Lauryn Hill’s “Black Rage” is a profoundly haunting song that resonates with our current “Ferguson/Marissa/Rice/Garner/____” moment of unrest. It functions as an artistic interpretation of a real anger that many would rather dismiss than look squarely at. To face the roots of this rage is to uproot cherished notions of law and order in which many find comfort and safety.
Originally a 2012 single, Ms. Lauryn Hill released a “living room sketch” version of Black Rage in August 2014, after the killing of Michael Brown, and dedicated it to Ferguson. Set to a darker rendition of the much fluffier classic tune of “My Favorite Things” from The Sound of Music, the song explores the suffering and injustice that constitutes the foundation of black rage. This leads to jarring juxtapositions. For example:
“My Favorite Things”
Raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens
Bright copper kettles and warm woolen mittens
Brown paper packages tied up with strings
These are a few of my favorite things…
Black Rage is founded on two-thirds a person
Rapings and beatings and suffering that worsens
Black human packages tied up in strings
Black Rage can come from all these kinds of things…
In the 1965 film of Sound of Music, Mary sings “My Favorite Things” around children, within a setting of playful innocence. Lauryn Hill’s living room sketch is also sung around children (whose voices can be heard in the background), except in this case the setting contains a loss of innocence through a recounting of violence and exploitation.
Significantly, “Black Rage” is not the first song to twist and darken the melody of “My Favorite Things.” John Coltrane, the legendary Jazz saxophonist, played a unique rendition of “My Favorite Things” back in the 1960s. As theologian Brian Bantum has written, “Coltrane’s ‘My Favorite Things’ takes place not upon the placid hills of a neutral borderland, but within the torment of a violent America, and his own tortured soul.” In light of this, Lauryn Hill creatively extends Coltrane, providing a tragic rendition that still rings true today in Ferguson, in New York, and our entire country.
“Black rage is made by ungodly control,” sings Lauryn Hill in the full version of “Black Rage”. There is a theological thread running through this song. Police brutality is merely a symptom to a much deeper problem that is lodged within the construction of our social life itself. At another point, she sings: “who fed us self-hatred, lies and abuse, while we waited and waited? Spiritual treason, this grid and its cages.” The control and regulation of black life under the guise of law, order, and commerce is unmasked as idolatry. People who are not God have acted as if they were the gods of black bodies.
If “Black Rage” unsettles the tranquility of “My Favorite Things,” it is not unlike the protesters who recently attempted to disrupt the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree lighting ceremony in New York City after the non-indictment of the officer who killed Eric Garner. Who wants to have a gloomy Christmas? Isn’t this meant to be a peaceful time for family fun? Nevertheless, the protests disturb the “tranquility” which is not true peace but a turning away, a refusal to hear the blood crying out, a dismissal of anger as simple “complaining, complaining.” The twisting, dark tune of unrest reveals the heartlessness behind those who are more concerned about the interruption of a ceremony than the blatant injustice that had just occurred.
Perhaps our picture of Christmas and the Advent season is too easily sanitized. Behind the warm, idyllic Nativity scene and Christmas carols is a harrowing story of a young mother trying to protect her child from state violence. According to the biblical story told in Matthew chapter 2, Mary and Joseph are forced to escape with baby Jesus to Egypt because King Herod hopes to kill the child (echoing back to baby Moses’ escape from Pharaoh in Exodus 1-2). After realizing his plans have failed, Herod decides to murder all of the children under two years old in Bethlehem, a slaughter that is known as the Massacre of the Innocents (Matthew 2:16-18). The Gospel writer then recounts a fulfilled prophecy about Rachel’s inconsolable weeping:
“A voice was heard in Ramah,
wailing and loud lamentation,
Rachel weeping for her children;
she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.” (NIV)
In the slaughter of the innocents, we are confronted by Rachel’s rage. In a sense, Lauryn Hill can been seen as creating a contemporary psalm of lament that confronts us with the black rage arising from the slaughter of America’s innocents. Will we listen to the psalm of black rage?