Song of the Day: Jay-Z, Kanye West, Frank Ocean and the Dreams, “No Church in the Wild”

(Note: fair warning, I’m using this space to work out this idea; it’s by no means a polished argument.)

I’m not entirely sure what to make of this video or the elephant at the end, which reminded me both of Hannibal and of Brian K. Vaughan’s Pride of Baghdad, about four lions who escaped from the Baghdad Zoo after it was bombed during the first stages of the Iraq war. I’m not entirely sure why the video reminded of Pride of Baghdad, but it did. In fact, it provoked a lot of thought in one viewing. The video borrows heavily from the unrest of the Occupy Wall Street movement as well as the Arab Spring of 2011. Yet, perhaps because of the repeated views of marble statutes, it seemed to me, at least, to evoke the riots that broke out in London last year. It also reminded me of V for Vendetta, and of the Angry Young Man literary movement in the 1950s. It’s a rich, if disturbing text that tries to address the traumas of the early twenty-first century through an exploration of what happens when we rip the fabric of the social contract.

The chorus I think is the most effective at conveying this idea, as it up ends the great chain of being; for an interactive break down of the lyrics, go here. There’s a reason why I thought of both the French Revolution and Alexander Pope’s “An Essay on Man” while listening to this song:

Human beings in a mob
What’s a mob to a king? What’s a king to a God?
What’s a God to a non-believer who don’t believe in anything?
Will he make it out alive? Alright, alright, no church in the wild

Compare these lines to Pope’s:

Men would be angels, angels would be gods.
Aspiring to be gods, if angels fell,
Aspiring to be angels, men rebel:
Pope’s lines come in a stanza on pride and the dangers of shifting out of one’s order in the great chain of being and the attendant social chaos that comes from such aspirational movement. Yet, that last line “aspiring to be angels, men rebel” always seemed out of place to me in Pope’s line of thought. Men rebel, not because they want to be angels, but because of dogmatic structures that tell them to be angelic (and prideful of their seeming sacrifices) while also telling them that all those around them are sinners. Aspiring to be angels is different than Christ’s command to love our neighbors as ourselves. No where in there did he tell us to parse out what kinds of neighbors were worthy of our love; nor does he tells us to be angelic. Just fully part of the human community. The chorus of “No Church in the Wild” inverts Pope’s structure, asking us to think of what happens to the social contract when we strip humanity from the masses. But it also comes back to Pope; men rebel because our social contract lacks compassion to combat errant, dogmatic pride.

I’m teaching Ian McEwan’s elegiac novel Saturday this fall, and I’ve always found the Saul Bellow epigraph from Herzog that begins that novel compelling: “Well, for instance, what it means to be a man. In a city. In a century. In transition. In a mass […] Would you deny them the right to exist? Would you ask them to labor and go hungry while you yourself enjoyed old-fashioned Values? You–you yourself are a child of this mass and a brother to all the rest. Or else an ingrate, dilettante, idiot.” The clipped resonance of the opening sentences combined with the last set of descriptors–“ingrate, dilettante, idiot”–asks us to think about our individual experience against what it means to be part of a community.


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