The Prophets: Malcolm and Martin

America has its own assortment of heroes, those who we are taught to revere. Some of these prophets are Jesus Christ, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy, and Ronald Reagan. These men are a source of pride and admiration for their contributions to the religion of Whiteness–that is inherently American. Thus, it is not surprising that women and people of color are excluded from its construction. This is the structure of America. There have been many prophetic black men and women in America since its inception. Frederick Douglass, W.E.B Du Bois, Angela Davis, Harriet Tubman and Marcus Garvey all come to mind. Larger than any of these people in the eyes of whiteness are Malcolm X and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Malcolm X and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr are the largest prophets of black religion and they are the prophets of the religion of hip-hop.
Before establishing how MLK and Malcolm X are the prophets of the religion of hip-hop, we must establish how hip-hop is religious within this context. Religion is defined using Charles Long’s explanation from Significations, “The religion of any people is more than a structure of thought; it is experience, expression, motivations, intentions, behaviors, styles and rhythms,” (7). The difference between conventional religion and hip-hop as a religion is that hip-hop is more of a social institution than its conventional counterpart. The argument can be made that conventional religion, too, is a social institution. The way to differentiate between the two is that conventional religion is more social in the form of Gods and creeds. Conventional religion is centered around the idea that God is the being that you follow and that God has predetermined plan for you. In contrast, hip-hop is based around the behaviors and expressions that Long spoke of in Significations. The other major aspect that differentiates conventional religion from hip-hop is that within traditional religion theodicies are prevalent whereas in hip-hop that does not exist.. Typical religion participates in what Angela M. Nelson defines theodicy as in “God’s Smiling on You and He’s Frowning Too”: Rap and the Problem of Evil, “theodicy is a defense or justification of God’s justice and righteousness in the face of evil’s existence in the world,” (130). For theodicy to exist within hip-hop, hip-hop would need a physical, human-like God. Theodicy does not, then, exist in hip-hop because hip-hop does not have a God nor does it have a God emcee, though some have that nickname. Simply, theodicies cannot and do not exist within hip-hop.
Next the definition of prophet is necessary to explain how Malcolm X and Martin Luther King are the first prophets of hip-hop. There are multiple different definitions of prophet, many of which insist that there must a divine aspect to being a prophet. Within the context of hip-hop this would not work because hip-hop as a religion does not have a divine being. A definition of prophet that is accurate for Malcolm and Martin within hip-hop is what Merriam-Webster has it defined as, “one gifted with more than ordinary spiritual and moral insight.” That defintion creates two totally different narratives for Malcolm and Martin. America has subverted Martin’s identity to make him seem more passive to fit a narrative of Martin participating in respectibility politics and protecting white people but they have not done so with Malcolm. Within the religion of hip-hop Malcolm and Martin both fit this definition. Furthermore, Malcolm and Martin are the prophets of hip-hop by speaking hip-hop into being, not in that they are hip-hop artists.
As prophet is defined within the context. There is then the necessity to define prophecy. Again using Merriam-Webster, the definition of prophecy is, “the function or vocation of a prophet; specifically: the inspired declaration of divine will and purpose.” This calls in a question what portion of Malcolm and Martin declared “divine will and purpose.” The best places to look for these proclamations are within their speeches. An obvious moment with Dr. King is in his famous, I Have Been to the Mountaintop speech, “Well, I don't know what will happen now. We've got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn't matter with me now, because I've been to the mountaintop. And I don't mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I'm not concerned about that now.” What is so prophetic about what Martin is saying is the visual he gives. Martin presents the light at the end of the tunnel, it is not a dream or fantasy, it is tangible. Martin’s words push this as well, without his words people can not see his prophetic ideas. Martin has seen the pinnacle of what people are striving for. Martin knows the tunnel ends and that the promised land is not far away. Rappers, too, present the idea that though it is hard in the moment everything will get better and that light at the tunnel exists. Kendrick Lamar summarizes Martin’s mountaintop imagery in his song, Alright, “We gon’ be alright/Do you hear me, do you feel? We gon’ be alright.” Kendrick like Martin is recognizing that everything may not be okay within the moment that exists but that black people in America will be alright. Kendrick and Martin both felt this and saw the tunnel ending and black people in America being alright.
Malcolm's image also functions prophetically in a way that was seemingly more forceful than Martin’s. Martin spoke of seeing the mountaintop, he saw the pinnacle. Malcolm spoke of the physical aspect of living as black in America. Malcolm particularly spoke on this in the Ballot or the Bullet, “Whether you're educated or illiterate, whether you live on the boulevard or in the alley, you're going to catch hell just like I am. We're all in the same boat and we all are going to catch the same hell from the same man. He just happens to be a white man” Malcolm’s ability to explicate how whiteness is the problem, using that as a catalyst to push forward his agenda shows that true prophetic nature of Malcolm. This realistic imagery that Malcolm presents is also repeated over and over again within hip-hop. On Joey Bada$$’s 2017 album, All-Amerikkkan Bada$$, Joey speaks of these same forms of exploitation at the hand of the white man. This is pointedly seen in the chorus of LAND OF THE FREE, “In the land of the free, it’s full of freeloaders/Leave us dead in the street to be their organ donors/They disorganized my people, made us all loners/Still got the last name of our slave owners.” Joey points to exact ways in which the white man still has a stronghold over the black community with his reference to black people still bearing the last name of former slave owners. Although Malcolm does not have a concrete example like Joey, both are speaking about the same ideas. Malcolm told us that the white man had this socio-political and socio-economical control over black people. Joey is seeing this and pushing that further with exact examples. Without Malcolm speaking the way he did, rappers like Joey would not be able to do so. In the same way that Jesus has inspired loads of white Christians to preach “kindness,” Malcolm, and Martin, have given rappers a way to convey the situations that black people live in, come from and see.
Another aspect in defining Malcolm and Martin as prophets is creating a distinction between black and white prophets within America. Larger, showing the distinction between black religion and traditional religion. According to Anthony Pinn in his essay Terror and Triumph, “[Black religion] is not defined and limited to the liberal tradition and democratic principles that consume religion as institutions and doctrine as well as the work of sociopolitical and economic organizations and activism,” (177). Pinn’s definition of black religion adds an extra emphasis to Malcolm and Martin’s nature as prophets. The difference between Martin and Malcolm as prophets in comparison to traditional prophets of Western Religion is that Martin and Malcolm are not followed by a doctrine. The inability to relate them to specific religious text is a perk of hip-hop as religion and black religion as a whole. Malcolm and Martin could focus on sociopolitical and economic aspects of their religion because of this. Malcolm can be seen directly focusing on this in many of his speeches. In Malcolm’s speech Message to the Grassroots you can see Malcolm’s direct focus being more sociopolitical aspects of religion, “So we are all black people, so-called Negroes, second-class citizens, ex-slaves. You are nothing but a ex-slave. But what else are you? You are ex-slaves…You were brought here by the so-called Pilgrims, or Founding Fathers. They were the ones who brought you here. We have a common enemy. We have this in common: We have a common oppressor, a common exploiter, and a common discriminator.” Martin created much more of a visual, Malcolm told and explained more. Martin could appeal to traditional religious narratives. Though, both Malcolm and Martin did aspects of both. A contemporary example within hip-hop today are Chicago based rappers Chance the Rapper and Vic Mensa. Chance and Vic are both what Pinn would call “progressive rap” in his essay Introducing African American Religion, “discusses socio-political and economic problems and seeks to provide solutions through information and strategies for transforming how people think and behave,” (227). Vic’s whole last EP, There’s A Lot Going, was socio-political in nature. Vic has a view very obvious examples of this socio-political topic off of the EP the song Shades of Blue spoke on the topic of the Flint, Michigan Water Crisis, “Color of morning pee coming out of the sink/it’s 2016, who would think/kids in America don’t have clean water to drink.” Vic also shows this on the song 16 Shots, a song about the murder of Laquan McDonald by the Chicago Police Department, “The mayor lying saying he didn’t see the video footage/And everybody want to know where the truth at/On the Southside where it’s no trauma centers but the most trauma.” Vic actively questions how American children are not living with clean water and what truth is within the political system. In many ways it is a more subtle questioning of white America. Malcolm overtly calls out white America while Vic’s connotatively calling out white America. Chance, too, is socio-political in nature but there is a parallel to be made between Chance and Martin. Coloring Book era Chance is exceptionally similar to Martin. On the song Blessings you see this portion of Chance, “I don’t make songs for free, I make ‘em for freedom/Don’t believe in kings, believe in the kingdom.” Chance’s imagery of kingdom is much like Martin’s reference to the mountaintop. The mountaintop is the goal of a climber and the kingdom is the goal of a king. More than that many times it sounds like Chance is preaching to folks in a way that is similar to Martin’s speeches in that is has preacher element to it. Vic and Chance’s vision are similar yet marketed differently in many ways that directly parallel Malcolm and Martin. All of their visions are undeniable. Malcolm and Martin’s role as prophet gave direct way for people like Chance and Vic to be pro-black and speak out while doing it in different way than each other.
While Malcolm and Martin clearly had the vision of a prophet there was a major factor out of their control- interpretation. Interpretation is an interesting element of Malcolm and Martin as prophets. Media’s subversion of Martin’s identity to make him seem more passive and less radical has given way for whites in America to put down black and brown people under the name of MLK. This distortion of Martin’s prophetic nature is not unsurprising but interesting when using the parallel with Chance The Rapper. Chance’s relative preaching and widespread fandom distorts Chance’s massive donations to the Chicago school system. Chance also has more overt political statements like his criticism of Illinois governor, Bruce Rauner, after unsuccessful talks in March 2017, “The governor gave me a lot of vague answers in our meeting and since has called me over the weekend. Our talks were unsuccessful. Gov. Rauner still won't commit to giving Chicago kids a chance without caveats or ultimatums.” Like Martin, Chance is easier to love if he does not play into pro-black narrative. Whiteness’ morphing of Martin’s message to fit respectability politics is similar to mainstream media avoiding Chance’s political statements. Martin has become the token black prophet that much of America will appreciate and fetishize. Media’s interpretation of Malcolm pushes a narrative as well. Malcolm is considered to be too radical. Malcolm plays into pro-black narratives that whiteness will not subscribe to. Vic Mensa is too black for America, just as Malcolm was in the ‘60s. Though, his verses and rhymes are better than many he does not get the same media publicity because of his pro-black stance, just in the same way Malcolm is not taught in schools. Martin is spoken about from kindergarten through college just like Chance is on every radio station. Malcolm may get a paragraph in high school just as Vic Mensa’s largest radio hit was because Kanye West was on the song.
Malcolm and Martin’s revolutionary acts of the 1960s by simply speaking out were their most prophetic acts. In the same way Jesus saved us from sin, Malcolm and Martin presented black people with the ability to speak out. Again referencing Martin’s, I’ve Been to the Mountaintop speech Martin understood that his speaking out was revolutionary. Martin was prophetic in knowing what was going to inevitably happen. Martin spoke how longevity was appreciated but that he did not mind to die because he saw where his life was going. Malcolm’s desire to be an individual got him killed as well. Malcolm’s leaving the Nation of Islam is the culprit of his own death. He tries to counteract this in Letter from Cairo, from By Any Means Necessary, “I hope my position is clear: I’m not interested in fighting Elijah Muhammad or any other Afro-American. I don’t even want arguments with them. If our own program produces results then our work will speak for itself. If we don’t produce results then we have no argument anyway,” (141). Malcolm viewed the relation that the Nation of Islam had perceived with him and saw immediately how the Nation of Islam and the Fruit of Islam would, and subsequently did, respond to Malcolm leaving. Malcolm and Martin’s ability to understand what would happen within their own life yet keep going is important to understanding the prophetic nature of them within hip-hop. Malcolm and Martin’s ability to predict and see their own death coming is similar in that Tupac and Biggie could predict their own death.
Malcolm and Martin may have been the original prophets of hip-hop and in some way creating what hip-hop has turned into. The argument can be made that outspoken rap could not exist without Malcolm and Martin because they set the stage to speak out but they did so on the grandest scale. With that being said Malcolm and Martin died and set the stage for a new prophet to come in and continue the work like Joshua after Moses. Chance The Rapper and Vic Mensa are the two rappers that have become the prophets of hip-hop. What differentiates Vic and Chance is how pointedly they follow the work of Malcolm and Martin. Malcolm and Martin capitalized upon others speaking before them and used that to bring massively revolutionary ideas to the forefront of mainstream media, and subsequently mainstream whiteness. Malcolm and Martin capitalized on this in the same way that Rosa Parks was not the first to boycott on a bus. Chance and Vic follow in the same way as they are not the first to rap socio-politically. Groups like Public Enemy did that rapping decades ago with Fear of the Black Planet or NWA with Straight Outta Compton. Vic and Chance have just used the catalyst that was there and have pushed it more. If Kanye West doesn’t utter, “George Bush doesn’t care about black people,” after Katrina on NBCUniversal’s “A Concert for Hurricane Relief,” Vic won’t have a precedent to actively criticize Rahm Emanuel, the mayor of Chicago. Without rappers like Common and Lupe Fiasco, Chance the Rapper does not have a precedent to rap with a religious vibe while still being political as a center of his musical message.
Furthermore, Chance and Vic are not the only two in the rap game being political as shown earlier by Kendrick and Joey’s most recent albums and messages. The difference is that Kendrick’s message is not prophetic in that the imagery is not there in the same way that Chance’s is nor is Kendrick as directly political as Vic. In that same vein Joey is directly political but too does not have the imagery that Chance and Vic have. It is the same way in which Malcolm and Martin are revered for the imagery that they presented while there were others at the same time preaching similar, if not more radical ideas. That imagery is what makes Malcolm and Martin prophetic and activists like Kwame Ture and Louis Farrakhan not. In many ways Kendrick is almost religious in the sense of Farrakhan and Joey is political, maybe even revolutionary, like Ture. The imagery is what differentiates Malcolm, Martin, Vic and Chance as prophets of hip-hop.
With the comparisons in place, we must recognize that Malcolm and Martin, and more contemporarily Vic and Chance, are not perfect and they are not deities. A deity as defined by Merriam-Webster is a “god or goddess.” Malcolm and Martin are not Gods, Vic and Chance are not Gods so they are not perfect beings. The four of them are human. Malcolm and Martin participated in very typical cisnormative, misogyny. Malcolm and Martin used the word man to define all people, never using both male and female. Martin’s decision to distance himself from Bayard Rustin because media was going to present him as gay because he was associated with Rustin is super cisnormative and homophobic. In some ways Martin’s response is similar to many of the sentiments of the time period but problematic nonetheless. In the same way Vic is problematic for his relationship with his ex as he explains on There’s A Lot Going On, “She came out the room swingin', hit me in the jaw/I was really tryna fend her off/But I ended up in the closet with my hands around her neck/I was tripping, dawg/Too proud to apologize or empathize, I blamed it all on her/Saying that she hit me first, even though she was the one hurt.” Even though Vic is being introspective and honest about his past transgressions they still uphold a misogynistic narrative of getting angry at a woman for being upset about how the man is messing up. It is important to remember as we view hip-hop as religious that we don’t deify the prophets of hip-hop since they’re still humans.
While, the prophets of hip-hop are not 100% anti-problematic, one must question what social and religious figures were 100% not problematic. Simply, there were none as humans are imperfect creatures. Mahatma Gandhi is a fantastic example of this as he is deified yet particularly repulsing views on Africans. Gandhi wrote to the Natal parliament in 1893, “general belief seems to prevail in the Colony that the Indians are a little better, if at all, than savages or the Natives of Africa.” Gandhi is revered, Gandhi is viewed as a deity in many ways yet look at these views that he wrote. This does not change how Hinduism is viewed and this is not arguing that Gandhi’s views are okay because they’re heinous. It is a good way to juxtapose how hip-hop as a religion is not bad because of the heteronormative nature of hip-hop as Gandhi’s do not make Hinduism bad.
Malcolm and Martin in a sense founded hip-hop and created a pathway for hip-hop to exist and to exist within a religious context. They were the first to gain mainstream media attention from speaking out, they touched the whole country and their lives and untimely deaths left an impact. That impact can be seen in Vic Mensa and Chance the Rapper. The vision that begun under Malcolm and Martin can plainly be seen across the country. This vision is how hip-hop begun and hip-hop is major portion of why it remains. Chance the Rapper and Vic Mensa are the two continuing to push this vision, Vic and Chance are the second, and current, prophets of hip-hop.


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