Thursday, May 12, 2011

Common at the White House

“Do not judge, so that you may not be judged. For with the judgment you make you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get. Why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye? Or how can you say to your neighbor, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ while the log is in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbor’s eye.”
Matthew 7:1-5

I don’t like rap music.

Some would say that I don’t understand it, but it doesn’t sound like music to me. I know that’s what older generations said about Rock ‘n Roll, but they were wrong, and that still doesn’t make rap music real music. And I know that there’s “rap” and there’s “hip hop” and I’m not sure whether they are like the Scribes and the Pharisees, two names for the same group, or like the Pharisees and Sadducees, two very different groups that are often confused. And I also know that if any of the kids in our Youth Group read this blog they will be convinced (as if they needed convincing) that I am just old.

All of that is by way of saying that I cannot help having some sympathy with the folks who said that Michelle Obama should not have invited Lonnie Rashid Lynn Jr., the rapper known as “Common,” to the White House for a poetry festival.

Although Common is known to have a positive message, as least by rapper standards, he still has songs that are violent and misogynistic, and that is my real objection to rap music: the killing and the bad attitudes toward women.

At least that is what I say to myself and to others.

On the other hand, one of my favorite singers is the late Johnny Cash. I love Johnny Cash. And I believe that “Man in Black” is one of the most “Christian” songs I have ever heard. When I hear him sing about the poor and forgotten, it sounds like the Gospel to me. But have you ever heard “Folsom Prison Blues”?

When I was just a baby my mama told me. Son,
Always be a good boy, don't ever play with guns.
But I shot a man in Reno just to watch him die

How can you sing about shooting a man "just to watch him die"?

If you listen to the album recorded live at Folsom Prison, you hear a very dark vision of humanity. There is frailty and folly, and human evil. It is an uncensored view of the human heart. One of the songs performed at Folsom Prison is “Cocaine Blues,” which includes these brutal lines:

Early one mornin' while makin' the rounds
I took a shot of cocaine and I shot my woman down
I went right home and I went to bed
I stuck that lovin' 44 beneath my head

He sings about murder, betrayal, and adultery, and yet in that dark vision there is a ray of light, which is revealed in the contrast. Oddly, the feeling one gets is more hope than despair. As you listen to the album, you hear a prison official interrupt every so often to announce the names of men who have “visitations,” and you are reminded that these are real people in a real place. It is brilliant. And when I listen to “Folsom Prison,” I am convinced that Johnny Cash was a genius.

When Johnny Cash was honored at the White House by President Bush in 2002, there was no criticism about the violence of his lyrics. There was nothing but praise for “The Man in Black.”

I wear the black for the poor and the beaten down,
Livin' in the hopeless, hungry side of town,
I wear it for the prisoner who has long paid for his crime,
But is there because he's a victim of the times.

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