “The Talk” seeks to keep Black boys alive. If Black boys are taught to stay alive, as suggested by “The Talk” and Cole, then why would they “reach for a gun”???
“THE TALK” is a provisional solution to an endemic problem.
In line19 Cole poses “They think we got a death wish,” a rhetorical question. This quote furthers his interrogation of police rationality, and the use of we “implicates” Cole as one subject of the preceding claims made against Black boys. But the paradoxical statement— “death wish”— highlights Cole’s criticism more staunchly. The idea that a Black man/boy would reach for a gun to shot a cop is flawed; it is ridiculous, or a “death wish.” Death and wish are opposing forces. The noun death is a state of being, traditionally considered as negative. Iconography surrounding death are ghosts, spirits, cemeteries, and the grime reaper, to name a few. All of these aspects hold negative connotations. Death is negative. Nonetheless, Black communities daily wrestle with the possibility of death at the heightened presence of a law-and-order society.
According to Dictionary.com, to wish, is a verb that means to “feel or express a strong desire or hope for something that is not easily attainable.” The words “hope” and “desire” and “not easily attainable” suggests a wish is idyllic. If someone makes a wish, typically, it is for something good or beneficial. These two readings of wish imply its optimism— hopefulness. Optimism challenges negativity, proving them as an unlikely pair. Thus, “death wish” is an unnatural union—IT DOESN’T WORK! No one, usually, desires death. And if a Black man/boy sought a weapon in the presence of a cop, he would be one of those anomalies desiring death. Here Cole meditates on police violence, anti-Blackness, and the state’s attempts at suppressing Black communities.
Cole’s examination of police violence is warranted. If one would to study u.s history, even modern u.s history, the tension between Black communities and the police will become salient. In 2017 the tension and terror persisted! Whereas data on police violence is often partial, beginning in 2015 the Washington Post designed a system for readily collecting and organizing such data. For statistical representation, great! But it is no absolute. There are many narratives not included. Activists often comment on the lack of coverage of police terror, and when coverage is given it is usually by the community. But the tool bares use in its illumination of a national problem. Nevertheless, Cole was first-in-line to “articulate publicly and on a mass scale many of this generation’s beliefs [concerning the police state] … unfiltered by…corporate structures” (Kitwana 202).
Cole is the NEEDED voice!
In line one Cole declares American hypocrisy, oh, let me count the ways. This statement implies the multiplicity of ways the united states is hypocritical; Cole says: “let me count the ways.” The words count and ways connote that hypocrisy is pervasive in America—it is everywhere. Count suggests that there are numerous exhibitions of an object—there isn’t just one. Counting becomes faulty if out of sequence, thus sequential order becomes imbued within “count.” Coles counting of hypocrisy is chronological. Numerical objects are also relational. The former augments the latter. Therefore, Cole suggests that each instance of hypocrisy is contingent upon the last.
A way is the method used to perform an activity. The HOW you did something. Then to pluralize way infers that numerous methods were used in the implementation, in the u.s case, of hypocrisy. Bear in mind such methods are strategic and often political. Thus, Cole positions the united states as an entity who uses/ ed various modes of hypocrisy to establish its supremacy. Together, Cole’s use of count and ways illustrates the logical and numerous ways the united states employed mechanisms to order society that effectively displayed its hypocrisy.
One mechanism used was the demarcation of freedom and the slave in American History! The Pilgrim’s fleeing of persecution, yet their later participation in enslavement are never remembered together. Cole pronounces “They came here seekin’ freedom/Then they end up owin’ slaves” (2-3). Cole’s juxtaposition of these two pivotal events are the epicenter of the united states’ social, political, and cultural life. Hypocrisy was at the beginning.
At the Copeland Colloquium in April of 1980, Audre Lorde delivers Age, Race, Class and Sex: Women Redefining Difference. In this essay, Lorde’s arguments originate at the need to recognize differences and to understand it as vital to the human experience. She argues: “[I]t is not…differences between us that are separating us. It is rather our refusal to recognize those differences, and to examine the distortions…from our misnaming them and their effects upon human behavior.” Lorde, and Cole, ideas converge at the point of “historical amnesia” and the “mythical norm.” As Lorde reimagines the utility of differences, Cole likewise presents the facts of the united states’ handling of difference in hope of disturbing the blissful ignorance.
Cole remarks That’s why ISIS is a crisis/ But in reality this country do the same shit/ Take a life and call it righteous (6-8).
Cole compares the United States of America to a terrorist organization! A country scared bya terrorist attack that occurred more than a decade ago. Therefore, Cole’s use of “same shit” to describe the similar actions of America and ISIS makes them kindred spirits. Sameness with ISIS, a symbol for all terrorists’ organizations, is the antithesis of how the united states IMAGINES themselves. And Cole emphasizes how it is just that—imaginary. Because in “reality” the united states is more like ISIS than unlike. The word “reality” suggests the physical world, not the one bound up by speech but the everyday. Whereas differences are primal to the united states, they have been “misnamed and misused in the service of separation and confusion” (Lorde 1980). Instead, difference has become a catchy slogan: melting pot! That is rhetorical, in practice the u.s inflicts terror on those socially different. Much like ISIS
Cole illustrates how terror and hypocrisy were seeded into this country. Above Cole again illuminates america’s hypocrisy by remedying its “historical amnesia.” Cole appears tired of “working to invent the wheel every time we…go to the store for bread” (Lorde). Cole wants us to remember. Cole is teaching us to make connections and pay attention.
Bakari Kitwana (2002), in The Hip Hop Generation: Young Blacks and the Crisis in African-American Culture, is thinking about the pedagogical structure of Hip Hop and the factors that contribute to its success. In Chapter 8, Kitwana situates define Hip Hop as the “definitive cultural movement of our generation” by situating it in the public political sphere (195). He deems Hip Hop a Black modality useful for the transmission of knowledge from the main stream to the Black communities and vice-versa. And is interested in the Hip Hop figures that assist in that movement.
Line eight displays Cole’s mastery of internal contradictions. He says: They “take a life and call it righteous” (8). The action of taking a life, euphemistic for murder, is in opposition to righteousness. Righteousness infers morally correct actions, those things that are right. Righteous actions are also in alignment with God’s way. God denounces murder. In such, the united states’ infliction of terror domestically and internationally misaligns with its righteous essentials. It is not being truthful. Cole’s reference to Bin Laden’s 2011 ambush amplifies the above contradiction. Cole recollects, “Remember when Bin Laden got killed, supposedly?” (9). Remember is an ambiguous term; it serves both as a question and a demand. This informal gesture of historicizing, connects to Kitwana’s view of “rap music as ‘the Black CNN’’ (201). It becomes a medium of transmitting national news to pockets of Black communities. Whereas listeners may be unaware of Bin Laden’s death, Cole informs audience members of the death as to manipulate the collective memory and to progress his stance. He “articulate[s] publicly and on a mass scale many of this generation’s beliefs, relatively unfiltered by the corporate structures that carried it” (Kitwana 202). Yes, Cole prompts us (fans) to remember issues of national urgency; yet, he remains invested in having the voices of the margins heard.
Cole acts as news anchor for his fans.
Hip Hop is a way of being for many urban youth communities; it is their way of staying connected to the broader world. Therefore, consideration should be given to its importance to larger socio-political happenings. My analysis reveals how Hip Hop struggles to hold the united states accountable to its founding ideals—life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Whereas artists do not fail, their efforts are often stymied by those same social powers under critique. Revolution is necessary. And Lorde specifies what type of revolutionary change is needed; she says: “the true focus of revolutionary change is…that piece of the oppressor which is planted deep within each of us, and which knowns only the oppressor’s tactics, the oppressor’s relationships.” Cole is reimagining a new set of tactics. We all must if we are ever to live a life free of terror.
Appiah, Anthony. “Identity, Authenticity, Survival: Multicultural Societies and Social Reproduction.” Multiculturalism: Examining the Politics of Recognition , edited by Charles Taylor, Princeton, 149-163.
Kitwana, Bakari. The Hip Hop Generation: Young Blacks and the Crisis in African-American Culture, Basic Civitas, 2002.
Lorde, Audre. “Age, Race, Class and Sex: Women Redefining Difference.” Copeland Colloquium, April 1980, Keynote Address.