“Why?” – Philosophical Music: Hip Hop

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A philosopher, by definition, sees the world in a radically different way than everyone else.  The real challenge, however, is not to see from an original viewpoint, but to successfully communicate that perspective to an outside audience.  A testament to the difficulty of the process is that it can sometimes take years, generations or even millennia for a philosophical perspective to working its way outward into the culture, starting with a visionary genius, moving into the work of a handful of devoted disciples, and eventually making it into the mainstream.

One step in that process –the most central step to this blog –is when a philosophical perspective becomes a core foundation or a key element in a piece of music or art.  This week, we start a new series, in which pieces of popular music will be compared to well-known schools of philosophical thought.

Hip hop, although sometimes derided as a shallow and thoughtless medium, can, in the right hands, be an ideal vehicle for philosophy, since it has emphasis on lyrical content, and typically contains many times the amount of lyrics as most other popular musical genres.  Accordingly we start our journey with a hip hop song, Why?, a modest hit in 2004 for the rapper Jadakiss, formerly of the group The LOX.

Why do *s push pounds and powder?
Why did Bush knock down the towers?
Why you around them cowards?
Why Aaliyah have to take that flight?
Why my n* D ain’t pull out his Ferrari
Why he take that bike?
Why they gotta open your package and read your mail?
Why they stop letting n*s get degrees in jail?
Why you gotta do 85% of your time?
And why do n*s lie in 85% of they rhymes?
Why a n*a always want what he can’t have?
Why I can’t come through in the pecan Jag?
Why did crack have to hit so hard?
Even though it’s almost over
Why n*s can’t get no jobs?
Why they come up with the witness protection?
Why they let the Terminator win the election?
Come on, pay attention!
Why I sell in the stores what you could sell in the streets?
Why I say the hottest s*t but be sellin’ the least?

The lyrical content of the song is posed almost entirely as an unbroken string of unanswered questions, a philosophical structure that hearkens all the way back to the Father of Western Philosophy, Socrates.  By asking increasingly uncomfortable and difficult questions of his interlocutors, and denying them answers, Socrates pushed them outside the boundaries of their ordinary understandings of subjects such as morality, politics, and the nature of reality, and forced them into making their own philosophical leaps of insight.

Soc. How fortunate I am, Meno! When I ask you for one virtue, you present me with a swarm of them, which are in your keeping. Suppose that I carry on the figure of the swarm, and ask of you, What is the nature of the bee? and you answer that there are many kinds of bees, and I reply: But do bees differ as bees, because there are many and different kinds of them; or are they not rather to be distinguished by some other quality, as for example beauty, size, or shape? How would you answer me?

Men. I should answer that bees do not differ from one another, as bees.

Soc. And if I went on to say: That is what I desire to know, Meno; tell me what is the quality in which they do not differ, but are all alike;-would you be able to answer?

Men. I should.

Soc. And so of the virtues, however many and different they may be, they have all a common nature which makes them virtues; and on this he who would answer the question, “What is virtue?” would do well to have his eye fixed: Do you understand?

Men. I am beginning to understand; but I do not as yet take hold of the question as I could wish.

Soc. When you say, Meno, that there is one virtue of a man, another of a woman, another of a child, and so on, does this apply only to virtue, or would you say the same of health, and size, and strength? Or is the nature of health always the same, whether in man or woman?

Men. I should say that health is the same, both in man and woman.

Soc. And is not this true of size and strength? If a woman is strong, she will be strong by reason of the same form and of the same strength subsisting in her which there is in the man. I mean to say that strength, as strength, whether of man or woman, is the same. Is there any difference?

Men. I think not.

Soc. And will not virtue, as virtue, be the same, whether in a child or in a grown-up person, in a woman or in a man?

Men. I cannot help feeling, Socrates, that this case is different from the others.

Soc. But why?

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