Kanye West’s Power: Religious Metaphors Including Those in Nature

Kanye West’s Power, his latest video, is a locomotive painting. The director Marco Brambilla draws from Greek, Judeo-Christian, Egyptian, Hindu, and Buddhist religious metaphors in what is a visual video masterpiece.

The video opens with West’s eyes lit as if superhuman.

Behind him are Ionic columns, typical of Greek architecture. The director choose the Ionic columns over the Doric and Corinthian design because the latter are more complex in architecture, design, and engineering. Among the Greeks and according to architects, the Ionic design is the greatest of the three columns. The Ionic is more complex in design including scrolls representing education and vertical lines akin to rams horns. In addition, unlike the other designs, the engineering, the design is more resistant to earthquakes.

Behind West and the columns are clouds that grow darker from the beginning to end of the video. I see something similar in scripture. In the Torah and the Old Testament, Moses went up into the mountain where God was the cloud (Exodus 24:15). When God was angry there was thunder and lightning, making the people tremble. (Exodus 19:16)

Returning to West, an industrial chain hangs around his neck. It is far heavier than any human could hold up, indicating his godlike power. From the chain hangs a rather large pendant or ornament with the Egyptian god Horus. He was the greatest of the Egyptian gods with the head of a falcon and the body of a man. In his many manifestations, he was a god of war, protection, and the sky. As the god of the sky, a connection could be made to the clouds in the sky, the backdrop in the video.

Fanning out away from the clouds, the columns, and West are two women with antelopes horns and pounding staffs. The horns are those of antelopes. Two Hindu deities, Vayu, lord of the winds, and Chandra, a lunar god rode on antelopes. The pounding staffs allude to Moses using the lowly herder’s staff to do God’s will: Moses faced Pharaoh as they struggled over freeing the Hebrews from bondage. In one memorable moment Moses staff transformed into a snake. Pharaoh’s magicians did the same but Moses’ snake devoured the magicians snakes.

Winged human creatures sit at Kanye’s feet with connections to two religious images. Cherubim protected the ark containing the stone tablets of the Ten Commandment as noted in the Old Testament. In Hinduism and Buddhism, the garuda is a bird-like human that is divine.

Above West are a pair on either side pouring out oil from jars filled with never-ending oil. Throughout the Old Testament, powerful kings like David are anointed with oil by prophets to affirm their power and leadership through God’s anointing. In the New Testament, Mary anointed Jesus’ feet with a perfume–in some translations it is oil or ointment.

The video is only 90 seconds and begins to speed up towards the end. A veil drops, perhaps a reference to the rent or torn veil at the temple after Jesus’ crucifixion. For Christians this tear represents abandoning the temple; the old, Judaism is replaced with the new, Christianity. The power shifts.

In the far corners of the video, grapes are in a bowl, proffered as an offering by two women. This is certainly a reference to Dionysus, the Greek god of wine and fertility.

Throughout the video, we see images of knives and swords in the hands of men. A knife comes down from above through a gold crown or Celtic circlet–consider the shift of Celtic tribalism to kingdoms in which kings and queens wore crowns to industrialism represented in the chain around Kanye’s neck–above West’s head. As the video comes to a close, two men come down on West with swords as if in ritual sacrifice.

The video ends. We never learn West’s fate. Does he remain powerful? Was his power an illusion? Does he live? Does he die?

Do a few lines from the lyrics might answer these questions: “No one man should have all that power//The clock’s tickin’, I just count the hours//Stop trippin’, I’m trippin’ off the power”?

Everything but West is a mirror image in the video. Why? We should look at ourselves in the mirror as we struggle with the meaning of power. One look at the image and there is human frailty.

The video with all its metaphors is a masterpiece.

Siren Dinah Washington Sings “This Bitter Earth”

Oh, the glorious sounds of Dinah Washington. I sat upright one afternoon when I heard the words and notes of “This Bitter Earth.”

Ms. Washington was born in 1924 in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. She left behind a powerful and enduring legacy of her torch songs when she died in 1963 of a drug overdose. Her albums spanned from 1950 to 1967. Listen to the full range of her artistry with her 1999 box set titled “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes”.

Her haunting torch song  “This Bitter Earth” (1960) was on the movie soundtrack of Killer Sheep, a film of African Americans set in Watts in Los Angeles during the 1970s. The song hit #1 on the R&B chart for one week and was #24 on the pop chart in 1960.

Listen to Ms. Washington sing:

The lyrics to “This Bitter Earth” are as beautiful as the melody:

This bitter earth
What fruit it bears
What good is love
That no one shares
And if my life is like the dust
That hides the glow of a rose
What good am I
Heaven only knows

This bitter earth
Can it be so cold
Today you’re young
Too soon your old
But while a voice
Within me cries
I’m sure someone
May answer my call
And this bitter earth
May not be so bitter after all

Ms. Washington, you are remembered in this time when environmentalism is part of the our common parlance. This bitter earth . . .

Stevie Wonder’s “Village Ghetto Land” From an Environmental Perspective

Who is Stevie Wonder, this gifted man who wrote and sings “Village Ghetto Land”? Stevie was born in 1950 in Michigan. He was born prematurely and while in an incubator, he lost his sight. Today, we know him as the talented singer, song-writer, instrumentalist, producer, and community activist. I would argue Stevie is one of the world’s most renowned musical artists in the world of all time.       

“Village Ghetto Land” is on the “Songs in the Key of Life” LP. Tamia Records released the album in 1976. The album hit number one on the Billboard Album chart immediately.    

Stevie co-wrote “Village Ghetto Land” with Gary Bird. All of the instruments were also played by Stevie. The song probably wasn’t released as a single because it never charted.    

Here’s one of my personal memories of the album; I’m sure many people connect a song to a memory, an experience. I was sitting in the back  of my cousin Denise’s car with her daughter Christina. We were all driving back from New Jersey headed to St. Albans–that’s in the boro of Queens in New York–on a cold day after a family Thanksgiving dinner. During the drive, Christina and I belted out all the songs from the album as we peered through the windows looking at the landscape of naked trees lining streets that became highways under fall grey skies.  

Sisters Melissa and Christina

The song “Village Ghetto Land” focuses on environmental justice and racism before these terms were part of our vernacular. Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On” probably an influenced Stevie when writing “Village Ghetto Land” because both songs are about social justice. 

 Read the lyrics:  

Village Ghetto Land  Would you like to go with me
Down my dead end street
Would you like to come with me
To Village Ghetto Land         

See the people lock their doors
While robbers laugh and steal
Beggars watch and eat their meal from garbage cans   

Broken glass is everywhere
It’s a bloody scene
Killing plagues the citizens
Unless they own police      

 Children play with rusted cars
Sores cover their hands
Politicians laugh and drink-drunk to all demands         

Families buying dog food now
Starvation roams the streets
Babies die before they’re born
Infected by the grief        

Now some folks say that we should be
Glad for what we have
Tell me would you be happy in Village Ghetto Land        

Village Ghetto Land        

When I sing these lyrics out loud, I visualize a street that is more like a garbage dump and less like a healthy neighborhood. The sense of poverty is strongest in the images of people eating garbage and children suffering with sores on their hands probably from their playground of rusted cars.     

The images take me to another place in the twenty-first century. I think about impoverished people in struggling towns, that were more like hamlets or small villages, in the shadow of chemical plants in Louisiana. I sat in the midst of tombstones in a graveyard of one of those hamlets that was populated more with the dead than the living.

Watch and listen to Stevie Wonder sing “Village Ghetto Land”:

George Michael’s cover of Village Ghetto Land  is another good listen.    

St. Albans, New York


Vibe Vixen O’ De’ Day: Responsibility, Environment, and Jewels

Anybody remember Vibe Vixen? The magazine didn’t last very long. Yet I miss flipping through the pages.  We still have the memories easily googled or binged on the internet. Here’s Kimora Lee Simmons on the cover going back to 2006.

Inside the pages of the magazine, I found some tips on being environmentally responsible concerning jewelry.  Go to page 95 for more. Hey, black people care about the environment too!

More people started thinking more about the source of their jewelry including blood or conflict diamonds with the theatrical release of “Blood Diamonds” starring Djimon Hounsou and Leonardo DiCaprio came out. Kayne West even rapped about the jewels in “Diamonds from Sierra Leone.” My favorite part is Shirley Bassey laying down the track singing the classic “Diamonds are Forever.” A few of Kanye’s lyrics:

Good Morning, this ain’t Vietnam still
People lose hands, legs, arms for real
Little was known of Sierra Leone
And how it connect to the diamonds we own
When I speak of Diamonds in this song
I ain’t talkin bout the ones that be glown
I’m talkin bout Rocafella, my home, my chain
These ain’t conflict diamonds,is they Jacob? don’t lie to me mayne
See, a part of me sayin’ keep shinin’

Learn more: “Diamonds of War: Africa’s Blood Diamond.”

MJ’s “Earthsong” or Rihanna’s “Rude Boy”?

Rihanna’s “Rude Boy” is not your mama’s old school video.

Perhaps Michael Jackson’s “Earthsong” reflects tastes of the past. Maybe environmentally conscious videos are only in the past!? In Jackson’s video, deforestation of the Amazon, the ecological impact of war, and endangered species are highlighted. Ah Michael, you cared about the earth and the people inhabiting it. Here are some of the lyrics from “Earthsong”:

What about sunrise
What about rain
What about all the things
That you said we were to gain.. .
What about killing fields
Is there a time
What about all the things
That you said was yours and mine…
Did you ever stop to notice
All the blood we’ve shed before
Did you ever stop to notice
The crying Earth the weeping shores?

But back to Rihanna. What’s up with the lion and zebra?

Who is the sexual object? ? Rihanna? The men? The stuffed lion? The stuffed zebra?

Rihanna: Good Girl Gone Bad?

Somebody call PETA because Rihanna is a rude girl abusing stuffed animals. There ought to be a law.

Well, both videos have zebras . . . I am most assuredly old school.

Billie Holiday and Strange Fruit

I  listen for environmental references in lyrics. The first to come to mind is Billie Holiday singing “Strange Fruit.”

Billie Holiday

The lyrics go like this:

Strange Fruit — Composed by Abel Meeropol (aka Lewis Allan)

Southern trees bear strange fruit
Blood on the leaves
Blood at the root
Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze
Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees
Pastoral scene of the gallant south
The bulging eyes and the twisted mouth
The scent of magnolia sweet and fresh
Then the sudden smell of burning flesh
Here is a fruit for the crows to pluck
for the rain to gather
for the wind to suck
for the sun to rot
for the tree to drop
Here is a strange and bitter crop

Abel Meeropol

Abel Meeropool, a Jewish New Yorker, wrote the lyrics because he was horrified when he saw an image of two black men who were brutally lynched. In the song, the tree, in my estimation, represents lynching and its strange fruit are racism, violence and death during the first half of the early twentieth century in the United States.

Listen to: