“I believe there’s a God above me; I’m just the god of everything else.” The blasphemous bravado of rapper Pusha T’s opening line in “New God Flow” serves a purpose. It quickly expunges any notion of religious correctness and preps the listener for the rage and self-glorification that is about to follow. From the bellowing belly of the church choir to the call-and-response hook to the pulsating stomps on which he exits his final verse, Kanye West reigns as a king, sitting on the throne of his own ego.
I thought about Mr. West and his latest religious anthem as I read the findings of a new study from the University of Missouri on the capacity that black men in urban communities have to remain resilient despite hardships. Every socioeconomic and health statistic suggests that the load that black men carry is heavier than most, yet their heads remain above water.
The song is punctuated with those indelible images of triumph that many black men grip in order to persevere. West and Pusha T refer to enemies and annihilation, but it’s the beat and forcefulness in their voices that conjure up snapshots of victorious combat. Without them having to say it, you know that they’ve been fighting for a long time. Fighting nay-sayers, their own tempers, competitors, the seduction of success, the fear of failure, and even those boys in blue who have a license to kill.
The listener should know that this is about more than the glorification of street warfare when West speaks of traumatic life experiences that “can mess up [a man’s] whole life,” like the unwanted, sexual touch of a male relative.
West wants to ensure that you can’t reduce “New God Flow” to another machismo-infused Hip-Hop song. Yes, he’s trying to follow in the spirit of rap greats like Biggie Smalls, but he also conjures up other ancestors -- Dr. King, a freedom fighter, and Rodney King, a victim of American racism. West knows from whence he comes, as his various lines in the song reflect a sense of social consciousness that his fame and fortune often overshadow.
West’s references to the urban violence that plagues his hometown of Chicago suggest that his pain cuts deeper than his own suffering. He has yet to detach from the plight of his people, which may be why he believes that “dope boys” (drug dealers) maintain respect for him. It’s the open season on black men that consumes him. The “Murder to [Black] Excellence” is what has him asking “where did God go.”
West’s musical evolution has led many to think that his relationship with God isn’t the same as it was when he released his controversial faith manifesto, “Jesus Walks.” He was seemingly repentant and God-fearing then. He seems unapologetic and self-absorbed now. Yes, he put God in the title of his newest song, but where else is he putting God before himself? Does he know who truly reigns supreme? Should it be enough that he still believes?
This is a man whose entry into the rap world was what the Christian community calls a “testimony of faith.” Surviving a car accident that nearly took his life a decade ago, his career was catapulted by the release of “Through the Wire,” which told the story of that nearly fatal experience. West had a second chance at life, and he was determined to make the most of it.
But his new life brought about losses that would haunt him daily. West repeatedly said goodbye to loved ones, losing the women who helped shape him into the man that the world cared to know - most notably his mother.
Yet, he constantly seeks and believes in love. Although he has been mocked for being coupled with relationship addict Kim Kardashian, he could easily be praised for his insistence on maintaining public intimacy. He refuses to hide his need for love and validation, which has made vulnerability an indispensable characteristic of his brand. We may publicly critique his immaturity, but we secretly admire his raw humanity. He is boldly fragile, making him stand out among an army of rappers too afraid to admit their own weaknesses.
As broken and wounded as West has shown himself to be through the years, he is also a testament to human resilience. He reflects our flawed efforts to make meaning out of suffering, to celebrate personal flaws rather than allow others to turn our failures against us, to love again and again despite our intimacy with loss and to still believe in our darkest hours.
West knows (he must know) that he’s not God. But he also knows, as he should, that God loves him. Interestingly, it may that very belief that’s keeping him from stepping down from his self-made throne. Maybe in time, he’ll learn, along with Pusha T, that there’s God, and then there’s everyone else.