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 Wordsmith Wednesday this week comes from Mos Def’s verse on the song “Respiration” off the album “Mos Def & Talib Kweli Are Black Star” released on Rawkus Records in 1998.
The excerpt reads:
“I’m wrestling with words and ideas/
my ears is pricked/
seeking what will transmit/
the scribes can apply to transcript/
this ain’t no time where the usual is suitable/
let’s describe the inscrutable”
To me, that seems to be the creative experience of every great writer in a nutshell. Struggle with language. Keep your awareness attuned. Work outside convention. Try to make sense of the chaos.
Yasiin Bey, born Dante Smith and formerly known as Mos Def, said of writing:
“What I take from writers I like is their economy – the ability to use language to very effective ends. The ability to have somebody read something and see it, or for somebody to paint an entire landscape of visual imagery with just sheets of words – that’s magical.”
Don’t be afraid to chop your story down to its essential parts. Maybe when you’re done, somebody will feel something because of those little black symbols you’ve strung together.
When you’ve gotten your work down to its bare and beautiful bones, send it over to us at firstname.lastname@example.org.