Monday, January 21, 2013

"Re-plant This in Our Handbooks": A Look at the Modern Day Hip Hop Rendition of MLK's "I Have a Dream"

"Go inside, climb a pyramid's incline
I see the promised land planned in Martin Luther's mind"
- Kevlaar 7, "Up There Beyond"

[In early 2011, Kevlaar 7 of the Detroit-based crew The Wisemen released his first album, an EP entitled Who Got the Camera? The revolutionary, scathing social and political material was perfectly in tune with the aura of dissent that was springing forth at that time. Reflecting on this intensely meaningful piece of music, I wrote what I believe are some of my best pieces ever. The following essay is a close analysis of the record's single, "I Have a Dream", originally published on a now defunct blog exactly two years ago and reproduced here in a re-edited format.]

"I Have a Dream" was the first song released from Who Got the Camera? As Kevlaar 7 described it, "this is the great Dr. Martin Luther King's famous speech, 'I have a dream' in hip hop form, our version" and fittingly it was released on Martin Luther King Day.

As the sixth track on the album, it's revealing to consider that the number 6 in the Supreme Mathematics represents "Equality", that principle which the venerable Dr. King was so vehemently and passionately striving for. Equality between all of "God's children," a recurring phrase in King's speech, and we hear this same phrase echoed in Kevlaar's lyrics. The song contains many metaphors and images from the original speech, even produced in the same chronological format as King's paragraphs. This essay will dig thoroughly into the lyrics and shed light on the references to Dr. King's speech and what it means for today. Through this process we will evaluate the song's overall vision and intention as a modern musical version of King's legendary address.

The sampled voice begins with an emotional cry over blaring horns:

Voice: "I have a dream that touched me deep down inside..."
Kevlaar 7: We all dream...we all have dreams, yes...
"Oh yes I did....Oh!"
Kevlaar: You got the courage?
"I said I'm gonna tell the whole world about it..."
I'm gonna tell the whole world, I'm tellin you right now...
"I dreamed..."
Follow me...

In the shadows we all stand, still seared by the flames
Jobs at minimum wage, they say we prosper as slaves

The first lines of King's speech, delivered at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington on August 23, 1963, point to the "symbolic shadow" of the man (Lincoln) who signed the Emancipation Proclamation exactly a hundred years prior (King says "five score years ago," a score being a period of twenty years). The Emancipation Proclamation was an executive order issued by President Lincoln during the Civil War that freed (most of) the slaves in the south at that time and in his next sentence, Dr. King refers to the "millions of Negro slaves who had been seared in the flames of withering justice."

The first line of the song uses the same imagery. The shadows in which "we all stand" here refer to a couple of things though. Just like Dr. King begins by paying homage to Lincoln, Kevlaar begins by acknowledging the shadow of Dr. King. A giant historical figure and world-changer, we stand in Dr. King's shadow; "we" as human beings, but also "we" as in the black community which Kevlaar then refers to as being STILL "seared by the flames" of which King spoke. Officially, nowadays there is no longer slavery in this country but people have intangibly been enslaved by the chains of mass mind control, poor housing & schools and especially the effects of what is sometimes referred to as the "New Jim Crow Law"---that is, the mass incarceration of black men and women (and the felon's subsequent forfeit of many rights). Dr. King speaks of the "manacles of segregation and the chains of racial discrimination."

These chains have still kept the majority of black people stuck in "jobs at minimum wage" even now. "The Negro lives on a lonely island of poverty," King observes as well as lamenting that "the Negro is still languished in the corners of American society." Also, keep in mind that the speech was delivered during a march in Washington that was dubbed "The March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom." Just after the first two lines it's clear that this song closely parallels King's speech while bringing attention to the frightening fact that the reverend's words accurately reflect the current state of things as well.

Cashing checks? They put us in our so called place: 
the graves
concerning justice: it's all fake
Bankrupt and corrupt: that’s justice’s bank

"We've come to our nation's capital to cash a check" King states. For the modern American black man though, that check is still not paid and they are instead put in check, put in the graves at an early age or incarcerated by a twisted system of justice. Maintaining the bank metaphor, "justice's bank" is bankrupt both literally (with the American economy crumpled by the corruption of it's own big banks) and figuratively (as in the "the bank of justice" with its "vaults of opportunity" mentioned by Dr. King).

Kevlaar has a similar line in another song ("Lesser Sorrows" off the Unbutton Your Holsters mixtape): "Justice is counterfeit/ I'm the money power spent/ wrestling weakness."

The urgency of now is just time we’ll have to take
Steal, not borrow
MLK emphasizes "the fierce urgency of now" and Kevlaar turns this into a clever play on words. "Steal, not borrow": meaning we must grasp and snatch this very moment and not be gradual about it (MLK decries the "tranquilizing drug of gradualism"). This line is also saying that we must NOT live on so-called "borrowed time" a phrase referring to a period time when the outcome of something is avoided or uncertain. A great, very heavy line when the full range of meanings is taken into consideration.

Sunlit the path of sorrow
I stand on hallowed land, clutching my brother's arrows

You will notice now that as the song proceeds the meanings seem to get deeper. We have to consider this couplet as a whole because, as is often the case with Wisemen lyrics, there is here a lyrical harmony---a relationship between each part and of all parts to the whole.
First, the "sunlit path" is an image in Dr. King's speech: "the sunlit path of racial justice." For King, this is a beacon of light shed upon a community that has been in the "shadows" we mentioned earlier, the "shadows of history's gallows" as K7 says in another track on the album. Also, King stands at a "hallowed spot" and champions universal brotherhood and equality.

There's another reference in here though. The same people that enslaved black men in America also murdered the Native Americans and kicked them out of their revered land. Kevlaar is shedding light on another "path of sorrow": the Trail of Tears. This is the Native American's land and they worship the land itself (thus it is "hallowed" or rendered holy). Standing upon this land "clutching my brother's arrows" means standing with the usurped Natives and uniting with them as brothers.

Universal brotherhood is really the essence of what the United States has, from the very beginning, claimed to be all about and in that last line we also envision the American symbol of the bald eagle clutching thirteen arrows in its talon.

On quicksand we stand, all of us, God’s children
Brotherhood forgotten like the World Trade buildings

One of the most powerful lines in a very powerful song. This "hallowed land" Kevlaar stands on in America is also sinking, deteriorating into a historically decrepit state. MLK strove to "lift our nation from the quicksands of racial injustice to the solid rock of brotherhood" so as to unite "all of God's children."

This brotherhood, this uniting spirit, was undoubtedly most prevalent during the time immediately after the 9/11 World Trade Center collapse. As the absence of those once magnificent twin towers and the mysterious/enigmatic/frightening facts concerning their destruction testify to, that brotherhood feeling quickly faded. It was practically an illusion. That united feeling of American brotherhood was played upon just long enough to rouse the nation into entering endless unjust wars against a nebulous unidentifiable enemy ("War on Terror") while also surrendering personal freedoms/privacies via the Patriot Act (and subsequent measures like the NDAA). There is no feeling of brotherhood when an alarming racial tension and discrimination persists today, with an increasingly militant police force becoming increasingly brutal.

It’s fatal to overlook this moment, 
praying, I loop the omen
Sweltering brutality
ignorance overwhelming
The first line here is almost a direct quote from the MLK speech: "It would be fatal to overlook the urgency of the moment." King's metaphor of the "sweltering summer" is also referenced here. The looped omen is the spinning record, the loop of the beat over which Kevlaar is actually in a way, praying and hoping as well as sharing a dream for the future. (The word "loop" also connects with MLK's "whirlwinds of revolt" in the same paragraph.)

"Ignorance overwhelming" is one of those simple lines that says so much. Its many meanings are so obvious that I won't bother stating them but I will point out that it ties in to the line above about forgetting the World Trade buildings. Forgetting, ignoring, neglecting the alarming questions behind such a humongous event---this is due to the overwhelming stream of ignorance and BULLSHIT being constantly firehosed at people's senses.

We can’t afford to dream, take swings on the enemy
You seen the Oscar Grant tragedy? How is tranquility?
"We can't afford to dream" has a couple distinct meanings. First, it's a simpler way of saying "we can't afford to relax and take it easy" or "to sleep" which connects with MLK saying that the Negro cannot rest and be content with any minor advancements of their cause while "the nation returns to business as usual." The second meaning is one similar to Bronze Nazareth's line in the album's title track: "Handcuffed to dreams we can't get." There is a so-called "dream" that is prevalent in the black community and that is one of obscene material wealth, MTV Cribs style, and it is a dream that 99% of them cannot achieve or "afford." Why? Because the reality is that black men in America are "put in their place," as we already observed in the first line---either killed or handcuffed.

Or, in Oscar Grant's case, BOTH. Dr. King says that there will be "neither rest nor tranquility in America until the Negro is granted his citizenship rights." There is a sad but poignant pun between King's use of the word "grant" and Kevlaar's calling to mind the Oscar Grant tragedy. Surely, "citizenship rights" include the right to a fair trial and the basic protection against being fatally shot by a police officer when laying face down and in handcuffs. This image is why Kevlaar (and MLK before him) is desperately evoking action in the line "take swings on the enemy."

(The first line could also be interpreted as "Can't afford to take swings on the enemy" because, if they're willing to shoot someone putting up a resistance as futile as Oscar Grant's, they'll certainly retaliate violently to swings. This pacifistic interpretation would also fit into MLK's virtue of non-violent resistance.)

Conflict isn’t wrongful when history always scorned you
They never warned you 
not to satisfy your thirst 
By now the reader will recognize the impressive feat by the artist of not only matching the imagery and message of Dr. King's speech, but even closely following the chronological order of it (and making it all sound good, no less!). At this point in the MLK speech the focus is upon the conflict and King warns that we must be wary of engaging in "wrongful deeds" and satisfying a "thirst for freedom" by "drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred."

We're approaching one of the peaks of the song (it's truly a musical mountain range with a number of high points) and Kevlaar is directly transforming the powerful language of King's speech into lyrics; rhymes that communicate the message in a musical flow.

Sipping from cups of hatred it may be worth the birth
of disciplined disciples, splendid heights we must rise to
When warning against satisfying the thirst for freedom by sipping from cups of bitterness, hatred, physical violence, MLK announces that we must "rise to the majestic heights of meeting physical force with soul force." This is Kevlaar calling for the ascension of truly disciplined disciples, those who can match the violent oppressive forces with a force of will, leading perfectly into this next line:

Marvelous new militants, requisites we subscribe to
It’s a new day, we can’t walk alone, survival
MLK praises the "marvelous new militancy" that had arisen among the black community in the 60s and Kevlaar flawlessly connects it all together. The "disciplined disciples" Kevlaar calls for shall "subscribe" to the requisites of, as we just said, matching up against physical force with a disciplined "soul force" but also now King clarifies that there mustn't be an overall distrust of, or disconnect from all white people. "For many of our white brothers...have come to realize that their destiny is tied up with our destiny...that their freedom is inextricably bound to our freedom."

Next, there is a parallel to King's line "We cannot walk alone" a very important aspect of the speech and something that is absolutely necessary for the survival and triumph of the cause: UNITY.

Never one to conform, what’ll it take to satisfy you?
A victim of the rivals they’ve held rifles to our eyes full
of tears, until justice rolls downhill as water
At this point in the song, the passion and emotion is starting to reach it's highest level as we will see soon while, in the speech, Dr. King brings up the problem of police brutality. This problem is still rampant in our country and is one of the main themes of the album Who Got the Camera? 

Kevlaar asks the same question MLK rhetorically asks when he recalls the question often posed to civil rights devotees: "When will you be satisfied?" King responds that they will never be satisfied "as long as the Negro is the victim of the unspeakable horrors of police brutality." Considering that, almost 50 years later, police brutality is still such an enormous problem, Kevlaar is drawn to paint an image of the "unspeakable horrors" before echoing the line from the Book of Amos (5:24) used in King's address: "justice rolls down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty steam" which of course amplifies the lyrical image of streaming tears.

Our mothers and fathers marched for years
My Father, unmindful, fresh from narrow jail cells

It's almost exactly 50 years since King's speech. Our mothers and fathers have marched over that time on a "quest for freedom" as King says and yet, as we stand, conditions are still so deplorable.

Kevlaar calls to mind the struggles of his own father, a black man living through the 60s, "unmindful" (a word used by MLK in the corresponding paragraph) and having come into this quest for freedom "fresh from narrow jail cells," a direct quote from the speech.


These are possibly the strongest words on the whole track, the anthem of the song, the unifying chant. As I've said, this song is like a series of mountain peaks along a range. I identify about 4 or 5 peaks which, in a song with no chorus, serve almost as refrains. At the very least they are distinctive messages, aphorisms that could easily be taken out of the song and etched into a statue.

This one is most striking especially considering the current swarm of revolutions around the globe, all of which sprung up around the exact same time this song was released. This kind of ESP exemplifies Ezra Pound's famous quote about the social importance of the artist: "The artist is the antenna of the race, the barometer and voltmeter."

The above line is a timeless energy being expressed. A perfect example of Kevlaar creatively using a phrase from King's speech ("storms of persecution") and transforming it into perfect poetry.

Veterans of creative suffering
The Mainstream is bubbling, 
showing zero substance, I’ve had enough and 
passion’s doubling
The first line here is taken from King's speech and then applied specifically to the decrepit state of hip hop (and, really, the "mainstream" of everything nowadays because the main stream has undoubtedly been polluted in almost every sector of society and culture).

The main STREAM is bubbling; it's polluted, disgusting. The rap music that is prevalent and thrust upon people has "zero substance." For the true hip hop ARTISTS (and if you've made it this far along, you've surely been convinced of pure hip hop's artistic potential) it's unbearable to watch as the true passion for the music is "doubling" or keeling over and dying. "Passion's doubling" also means that he's had enough of this shit and the anger and passion is growing to unbearable levels.

Stumbling in the valley of anguish
Hungry for dreams, in fact WE FAMISHED
Deep rooted, examining antics
Just as MLK's speech is about to reach its most prominent point, we have here a strong stanza led off by an awe-inspiring visual. Where King beseeches us to "not wallow in the valley of despair," half a century later, Kevlaar bears the pain of an entire community, stumbling "famished" through "the valley of anguish." This hunger for dreams, for "the American dream," is deep-rooted---Dr. King states that what he envisions is "deeply rooted in the American dream."

All this time, through this famished "quest for freedom" they've been examining the "antics" or heinous actions of the same oppressors.

I have a dream today
Re-plant this in our handbooks
This is the modern dream. Dr. King in his speech describes numerous examples of his own dream but this one piece of verse embodies it all perfectly.

"The Devil" is a name we are all familiar with and, upon consideration, the modern atmosphere in which we live has certainly proved his proverbial presence. Malcolm X defended his frequent use of the title "white devil" saying that it does not mean all white people are devils; the term refers not to ALL white people as a whole but those in modern history who've scoured the globe with devilish, destructive, separatist behavior (i.e. divide & conquer). I don't think there is any doubt that this behavior persists today. Dr. King's dream was one of unity among all races and cultures, rising our nation up to the creed ("all men are created equal") it set for itself at the beginning. Kevlaar's is the same, spoken differently---a dream that everything the Devil stands for "vanished." Beautiful, ain't it?

The last two lines remind me of the Buddha's message that enlightenment itself cannot be taught, only the PATH to enlightenment and that's an important factor. So we have to "re-plant" the dream of universal brotherhood and unity into books for the future generations, so that they can continue this movement towards creating a new world. This theme of passing wisdom down to posterity connects with the final lines of the song.

(Also, the use of the word "handbook" here reminds me of the Latin term vade mecum often used to describe an important manual. "Vade mecum" translates to "go with me" or "follow me" and this is exactly what's being presented in the song. A manual of "answers" for the future generations.)

I have a dream today the exalted show they faces
Traces of they voice revealing the truth
And when these dreams are born
How long will they mourn? we traveled through the storm
The gavel will come down and we’ll be judged for the crown
Another generation gone, satisfaction at the gates
It’s war, you’ve been warned, I just supplied the arms…
A climactic ending and one which serves to distinguish the song from MLK's speech. The image presented here is one of battling courageously through the "storms of persecution" so that, eventually, maybe even a few generations down the road, "these dreams are born."

We have an epic, grandiose ending as we come upon the gates of a final judgment and the whole "quest for freedom" seems to be a recurring cycle that each generation must battle through; the passing generations bestowing the warnings, wisdom and weapons upon the next batch of freedom fighters for the battle that will inevitably ensue.

1 comment:

  1. Very apropos piece, given the day.

    One thing that is pretty tangential that I'd say about human nature is that the way the country and the world opened after 9/11 is the kind of event that seems to be ephemeral by its nature. I remember that after the big earthquake in Santa Cruz in 1989 that everything stopped and then started again in a way that seemed positive and new. It didn't last. Once the prospect of normality arose again, everyone reached for it. I think it's understandable, because dealing with the new and unknown is very difficult and can only be done in spurts--I won't say 'gradually'. But I feel privileged to have been given a glimpse of another way of being in those post earthquake days. Don't know what to make of it exactly, but I'm glad to have witnessed them.