It’s been just over a week since Kanye West’s Yeezus has been in our aural consciousness and since it’s been the top (or at least top 3) of the most discussed releases this week. And it’s just been announced as #1 in the UK album charts. I’m not about to offer any words about the material itself. If you’ve been trawling the music-webs in the past week you’ve read more than enough reviews about the album, from twitter to dissertations and you’d care as little as I do about hearing my week-old thoughts on it. I’m not even about to share my opinion on Kanye’s current behaviour – Dipo has done it more eloquently than I could ever hope to. Instead, I want to dissect the record’s title, and look at why I reckon Kanye naming his album Yeezus and featuring songs like “I am a God” is less about Kanye being a massive narcissistic egomaniac (he is) and has more to do with the current climate of hip hop as a culture. In Yeezus’ name, flip the lid and keep reading.
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The announcement that Ye was calling his album Yeezus got a collective eye-roll from most of us who have been following his career from College Dropout days and before. I can only speak for myself on this one, but as time has gone on, my regarding Ye a musical genius and one of this generation of hip hop’s most important cultural figures isn’t enough for me to tire of his egomania (born from low self-esteem in my opinion) and for it to begin to overshadow his talents.
But while Ye is loud and proud in his attempts to deify himself, and being really annoying while he does it, he’s definitely not the only doing it.
Jay Z’s new album will be called Magna Carta Holy Grail, and his other moniker, Hova, nods unabashedly to Jehovah, while Nas called himself God’s Son (as in Jesus), and all of your favourite rappers, from Big Sean to Lil Wayne and back again have slipped in at least one bar or two where they place themselves next to godliness.
However, contrary to the conspiracy theorem (and those currently poking fun at it or playing to it) the stars calling themselves gods isn’t because they’re all part of an esoteric bogeyman sect called the illuminati, or because they’ve ‘sold their souls to the devil’ to become, like, you know, actual gods…with magic powers (if you were wondering, at this point I’m rolling my eyes, sighing and stopping myself from launching into an illuminati-rant. We’ll save that for another time and maybe another place).
No, the rappers are calling themselves gods because they believe that being hip hop stars gives them even higher status of a regular celebrity. They’ve managed to position themselves at the helm of a culture so big that some, such as advertising and music mogul Steve Stoute, it’s a religion.
Hip hop has given voice and autonomy to people that, according to their societies, shouldn’t be allowed it. And while I mean this in a wider societal sense I’m also talking about the many individuals who, according to the circumstance they were born into, weren’t meant to be influencers, multimillionaires or stars. An easy example is hip hop taking a young man from a Brooklyn ghetto to helping shape presidential campaigns and commanding multi-million dollar deals with some of the world’s biggest tech companies. Of course, Jay is a lazy pick from a list of many.
As much as the talon’s of hip hop’s influence can be found in every corner of the globe; from corporate America to the words of young African politicians, to classrooms across Europe and in the tinny headphones of most music-loving kids across the world – hip hop is still a rebel art form. Even the fact that it has such a meteoric hold on youth and contemporary culture is an act of rebellion.
For the guys on the front line (or on the top 40 pop charts around the world), going from humble beginnings to mega stardom makes them more than celebrities, it makes them GODS.
However, the history of likening themselves to God runs even deeper, still. While the pioneers of hip hop’s humble roots, some 40 years ago, never could have predicted crafting the most socially impacting music genre in the world the art had always been about elevating its people above what society said they were, from the rhymers to the listeners.
Hip hop was born in an era where drugs (and the racist/classist ‘war on drugs’) were gripping inner-city communities in the US. Many on the early hip hop scene in New York were influenced by, or themselves following a faith called The Five Percenters (or Nation of Gods and Earths).
Wrongly called the ‘hip hop’ religion, or a religion ‘born from hip hop’, The Five Percenters’ philosophy, in the most basic terms, deified its believers – mostly disenfranchised young ethnic people from the hoods of the east coast of America (many of whom were in gangs or in prison). The belief is that man is God, or Allah, and that Allah was an acronym for arm, leg, leg, arm, head.
While the faith and it’s many questionable teachings didn’t gain much traction in mainstream society, the rhymes of 90s hip hop icons like Busta Rhymes, Wu-Tang, Eric B and Rakim and many more are peppered with the Five Percenter philosophy that men who the rest of America placed on the edge of it’s society were not social lepers, they were actually Gods. So when hip hop took traction as a movement, a lifestyle and a money-maker, it seemed their beliefs were validated.
Ye probably didn’t think that deep when he decided he’s a god named Yeezus who deserves a massage, ménage and a Porsche in the garage, but undoubtedly, the stream of consciousness that led him there was even bigger than his ego.
Personally, I reject the idea of hip hop as a religion. It’s a cultural juggernaut that changed the world and transcends art to touch politics, society and the hearts of many. But a religion? No. Because for it to be a religion, I’d have to worship the mere mortals who self-proclaim themselves gods, Yeezuses and Jay-Hovahs.