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Psalms of my People: Vol 1
I have been working really hard on this project, Psalms of my People: Vol 1. For three years now I been writing, re-writing, and finally putting in one volume my poetry, rants, experiences, and hopefully dope moments sublime for you all. I wanted to give you a taste of the introduction chapter where I lay out my case for treating hip hop like emergent sacred scripture, worthy of the same study, hermeneutical care. My claim is simple: Hip Hop contains, like other sacred scripture, saving force and power.
I hope you enjoy this excerpt which is a more didactic section.
Poetry I will be reading live throughout the year to come!
This is] a time ... when something awful is happening to a civilization, when it ceases to produce poets, and, what is even more crucial, when it ceases in any way whatever to believe in the report that only the poets can make”
With these words, Black Queer maestro James Baldwin proposed in his famous talk “The Struggle for the Artist’s Integrity” the idea that only poets are the people in any society, in fact in the history of the world, who know the truth about us. Who can tell you what it was like to be alive hundreds or thousands of years ago. He starts like this:
I am not really interested in talking to you as an artist. It seems to me that the artist’s struggle for his integrity must be considered as a kind of metaphor for the struggle, which is universal and daily, of all human beings on the face of this globe to get to become human beings. It is not your fault, it is not my fault, that I write. And I never would come before you in the position of a complainant for doing something that I must do. What we might get at this evening, if we are lucky, is what the importance of this effort is. However arrogant this may sound, I want to sug- gest two propositions. The first one is that the poets (by which I mean all artists) are finally the only people who know the truth about us. Soldiers don’t. Statesmen don’t. Priests don’t. Union leaders don’t. Only poets. That’s my first proposition. We know about the Oedipus complex not because of Freud but because of a poet who lived in Greece thousands of years ago. And what he said then about what it was like to be alive is still true, in spite of the fact that now we can get to Greece in something like five hours and then it would have taken I don’t know how long a time.
What is truth?
These are the words that soothed Pontius Pilate in his murder of Jesus of Nazareth. A murder that gathered priests, statesmen, and skilled workers together to kill a possible God because it might affect the State.
I don’t write this to you as an organizer, although I have done that work. I don’t write this to you as a priest, although as of this writing I am still an ordained minister in a historically white and mainline Christian denomination. I have done public work resisting the State and its men, but I don’t write this with any sort of politico in mind, other than the one developed by this country. This “civilization.”
Do things feel civil to you?
I write this a little over two years after the death of George Floyd. White america has decided two years of “solidarity” is enough. They have moved on. White abolitionist partners found reason to leave their trauma-bonded partnership.
Corporations and churches (one and the same if you ask me) have changed their messaging.
All them VPs of diversity and decolonization quit or were gaslit out of their positions.
The true history of enslaved Black peoples and our descendants here in america has been disputed, policed, destroyed, and written by our oppressors. Psalms of My People is a poetic libera- tion narrative history of Black america as told by our prophets: hip-hop artists.
Psalms of My People is my attempt to create a Black sacred cultural artifact, a “thing” that cats pass from pod to pod, from intake to west block, from hallway to hallway, to get it in the hands of someone who heard about it from their friend. An item full of so much Ase while speaking to the current moment of Black Liberation, by reframing hip-hop as deep cries from the Black collective consciousness and as a map to the entire movement. Hip-hop, and some of its history, will be the lens through which we take this journey. Hip-hop has its own power analysis—just like the Pentateuch, the New Testament, and everything that the inter-testaments, from Psalms 82:6 to Revelations 1:14, have to say—that any theologian worth their salt has to take seriously in light of James Cone’s work and the events of the last few years.
I’m not supposed to be doing this. I’m not supposed to have anything left in the tank, any more tears, shouts, words, lyrics, or love for my people. You see that’s what I think the adversary has been up to over the last ten years. The adver- sary, of course, is called “white supremacy,” but we know it by older names. Babylon. Leviathan. Rome. Empire. Civilization, if you asked John Africa4 in my neighborhood as a kid.
We have watched it rise and fall so many times we can’t imagine a world without having to coil our way through it.
In the last ten years, it has been fully unmasked at the expense of Black america’s psyche, this never-ending project of redeeming our “lost white brothers.”
In this age, we rightly and truly name it: microaggressions, generational redlining, ahistorical “his- tory” books, the entire system of policing, internalized oppression, Christo-fascism, patriarchy, disproportionate uses of force, entire small-town budgets built on harassing and arresting our communities, food apartheid, educational apartheid, a prison-industrial complex working in tandem with a political elite that abandoned us. It is ontology,6 embedded in our language with “black”-hearted intent; it is disaster capitalism, colonization exter- mination, chattel slavery, an economic system built on human beings as capital.
But doesn’t white supremacy seem like more than that? Doesn’t the last ten years feel like more than that?
I name it a supernatural and sentient evil that I believe most of the time white people them- selves aren’t even aware of. That white supremacy manifests itself in the very way they conceive to construct their communities, worlds, and very reality—a “subtle” form of matter like quicksilver of alchemists of old.
Mercury must have fascinated the alchemist: the way that it moves about in water strangely, clumps together, and changes shape, and if you put your finger on it, it will kill you. It’s an almost mesmerizing color and glints off the light. The last ten years in America have been like mercury for Black people.
We may have a linguistic and conceptual “container” for the concept of systemic white supremacy, but it doesn’t change how dangerous it is to actually come into contact with.
We have seen for ten years, since the lynching and murder of Trayvon Martin,7 how america has felt about the children of those who abandoned fields and rakes for rifles and chaos. The Black and brown cargo almost reconstructed into a true melting pot citizen, or rather turned into sub-citizen, offered almost human status if polite, turned human and fully recognized citizen of this republic, with a few polling tests needed just to be sure.
When we are faced with this sea of barbar- ity sold as virtue, is it the bullet that cuts through an elder at Bible study in South Carolina that is the most damaging? Or the cumulative effect and avalanche of little moments of hate?
Does it matter what leads to such a narrow road for poor whites to walk in this country that the only turns are success and become a class traitor or to become an armed enforcer of that same caste system that is the only thing that gives them a sense of dignity?
It doesn’t matter to me.
We are far too invested in the project of saving white manhood in america, a failed project, like any good project is. The fact that adherents of so-called manhood, or white manhood in particular, often point to a period of our history—hundreds of years ago, when they had unfettered access to slavery, expansion through genocide and settler culture, and those locked outside the then dying European feudal system and its emerging economy based on colonization—and treat it like the “city on the hill” says everything. Looking to the so-called found- ing fathers might be part of the problem. When you examine with lucidity the period of history they lionize, you see their perverse desires for not just us but the world. I do fervently believe if we of these fated generations, in this time, in this place we call “america,” fail to stop fascism here, it will spread the world over.
End excerpt but not chapter.
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PSALMS OF MY PEOPLE
A Story of Black Liberation as Told through Hip-Hop
Copyright © 2024 Lenny Duncan. Printed by Broadleaf Books, an imprint of 1517 Media. All rights reserved. Except for brief quotations in critical articles or reviews, no part of this book may be reproduced in any manner without prior written permission from the publisher. Email copyright@1517 .media or write to Permissions, Broadleaf Books, PO Box 1209, Minneapolis, MN 55440-1209.”