So Many Tears: The Lament Psalms of Hip-Hop
So Many Tears: The Lament Psalms of Hip-Hop
By Pastor Brandon Lacey, Sr.
The Book of Lamentations was written by Jeremiah in response to the destitute condition of Jerusalem shortly after its fall to Babylon in 587 BC. Throughout the book, the prophet expresses sorrow, grief, anguish, and anger as he directs inquiry to God regarding the state of what was once a glorious nation and people.
Look, O LORD, and consider! To whom have you done this? Should women eat their offspring, the children they have borne? Should priest and prophet be killed in the sanctuary of the Lord? The young and the old are lying on the ground in the streets; my young women and my young men have fallen by the sword; in the day of your anger you have killed them, slaughtering without mercy” (Lam. 2:20-21, NRSV).
These conditions the prophet describes are heartbreaking when we pay attention to the lyrics/verses: women had resulted to the cannibalism of their own children to avoid starvation, priests were being murdered in the sanctuary, and the dead corpses of both young people and people were just lying in the streets of Jerusalem. In Lamentations 3, he can no longer fight back his tears:
“My eyes flow with rivers of tears because of the destruction of my people. My eyes will flow without ceasing, without respite…until the LORD from heaven looks down and sees. My eyes cause me grief at the fate of all the young women in my city” (Lam. 3:48-51, NRSV).
The cries of Jeremiah are somewhat like the types of cries we often hear in the lyrics of early hip-hop. Hip-hop was birthed from the desperate conditions of inner-city ghettos populated by poor Blacks and Latinos. The tone and content of the lyrics/verses such as what we see in the Book of Lamentations and the lament psalms bear a striking resemblance to the content and tone of hip-hop music. Jeremiah’s description of his community, their women and children, and the demise of their leadership during the 5th century is rehearsed in a manner that is similar to how hip-hop pioneer and GrandMaster Flash and the Furious Five emcee Melle-Mel rehearses the conditions of inner-city New York during the 1970s in the song The Message:
“A child is born, with no state of mind/Blind to the ways of mankind God is smilin' on you, but he's frownin' too/Because only God knows, what you'll go through/You'll grow in the ghetto, livin' second rate/And your eyes will sing a song of deep hate/The place, that you play and where you stay/Looks like one great big alley way”
Did the prophet Jeremiah write Melle-Mel’s lyrics for his verse on The Message, or did Melle-Mel sample some of Jeremiah’s material from the book of Lamentations? Either way, they both seem strikingly similar. Melle-Mel notices the destitute state his community and he cries out as a lyrical prophet whose oracles are set against the backdrop of beats and rhythm. This rhythmic form of lament would become a common trope in hip-hop where Black poets assume the role of lyrical news anchors crying out about what was taking place in their Jerusalem.
This form of musical lament is void of religious jargon, which is why most have failed to notice the God-consciousness of hip-hop artists and material. Regarded as “secular” music, its spiritual imprint has been often overlooked. Historically, most genres of black musical expression were birthed by the black church’s unwillingness to accept its musical expression as a true form of gospel. Hip-hop is certainly one such genre; a genre that does not sound like traditional gospel music that is regarded as religious and spiritual, yet it is a form of music through which some artists cry out to God seeking answers to the questions regarding the world in which they have been forced to live.
Just as in the book of Lamentations and the psalms of lament, this cry is not always clean or palatable. It is often a sorrowful cry; it is an angry cry. Yet, a cry of lament is seldom free of expressions of pain. If you have wondered why it is that you’ve heard very few sermons preached using passages from Lamentations as the scripture reference, it may be because it is indeed a painful book that expresses sorrowful emotions regarding the human condition. The same may be said regarding some of the anger expressed by hip-hop’s street prophets. Let’s juxtapose the lament and theodicy found in Psalms 69:3 and Psalms 120:5-7 with lyrics from Tupac Shakur’s “So Many Tears.”
“I am weary with my crying; my throat is parched. My eyes grow dim with waiting for my God” (Ps. 69:3).
“Woe is me, that I am an alien in Meshech, that I must live among the tents of Kedar. Too long have I had my dwelling among those who hate peace. I am for peace; but when I speak, they are for war” (Ps. 120:5-7).
In Tupac’s “So Many Tears,” we see a very similar style of lament where cries concerning current conditions are made in desperate anticipation of God’s deliverance:
“And Lord knows I tried, been a witness to homicide/Seen drive-by's takin' lives, little kids die/Wonder why as I walk by/Broken-hearted as I glance at the chalk line, gettin' high. This ain't the life for me, I wanna change/But ain't no future bright for me, I'm stuck in the game/I'm trapped inside a maze/See this Tanqueray influenced me to gettin' crazy/Disillusioned lately.
I've been really wantin' babies/So I could see a part of me that wasn't always shady/Don't trust my lady/'cause she's a product of this poison/I'm hearin' noises, think she's f----n all my boys/Can't take no more, I'm fallin' to the floor/Beggin' for the Lord to let me in to Heaven's door/Shed so many tears.”
Interestingly, this same song from Tupac not only follows the pattern and sound of the book of Lamentations and the lament psalms, but it begins with Tupac’s rendition of the 23rd Psalm:
“I shall not fear no man but God/Though I walk through the valley of death I shed so many tears/If I should die before I wake…Please God, walk with me/Grab a nigga and take me to Heaven.”
It is not agreed upon by all theologians whether Psalm 23 is regarded as a lament Psalm, but the content of Psalm 23 seems to resonate with the hip-hop culture as even other artists have included it in their music. The major appeal of Psalm 23, especially to that of the hip-hop culture, was the reference to walking through the valley of the shadow of death, which to many artists is an accurate depiction of what it feels like being black trying to survive the streets.
If the Negro Spirituals were the lament soundtrack of slavery, and the Blues were the lament soundtrack of Reconstruction, then it could arguably be said that hip-hop became the lament soundtrack of the post-civil rights era of environmental crisis for blacks in America. I do not propose that all productions of hip-hop art fit this description as there, of course, have been works that do the opposite. There is indeed an industry aspect of hip-hop, as it was with the Blues, that ultimately controlled much of its content and compromised some of its material. Yet hip-hop in its most essential and purest form, as an extension of the spirituals and the Blues has been, and must continue to be, a voice that expresses the God-consciousness of a people who feel as if that God has abandoned them.
Pastor Brandon Keith Lacey, Sr. serves as senior pastor of the New Life Full Gospel House of Worship here in Shreveport, LA and is affiliated with Full Gospel Baptist Church Fellowship International. Pastor Lacey has a BA in Religious and Leadership Studies from Beulah Heights University, MA in Religious Studies from East Texas Baptist University, and is currently pursuing a DMin from Southern Methodist University.