Two Songs Released During The Great Crash Of 2008 (or the “height of Obamamania”): Nas (“America”) and Immortal Technique (“The Third World”)
When looking at the lyric sheet to Nas’s “America” (released in 2008), I notice a masterful, and subtle, use of linguistic devices that help make his message clearer. I could write about his brilliant use of rhyme schemes, but the way he structures his use of personal pronouns is even more intriguing. Looking at how he uses them can answer such questions like: who is talking, and whom is he talking to? They can also help clarify the message of the song that isn’t saying what he might seem to be saying at first.
In the first verse, he speaks in the first person singular “I” and only uses the word “you” twice (one time it’s a “ya”). “I” could refer to the singer, “Nas” himself—but in songs and poems, “I” is often a character, and in “America,” Nas calls this egotistical (if not necessarily arrogant) “I” a persona. The word “persona” is not quite the same as the word “person.” It originally meant a mask used in theatre: one’s public image, not an authentic identity. So Nas’s use of the word complicates any simple reading of this verse, but when he spits, “You lucky if you allowed to witness this/ Savvy mouth,” who is the “You?” It seems like it could be anyone in this verse—but listen on.
In the choruses, he doesn’t use the personal pronoun “I” at all, but he does use “you” a lot, as if he’s talking to “America” (with the help of a soulful female vocalist whose yearning voice adds a sonic and emotional depth to this rap). But what does he mean by America; does he mean all of America or just its government? The next two verses make this clearer.
In the second verse, the first person singular “I”---the persona that was the subject of the first verse—almost disappears. The only time “I” appears is when he says:
The hypocrisy is all I can see.
White cop acquitted for murder.
Black cop cop a plea.
That type of shit makes me stop and think We…”
This “I” is not an actor, but a witness, an observer, and a thinker. If the first verse’s persona was an actor, it also made him wonder “How can I not be dead?” But he seems to come more alive as a witness when he doesn’t use the word “I” so much. He does, however, use the word “you” more, and the word “us:”
Who gave you the latest dances, trends, and fashion?
But when it comes to residuals, they look past us”
This couplet makes it clear who the “you” is; it is the same as “they.” It is white America, specifically the white-run corporate economy that controls America. As Nas’s second verse winds to its close, he moves from the gangsta economy of the American religion and its Hollywood capitalist (anti-communist) glamour to take a second look at “the whole race dichotomy,” not as a first person singular “I” but as a first person plural “us.” And we can speak to them in the second person plural too (you, or as Nas puts it in “America:” y’all). You are, they are, the torturer.
In the third verse, Nas speaks of the torture historically (not just in terms of the black/white “racial dichotomy” but in solidarity with displaced indigenous peoples):
If I could travel to the 1700s
I’d push a wheelbarrow full of dynamite
Through your covenant”
In this verse, he uses the word “I” much more than he did in the second verse, but it’s a blatantly hypothetical “I”—for, just like Ameer Rahman (in the funny, mordant, and pithy social commentary on “Reverse Racism” (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dw_mRaIHb-M), in reality he is powerless to break this racist covenant (much less to be a ‘reverse racist’). Covenant is a brilliant choice of word because it’s both political and religious (reinforcing his assertion that the torturer’s God is a Monopoly Capitalist gangsta). But in this third verse, the “covenant” and its legacy is portrayed much more graphically; and it’s not just in the past!
When he reminds us that America was built on “involuntary labor,” Nas brilliantly puns on the double meaning of “labor” to show how America:
Took a knife split a woman naval
Took her premature baby
Let her man see you rape her”
The rape of women is the same as the rape of black and indigenous peoples, and it’s all done for cheap, involuntary, labor. But if Nas can’t go back to the 1700s, this hypothetical self could theoretically at least:
Sit in on the senate
And tell the whole government
Y’all don’t treat women fair
She read about herself in the Bible
Believing she the reason sin is here”
The sexist ideology of the white-male run Christian church (as opposed to the Black Church) has been used to justify this “involuntary labor” along with the other forms of racist economic exploitation. By the end of the song, Nas asks what the so-called “free world” means given all this brutality. He concludes that this so-called first world nation is much more like “third world savagery”—and that the only hope is for “the empire to fall;” a far cry from the “hope” Obama promised during this time (which may help account for why this album wasn’t as popular as Nas’s previous ones).
Nas doesn’t say how this can happen, but at least he knows that he has to do much more than “Bugging how I made it out the hood,” which is what his “persona” (or ‘avatar’) was doing in the first verse. After listening to the whole song, the first verse can be seen in a different light (if you were deceived by it the first time).
The “persona” of the first verse is a kind of white American dream fantasy in blackface. In fact, as others (like Amiri Baraka) have argued---the reason why white-run record industries have pushed this image of the every-man-for-himself heroic individual “man’s man” rapper who has risen from rags-to-riches (and riches as “salvation”) is precisely to prevent people (especially black people, but all oppressed people) from (re)organizing as a first person plural “we” that could have the power to overthrow an empire.
If the white God of America—the god of snitches and suckers—is really a gangster, then the persona that spoke the first verse isn’t really Nas at all; it’s the voice of the corporation and not the hood—a “dead” self (just as the free-speaking “corporate person” is, especially after Citizens United). In this sense, “America” uses the idiom of gangsta rap (“the language of money”) against itself, against the enemies who have “created our spokesman” (as Baraka put it) so that “people pray to the gods of their conquerors” (as Immortal Technique puts it).
Ultimately, Nas isn’t hating on himself in this song, but on the persona, a persona that was created not by him, but by America, “the land of the thieves.” So, those rappers who glorify the lifestyle are not only deceiving, but are deceived if they really believe this is who they are and what they want and need. This image of the rapper is how the white man wants blacks to see themselves, as the white American (or German) who calls him a gangsta is the real gangsta. “Gangsta Rap” becomes a form a “involuntary labor,” and one may try to use it to “pass”---but when it comes down to the real nitty gritty, one (as “I” or as “we”) will still be subject to a racism however much by the rules one tries to play.
What Du Bois referred to as “the gifts of black folk” are by now so thoroughly “woven into the fabric” (even the soul) of America, but still “they can’t stand us/
Even in white tees, blue jeans, and red bandannas.”
Immortal Technique’s “Third World,” (also released in 2008), explores many of the same themes as Nas’s song, but from a different perspective and emphasis, and with a harsher, more urgent, radical revolutionary tone (“Radical” means rooted; closer to the land; the suffering land). While gangstas in the hoods of what Nas calls “the land of the thieves” may be forced to sell crack, where Immortal Technique is from, they have to grow it (the raw materials for it). Brutality and involuntary slave labor are even more graphically portrayed in “The Third World” than they are in “America.” And the chorus is more angry and defiant than Nas’s.
In the second verse, Immortal Technique also focuses on the sexism and racism of the church, yet he doesn’t emphasize the sexism as much as Nas does:
I’m from where the Catholic Church is some racist shit
They helped Europe and America rape this bitch
The portray white Spaniard Jesus, whose face is this
But never talk about the black pope Gelasuis.”
Like Nas, he also speaks of the podrido (rotten) justice system, and points out (in an intense, righteous, onslaught/overflow of rhymes) how the Caucasians have made:
Blacks, indigenous peoples, and Asians
To be racists against themselves
In the place they were raised in
And you kept us caged in
Destroyed our culture and said you civilized us
Raped our women and when we were born you despised us
Gentrified us, agent provocateurs divide us
And crucified every revolutionary messiah.”
In “America,” Nas would agree with all of this, as he speaks of all these things and comes to the conclusion that America is more like “The Third World” than “you think it is” (or at least than “you” say you think it is), but while Nas just mentions the “assassinations” in a single word, Immortal Technique spells it out more, practically rubbing our noses in the horror some may be trying to ‘forget’ since we can’t really escape it. Compared to Immortal Technique, Nas may use more subtle craft (including such figurative language as “Lipstick from Marilyn Monroe/ blew a death kiss to Fidel Castro.”), and adopt the tone of the “G” persona more (in order to dramatize the temptation to be “racist against” himself). After all, Nas does come from “America” and did seem himself to believe, once upon a time, in its god of glamour which isn’t accessible where Immortal Technique is from.
But the two songs ultimately complement each other (Nas with his female co-singer; and I.T. with his Peruvian flute accompaniment); and both end in the same place: with a burning need to overthrow the empire. After speaking to the oppressor directly (“fuck your charity medicine”—which can be immunizations as well as bad ‘public assistance’—or the ‘food drop parachute’ that doesn’t come everyday), Immortal Technique goes a little further into a specific proposal for how we can begin the overthrow in our own backyard (even if we don’t ‘have’ one). At the very least, let’s try to “nationalize the (rap) industry and take it over!” It would be a start. I wonder if Immortal Technique, Nas and others are joining forces and working on that as we speak. If they are, I imagine Immortal Technique would be at least slightly closer to the front-line, but Nas would follow close behind.