The Reluctant ‘Godfather of Rap’

The Reluctant ‘Godfather of Rap’

The “Godfather of Rap,” musician and spoken-word poet Gil Scott-Heron, died May 27 at the age of 62. Although no cause of death was reported, Scott-Heron struggled with drug addiction and had contracted HIV.

The influential artist rejected the “godfather” label, according to an Associated Press report. Instead, “He referred to his signature mix of percussion, politics and performed poetry as bluesology or Third World music. But then he said it was simply ‘black music or black American music,'” the report said.

His signature composition, “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised,” appeared on his debut album, A New Black Poet: Small Talk at 125th and Lenox, which was recorded live at a Harlem nightclub at that address. In 2010, he released I’m New Here. There were many albums in between.

Atlantic editor Ta-Nehisi Coates grew up listening to Scott-Heron and lamented the fact that “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” overshadows Scott-Heron’s other work.

At The Grio, Earl Ofari Hutchinson downplayed the importance of the song and Scott-Heron’s influence on rap.

“Neither of these do justice to Heron,” Hutchinson wrote.

“In fact, by the time ‘Revolution’ hit the airwaves in the early 1970s, black singers, jazz musicians, and spoken word poets had been pouring out incendiary black radical lyrics, sounds, and poetry for several years. The rap cadences were pronounced in many of their works. In the decades before the 1960s, legions of black jazz, bee bop, and blues singers ‘rapped,’ scatted, and hooped in their songs,” he explained.

Hutchinson prefers Scott-Heron’s Winter in America album, which he described as “a grim, bitter look at racial and political oppression in America and optimistic call for the forces of hope and change to renew the struggle against it,” and From South Africa to South Carolina, which he said “forcefully and brilliantly linked the struggles of Africans and African-Americans.”

“To Heron, the struggles were one and the same,” he wrote.

Scott Heron was no fan of the rap music he was given credit for. He criticized some artists’ “resort to shock, demeaning, and degrading lyrics” and their “lust for the bling and opulence, at the expense of socially grounded and edgy lyrics that blasted oppression and injustice,” Hutchinson wrote.

Greg Tate published an eloquent obituary for The Village Voice that begins with a deconstruction of the “Godfather of Rap” identifier.

“You know why Gil never had much love for that ill-conceived Godfather of Rap tag. If you’re already your own genre, you don’t need the weak currency offered by another. If you’re a one-off, why would you want to bask in the reflected glory of knock-offs? If you’re already Odin, being proclaimed the decrepit sire of Thor and Loki just ain’t gonna rock your world. Gil knew he wasn’t bigger than hip-hop—he knew he was just better,” Tate wrote.

He had much to say about Scott-Heron’s social activism, but this part provides speculative context for the evolution of the man and his work.

“Many cats of Gil’s generation became burnt-out anachronisms from trying to wage ’60s battles on ’70s battlegrounds; some are still at it today. Gil knew The Struggle was a work-in-progress—a scorecard event of win-some-lose-some, lick your wounds, live to fight another day. Keep your eyes on the prize—a more Democratic union—but also on the ever-changing same. Keep it progressive but keep it moving too. Not so difficult if you’re the type of self-medicating brother who gets lonely if he doesn’t hear the yap of hellhounds on his trail,” Tate wrote.

At The RootMartin Johnson shared this interesting tidbit.

“In the summer of 1991, when I interviewed him between sets at the Blue Note in New York City, Scott-Heron’s complexity was apparent. He surprised me twice, once by defending Clarence Thomas on the grounds that ‘self-determination means that everyone gets to choose who they want to be rather than be who other people want them to be.’ He also noted that he was no fan of rap music. He shrugged it off as a generational thing. ‘My parents didn’t like my music, even though I felt it was in the tradition of what they listened to. I feel the same way about rap.’ During the interview, he chain-smoked marijuana,” Johnson wrote.

In his redemptive conclusion, Johnson reminds us that Scott Heron’s work transcended his human frailty.

“There have been scores of artists whose careers were marred by drug abuse, but no one who could write poetry and songs with so much social awareness and political bite as Scott-Heron. And no one could sing them with such depth and passion. His artistic legacy is far too great for the sordid details of his final decades to ruin,” he wrote.

What none of the reports I read mentioned is Scott-Heron’s religious upbringing or identity. With a body of work as large as it, one assumes his faith or lack thereof is there to be found, but I don’t know Scott-Heron’s work well enough to assess the roots of his activism. Perhaps you do. If so, please share your thoughts.

Jay-Z: Devil or Diversion?

The superstar rapper/entrepreneur Jay-Z has generated lots of buzz lately regarding his spiritual beliefs. Is his music satanic? Is he a member of a secret society? Commentator Paul Scott suggests we may be getting distracted by the wrong questions, and that’s exactly how the hip-hop industry wants it.
“Big Ballin’ is my hobby / so much so they think I’m down with the Illuminati.” — from the song “Hot Toddy” by Usher, featuring Jay-Z.

Over the past year, the hottest topic in the hip-hop world has been whether artists such as Jay-Z, Kanye West, and others are part of some diabolical secret society. From street corners to college campuses, people are losing sleep over the question: “Is Jay-Z part of the Illuminati?” The issue has reached such a level that Jay-Z has responded to the accusations on collaborations with Rick Ross and Usher, as well as radio interviews. To add to the controversy, MC Hammer reportedly has jumped on the bandwagon insinuating that Jay-Z is a devil worshiper.

While some of the discussions have been thought provoking, many have done nothing but subject people to the same “spookism” about a devil with a pitch fork and a red suit that they get in many churches. Much of the “spookism” that is being used in regards to the Illuminati is just a mask to divert attention from the real issue, global white supremacy.

The Illuminati was formed May 1, 1776, by Adam Weishaupt, with the purpose of organizing a secret society of “enlightened white men” to rule the planet. However, it must be noted that — according to the book Illuminati 666, compiled by William Sutton — Weishaupt has said, “regarding the order, let it never appear in any place in its own name, but always covered by another name and another occupation.” So when an interviewer asks a rapper if he is a part of the Illuminati, the person is really creating a smokescreen to hide the real issue.

What should be questioned is why hip-hop industry insiders from J. Prince, Ice Cube, to 50 Cent have felt compelled to address the issue. If the accusations of something fishy in hip-hop did not have at least a grain of truth, the whole controversy would have been easily dismissed and not dignified with an answer.

There is a term called “limited hangout,” which is defined as “the release of previously hidden information to prevent a greater exposure of more important details.” This is the deception that is transpiring with the hip-hop secret society controversy.

It is often said that if you don’t ask the right question, you cannot get the right answer. The question that should be posed to Jay-Z is not whether he is a member of the Illuminati, but “What does he know about the Illuminati?” Because if he claims that he doesn’t know anything about the order, then he cannot possibly know if he is playing a role in their agenda, can he? Also, the major question should not be whether a rapper is part of a secret society, but what is his relationship with the 10 percent of the population that controls 90 percent of the wealth and how does this affect “the ‘hood”?

The discussion of the role that covert white supremacist organizations have played in the oppression of the non-white people of the planet has been discussed by researchers and conspiracy theorists. However, the issue has been rarely viewed in a hip-hop context, so people have been either unwilling or unable to connect the dots.

We must start by studying the various covert plots to oppress non-white people that were taking place in the United States during the mid-19th century by secret organizations such as the Know Nothing Society and the Supreme Order of the Star Spangled Banner, which included such members as Albert Pike, who according to Michael Newton’s book on the Ku Klux Klan has been “named by some historians as the author of the Klan’s original prescript.”

The same agenda was also being carried out across the Atlantic by European white supremacists, such as Cecil Rhodes who founded the Round Table Group that espoused the doctrine of Anglo-Saxon world domination, including the colonization of Africa. So, perhaps, instead of looking at rappers, we need to be looking at Rhodes Scholars?

Although many of the societies have been based on racism, the motivation has also been economic, as these organizations follow the proverb that “a fool and his money are soon parted.” If you keep the masses ignorant, they can be easily exploited.

Herein, lies the role of hip-hop.

While commercial rappers like Jay-Z may not be card-carrying members of a secret society, it is not debatable that many support global white supremacy by way of “racial shadow-ism,” which Neely Fuller defines as “when victims of racism are directly or indirectly, ‘assigned,’ bribed, coerced and or likewise influenced by white supremacists to speak or act to do harm to other victims of racism.” He says that the reason for this is to cause us to believe that the person acting in a “shadow” capacity is in control, when in actuality he is a mere flunky for the global elite.

Also, while most people reference a Tupac video clip as evidence that he exposed the Illuminati, if one really listens to the clip, Shakur actually denied its existence. In it, Shakur said the only thing that matters is getting money, regardless from whence it came.

There is an old saying that if you want to hide something from a black man, put it in a book. So the information about secret societies that has hip-hop heads buggin’ is not really secret, but can be found in our local libraries. But when you have successfully dumbed down a society, you do not have to really hide the truth, as it can be “hidden in plain sight.”

So if the power of secret societies is keeping the masses clueless, what role does hip-hop play in making ignorance bliss? Frankly, I’m less concerned about Jay-Z being on the cover of Forbes magazine than I am about the “conspiracy” of rappers who are considered too dumb to be in a secret society (such as Gucci Mane and Wacka Flocka Flame) carrying out a mission to dumb down black and urban children.

Our greatest weapon against oppression is knowledge of the truth. Instead of engaging in ghetto gossip and fairy tales, we must encourage people to read. We cannot rely on hip-hop websites and YouTube for our information, but must get our information the old fashioned way — from a book.

We must understand that for those who do not study, everything is a secret. However, for those who diligently seek truth, as Jesus taught: “There is nothing that is hidden that shall not be revealed.”

My Sunday with Mase

I was one of those people who couldn’t quite believe that rapper Mason Betha (a.k.a. Murda Ma$e) might be a serious Christian minister. Then I visited his church.

Yes, I spent a Sunday with Mase. But it wasn’t listening to his greatest hits album in the comforts of my home or attending a concert where he performed any of said greatest hits. No, I went to church with Mase — his church, El Elyon International in Atlanta, Georgia, to be exact. Now I am going to ask you to un-furrow your brow. Yes, I know it is furrowed because there is no one who I have told about going to El Elyon that didn’t have a furrowed brow. The reactions varied from, “Really?” to “So you didn’t get any God today?” To tell the truth, I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that I approached the opportunity to attend El Elyon with some hesitancy.

I was a fan of Mase’s music back in the days when he and Diddy were wearing matching shiny suits and singing about being bad boys. I remember when I heard about him leaving the rap game to go into ministry. I remember when he left ministry to go back into the rap game as Murda Ma$e. And I remember when he left the rap game again to go back to ministry. It is that schizophrenia that leads most people to stay away from his ministry and his music. But, the more I thought about it I realized that Mase is no different from any of us who keep on backsliding into the world — save for the fact that our backslides are not caught on camera for the world to see.

Bad Boy Days: Mase with Diddy (then Puff Daddy) in the 1997 video for Biggie Smalls' posthumously released song "Mo Money, Mo Problems."

So I figured I’d give Mase … I mean, Pastor Mason Betha of El Elyon … a chance.

I went into my El Elyon experience with many different expectations. I expected the church to be huge, like a standard Atlanta megachurch, which looks more like a college campus than it does a sanctuary. El Elyon is no megachurch. It’s located on a non-descript street in the midst of warehouses. In fact, it is in a warehouse. It is a humble space. I expected that the majority of the cars parked in front of the church were going to be of the “Beamer, Benz or Bentley” variety. There were barely any Beamers, Benzes or Bentleys in front of El Elyon. It was more like a “Nissan, Honda, Chevy” affair. With each opening door of these domestic cars came young African American adults, some middle-aged families, and the occasional white man or woman.

As I was getting over some of my misconceptions about the external trappings of the church, I walked inside to be met by not one but several greeters who sensed my newness but didn’t treat me like I was new. I explained to them I’d be meeting some friends who hadn’t arrived yet, and they showed me to a seat in the lobby. Many who walked passed me as I sat there waiting treated me like an old friend. One of the members of the ministerial staff even greeted me in earnest, asking for my name, expressing his gratitude that I could join them for worship, and directing me to the sanctuary. In all honesty that last encounter was a little jarring because I had become use to seeing ministers decked out in full apparel who would only speak to the ones they knew and offer a weak smile and lukewarm greeting to those they didn’t. For a church I had only been in for about 15 minutes, I felt as if I’d been there 15 years.

I missed the praise-and-worship portion of the service waiting for my friends, but I could hear the spirited music — a lot of Israel Houghton and other urban praise tunes — from my spot in the lobby. I finally entered the service just as Pastor Mason Betha stepped onstage to deliver his sermon. It was a sparsely decorated sanctuary with a pulpit at the center of an elevated stage. The space held about 300 people and it was easily filled to capacity. The seats weren’t pews but high-backed chairs like you’d find in a banquet hall. When the ushers accompanied us to our seats, they encouraged us to squeeze in as close together as possible to make room for other late-arriving churchgoers.

Pastor Betha’s sermon was titled “Stay at His Feet.” He began by petitioning his members to start a purity fast so that they can abstain from anything that isn’t edifying. He used the analogy of dirt and water in a jar to describe why this purity fast is so desperately needed, remarking that as Christians we read the Bible or hear a sermon then we get into our cars and turn on secular music, watch movies about vampires, or participate in other sordid activities. In Pastor Betha’s view, the secular music, the vampires, and other things are the dirt that clouds up the water that is supposed to purify our lives. He surmises that cutting those things out will help us to become more accessible to God and powerful for the kingdom. All of this before his actual sermon went forth and my preconceived notions were already being blown out of the water.

So, let’s talk about my expectations of Pastor Mason Betha. What can I say? Yes, I wondered what a former “Bad Boy for Life” could say behind a sacred podium. I wondered if he would preach with the same slow drawl that made him famous as a rapper. I wondered what, if anything, he said was going to touch me. I had the words of many in my mind — the people who were shocked that I would go to his church; the people, who similar to Nathaniel asking if anything good could come out of Nazareth, asked if anything good could come out of a seemingly confused rapper whose relapse into the secular world wasn’t too long ago. Well, the answer to the question is plenty good can come out of him once we stop defining him by who he was and look at who God is shaping him to be.

For 90 minutes I listened to Pastor Mason Betha teach the word of God in what I believe was a pretty sound manner. He didn’t tell many stories — though he cracked a few jokes — he just let the Word of God speak. Though it was only the 10:00 service and there was yet one more for him to preach at noon, he was not constrained by time. He preached long and hard, making sure that we had as many scriptures as he could possibly give us so that we would be motivated to continue the study on our own.

By the end of that sermon — actually I’d prefer to call it a study — I had seven pages of notes and a new respect for Mason Betha. All because I took the time to step past what I thought I knew.

As a young seminarian, I’ve been told that most of my ministry will be in my interruptions. Interestingly enough, my interrupting my preconceived notions of a man and his ministry was when I was ministered to, and I suspect that the interruption of the rapper Mase led to the ministry of Pastor Mason Betha. And that’s an interruption I’m praying many will benefit from.

Over the years, there have been rumors about Pastor Betha and whether he’s really walking with God — that he never fully broke off from the rap business. Musically speaking, with the exception of a few guest spots here and there, he’s been silent since his 2004 album due to contractual issues with Diddy’s Bad Boy label. But the latest buzz suggests another full-fledged comeback may be imminent. We’ll have to wait and see if it’s true.
If Mase does return to rap music, I hope he remembers his analogy of dirt and water in a jar.