We are highlighting the last verse from Mos Def’s song “Wahid” from his 2009 album The Ecstatic for our Wordsmith Wednesday this week.
The words are:
“Schooling the young like Rev. Run
Quote Pac and tell ’em keep their heads up
And when the pressure comes down press back and press up
Fret not ghetto world guess what?
God is on your side, the devil is a lie
The Empire holds all the gold and the guns
But when all is said and done there’s only
La ilaha ill’Allah”
Mos Def is known for his legendary ability to smoothly weave sometimes dissident ideas together through idiosyncratic rhyme schemes, simultaneously painting in broadstroke and penciling in the details in the wet paint. These lines plant the power of knowledge and hope poetically against military and monetary might, reminding the marginalized to always push back against external pressures that threaten to crush them.As a non-believer from a loose Polish/Italian Catholic background, I don’t connect as much with the religious connotations of this verse as much as I value its message of encouragement and emboldenment of young people coming up in world that may discourage or diminish them. However, it bears noting that the Arabic line roughly translates to “there is no other god than God” in English, referring to idea that all temporary/secular struggle and desires dissipate in the face of eternal Truth, a concept shared between major monotheistic religions.
In light of our current social and political landscape, it’s important to remember the elements that should unite us in pursuit of Truth, regardless of religious beliefs (or lack thereof): protection of the weak/marginalized/impoverished, morally and ethically sound thought and action, sustained resistance in the face of corruption and abuse of power. Strength through love and empathy is far more sustainable than through guns and gold. Keep your head up and keep pressing back, everyone.
Our words this week come from Cloud Nothings’ song “Wasted Days” off their 2012 album Attack on Memory.
The lyrics are:
The simplicity and directness of Dylan Baldi’s words (and delivery) always force me to stare them in the face. Repeated with increasing intensity in the song, these words creep in and wrap themselves around your face, pushing in parts of your skull you thought were solid but still have some infantile give to them. I feel these words in the words and eyes of the people around me at work, at shows, in the grocery store. I’ve looked out my kitchen window many times in the past couple of years with these words spinning in my mind, both in my own voice and Baldi’s. Complacency has always scared me. I’m ever unsatisfied, often unable to take pleasure in any present personal crest because I’m standing in the shadow of the next summit. While I’m disappointed or depressed some days, it’s usually not of any tangible failure, but rather a nagging need to do more, to be more. This mindset may burn me out or it may keep me trudging forward in search of new fixes of fulfillment. Either way, I’m sure I have many more hours standing in front of windows with these words winding around in my head.
Our words this week are from John Prine’s “Angel From Montgomery” off his self-titled 1971 album.
The lyrics are:
“There’s flies in the kitchen. I can hear ’em, they’re buzzing
And I ain’t done nothing since I woke up today
How the hell can a person go to work in the morning
And come home in the evening and have nothing to say?”
There’s a lot of simple truth in these lines. It’s the lazy drag of the empty day. It’s the hollowness of empty work. It’s the cold care of stale love. These lines remind me of the scene in David Foster Wallace’s short story “The Soul is Not a Smithy” where the narrator describes the dead dull in his father’s eyes on his return home from work. It’s work to not get weighed down by weary routine and sometimes it takes somebody sticking you with a question you’d never ask yourself to snap you out of it.
This week’s Wordsmith Wednesday comes from Modest Mouse’s “You’re the Good Things” off of Everywhere and His Nasty Parlour Tricks. It goes:
“You’re the icing on the cake on the table at my wake
You’re the extra ton of cash on my sinking life raft
You’re the loud sound of fun when I’m trying to sleep
You’re the flowers in my house when my allergies come out
You’re the good things…”
We’ve had Modest Mouse on here before and I’m sure Nick and I have more than enough of their lyrics that we would love to use for Wordsmith Wednesday, but, in any case, I’ve chosen them again because it’s hard to resist.
What always sticks out for me with these particular lyrics is just how much the words and Isaac Brock’s voice work together to create the feeling that the lines are trying to express. Brock starts out with a positive half of the line, things you enjoy, and sings it softly, almost crooning. Halfway through he picks up speed, transitioning to the second half of the line, singing quickly and sharply, where he places us in a situation where the positive becomes a negative. We get this contrast of things that we love in situations where we wouldn’t want them to be. A cake at a wake and extra cash on a sinking raft, these all sound great at first, as does Brock’s voice, but they rapidly become unappealing further into the line. It’s this type of contrast that we see often in Modest Mouse lyrics, and the reason I for one appreciate them, but nowhere more than here is it most clear cut and apparent.