Selah — A reflective commentary on the second song off Kanye’s “Jesus is King” record
Kanye dropped his new record “JESUS IS KING” and the stand out track for me on that record was easily Selah. The term Selah is a Hebrew word that has no unanimous meaning but is likely a term of musical direction as it is most prevalently used in the book of Psalms after certain poignant phrases. It is perhaps apt to entitle such a song given the mystery surrounding the meaning of both the term and this song. Selah is the second song on the record and I chose to provide commentary on its impressions on me as a musician, creative and lay theologian.
A gothic organ and choir pad paints a very haunting opening scene, the image conjured in my mind was a moon-lit church graveyard on Halloween night. Kanye opens boldly in his characteristic over-priced, grave-yard clothes declaring God as King and believers as His soldiers. The mission painted is the journey to heaven’s gates chauffeured on an ultra beam and Ye oddly describes an interaction with this chauffeur where he screams at him but this he seems to apologetically explain was due to him being focused on the mission rather than being mean; Something many of us can perhaps relate to. He then says these lines and I had my first moment of cultural cluelessness encountering this record.
“Pour the lean out slower
Got us clean out of soda”
After doing some research, I’ve come to understand that Lean is a drug cocktail popular with young celebrities. The drug, which comes in a liquid form and is often consumed like a drink, is a combination of cough syrup and soda, with hard candy sometimes added for extra effect. Its active ingredients include codeine and promethazine and the mixture is very addictive.
This lyric implies that Kanye and his chauffer driven posse was “high” off lean on the way to the pearly gates; not the kind of lyric you expect to find on a gospel record. Several rappers have admitted to being addicted to or suffering from severe withdrawal seizures related to dependent Lean consumption.
His follow up line predictably forwarns his judgment for his previous admissions and compared it to the judgment showed in scripture towards Noah. Kanye is not new to making self-aggrandizing comparisons to large biblical figures but this comparison is particularly interesting to me. The judgment that Noah faced from the masses was one of ridicule, many thought he was crazy about the flood predictions and his task to build an enormous flood-proof boat when torrential rain had never fallen on the earth. But what “flood” is Kanye predicting? Does he understand the nature and rationale behind his current criticisms and judgments? He then acknowledges the work many anticipated, his ninth studio product Yahndi but alludes that Jesus has done sanctifying work perhaps culminating in this project “Jesus is King” which features this song.
The following lyric
“They say the week start on Monday
But the strong start on Sunday”
Is either a clever marketing sign-post to his famous Sunday services that creatively foreshadowed this release or Kanye’s way of saying that strength is found in the presence of God when the church gathers on Sundays? Some may not take too kindly to the implicit suggestion that those who don't attend church on Sundays are therefore weaker than Sunday worshippers; the Seven-Day Adventists come to mind.
Kanye then says:
Won’t be in bondage to any man
In context, the referenced scripture reads as below:
As He was saying these things, many believed in Him. So Jesus said to the Jews who had believed Him, “If you continue in My word, you really are My disciples. You will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” “We are descendants of Abraham,” they answered Him, “and we have never been enslaved to anyone. How can You say, ‘You will become free’ ? ”
John 8:30-33 HCSB
Kanye must appreciate that these words are going to be read differently from him given his clumsy public rhetoric as it relates to slavery. What he might fail to appreciate is that the Jews who heard Jesus and responded the way they did in verse 33 had no understanding of what it was like to be physical slaves. They didn’t realize that the freedom Jesus was referring to was spiritual freedom. Black people in the Americas who are literally the descendants of slaves, such as Kanye, have a different story and can certainly relate to a legacy of slavery and the continued ways that oppression plays out in their lives beyond the emancipation of their ancestors. So we can and should reflect and consider the implications of freedom both spiritually and as it relates to socio-economic realities we currently abide.
Ye goes on to declare the gospel — Christ has set us free and saved us from our sins; that Ye might be set free.
If you woke, then wake up
With Judas, kiss and make up
Even with the bitter cup
Forgave my brothers and drank up
Did everything but gave up
Stab my back, I can’t front
Still we win, we prayed up
Even when we die, we raise up (Hallelujah)
He opened the second verse with the phrase” if you woke then wake up” and this sounds like a dig at the political left who often consider themselves more socially awake and politically aware(woke) than errbody else but Kanye thinks they need to actually awaken from their own delusions of their enlightenment. — I’m sure woke folks will take great exception to this characterization. The Judas reference that follows was interesting too.
We all know who Judas was, he was that disciple-turned-traitor that sold Jesus out to the corrupt, self-serving religious leadership, leading ultimately to his self-prophesied unjust death by the state. But I suspect Kanye is borrowing Judas from scripture as a metaphor for some backstabbing betrayal he endured and had to forgive his persecutors for, perhaps some of his posse that he shared the Lean with referenced in the first verse. That hasn't been made explicit but I highly suspect Hova is part of that posse in Kanye’s imagination. Kanye not only borrows the betrayal aspect of Christ’s story, but also the resurrection in “death” which may refer to both his ability to come back from whatever betrayal he personally faced that had the effect of killing some part of him and a foreshadowing of the great Christian hope of bodily resurrection.
“Ain’t no wantin’, no, we need it
The powers that be done been greedy
We need ours by this evening
No white flag or no treaty
We got the product, we got the tools
We got the minds, we got the youth
We goin’ wild, we on the loose
People is lying, we are the truth”
This seems to be a call to concede a demand with no surrender on his part until he accomplishes what he sets out to do, but it isn’t exactly clear what he might be referring to. But given his recent announcements of his desire to eventually become a president of the USA, I suspect he is referring to the current political powers that are beholden to dishonesty and greed, and believe that he and his “posse” have what it takes to be the answer to the world’s problems. This might explain his missionary trips of late to spread his message and mission to change the world.
Everything old shall now become new
The leaves’ll be green, bearing the fruit
Love God and our neighbor, as written in Luke
The army of God and we are the truth
This again is a reference to the Kingdom reality promised in Christ’s Kingdom, the renewal and fruitfulness of all things restored in the final resurrection. He mentions the greatest commandments which are to love God and neighbor as the ethic of this new vision for the world and strongly taught throughout scripture. However, I can’t help but sense that given the likely political innuendo of the preceding section, this too was a reference to what he imagines American society would be like under his leadership. Clearly I can't be sure of this but again the last line that proclaims “we are the truth” is telling.
Overall this was a powerful anthem, sonically my favourite on the record by far. It is cleverly written, musically intriguing and will leave many of us guessing for a long time what it all might mean. It might be a hybrid product of Kanye’s labyrinthine mind of a zealous newly acquired faith, right-wing political aspirations and hypomanic obsessions. The highlight of this song for me as a conneusier of gospel music was the crescendo of intensifying Hallelujahs sampled from “Hallelujah, He is wonderful!”. My conscience demands I acknowledge that I wasn’t always sure who Kanye imagines is so wonderful, Jesus or himself?
Perhaps the rest of the record might settle that once and for all.