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Center for Action and Contemplation

Rap: Resistance and Reassurance

Friday, May 25, 2018

Art: Week 2

Rap: Resistance and Reassurance
Friday, May 25, 2018

We’re far more comfortable recognizing the sacred in poetry and psalms than we are seeing it in our own popular culture . . . at least I know I am. Barbara Holmes explores breath and rhythm in rap, an art form of resistance and survival that can lead to contemplation just as effectively as poetry and chanting psalms. I hope you’ll stretch your comfort zone and listen to some rap, perhaps from Kendrick Lamar who recently won the Pulitzer Prize for music. [1] If you’re not familiar with rap, it may be challenging and take practice to understand and appreciate. Give it time, like you would any contemplative practice! [2]

Like all musical genres, rap continues to evolve, but even as it finds more mainstream expressions, it remains a challenging artistic venue. What is most notable is that its emergence surprised its musical and political predecessors. After years of politically correct discourse and the studied attempt to assimilate or integrate, the next generation arrived with a chip on its collective shoulder and with a story to tell. . . .

Kendrick Lamar offers To Pimp a Butterfly, a political reply to police violence and the inherent power within the community to resist, redefine, and defeat racism, against all odds. Lamar seems to be saying that the power of survival is in our tongues. What Lamar offers is more powerful than the songs of overcoming or reward in heaven. He says, “we gonna be alright.” The refrain is repeated in a hard rhythm that sways the reality until the anthem becomes “aaaaaaaaaawwww . . . ite.” This is a promise of “alrightness” enunciated in the language of the ancestors and abiding spirits.

[Sam Behrens writes:]

What makes a protest song [and, I would add, a contemplative song]? Is it the lyrics? Is it the melody? Is it the rhythm? Is it in the artist’s intent? The public’s reception? Perhaps it is something yeastier, harder to pin down—as impossible to triangulate as a single electron in the dense cloud that buzzes around an atom’s nucleus. . . . “To Pimp a Butterfly” is protest [and contemplative] music because it is alive to its moment. . . . [3]

Lamar’s musical reassurance, rhythms and lyrics are grounded in twenty-first-century culture and in the hymnal legacy of the black church, Blessed Assurance Jesus is Mine, I Surrender All. The message is clear: do your part, work while it is yet day, knowing that we may not see the victory over oppression, but victory will come, and in the meantime, we gonna be alright.

The ancestors must be laughing: How could we have forgotten so easily that prophets like Lamar and Tupac arise in every generation? . . . With the rise of police and vigilante killings of black men and women came the art and performance of resistance from the millennial generation. The rappers . . . [tell] the stories that need to be told, remind the community of its history and potential, while chanting desperation and hope.

[1] See

[2] Note that many black rappers reclaim the derogatory N-word, using it to express affection and friendship for their own community (the word is not appropriate for individuals who are not black to use). As you listen to rap, observe your own reactions—in your body and mind—and sit with the discomfort or questions that arise.

[3] Sam Behrens, “Kendrick Lamar Reminds Us That Hip Hop Is an Important Political Player,” July 1, 2015,

Barbara A. Holmes, Joy Unspeakable: Contemplative Practices of the Black Church, second edition (Fortress Press: 2017), 194-195.

Image credit: Portrait of Dizzy Gillespie, John Lewis, Cecil Payne, Miles Davis, and Ray Brown (detail), by William P. Gottlieb, 1946-1948, Downbeat, New York City, New York.
Inspiration for this week’s banner image: When Miles Davis blows the cacophony that can barely be contained by the word song, we come closest to the unimaginable, the potential of the future, and the source of our being. —Barbara Holmes
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