Should We Stick it to "The Man"?

The song "The Man", written by the American singer-songwriter known as Aloe Blacc from his album Lift Your Spirit (2013), is meant to be seen as more than just the usual self-inflated, egotistical display of hubris that most rap and R&B "empowerment" songs generally are. In the music video, Blacc emphasizes this by showing the evolution of the social opportunities of black Americans from the 50s to the present day. What begins with civil rights riots ends with America's first black president. In this context, the song is meant to be interpreted as a voice of empowerment, confidence, and celebration for the accomplishments that have been achieved by fearless black men and women. In the midst of the inner city violence, poverty, and racism that still exist for many American blacks today, Aloe Blacc encourages them to stand tall and be fearless in achieving a life of dignity and justice.

However, songs exist without their respective videos, and I think the majority of people today still experience music primarily aurally without any sort of visual aid. And I think most people enjoy certain songs for their musical or lyrical quality far more than any sort of visual quality of the videos attached to them. So what does "The Man" have to say beyond the confines of the powerful message the video conveys? What does it say to the world at large? Does it have universal qualities that can make all people, regardless of racial or ethnic background, relate to it on a personal level?

The poet expresses a sense of personal empowerment in the first stanza by being thankful for the life he has been given and the strength he had to live it out as best he could. Although there is an admission to telling lies and stealing hearts, the poet reveals that, even in these moments of potential failure to live up to his own standards, his intentions were to be the best he could be. He truly believed what he said even though it turned out to be a lie. He may have stolen hearts, but he paid for every one of them afterward. There is a sense of making reparation for all the ways he has failed to be the best man he can be. In this sense, he can truly be proud of the fact that he has not given up on himself and that he has given his best even in the worst situations of his life. He insists that "life is a test"; life is a task to be accomplished, not a series of experiences to enjoy. Life actually has a telos, an end goal, which is "to be a king when kingdom come". He refers here to the final accomplishment of God's plan in the world and the institution of the kingdom of heaven on earth. In order to "be a king when kingdom come", the poet must pass the test provided by life itself; he lives this out by seeking after self-perfection in all of his actions. His ability to do so is attributed to the grace of God: "God made my mold different from the rest, / Then He broke that mold, so I know I'm blessed". God has created the poet in a unique way, given him unique talents and abilities to enable him to pass the test of life. The poet knows that his person and his life on this earth is a blessing from God in the very fact of its uniqueness. This does not necessarily mean that the poet is perfect or is incapable of making mistakes, but that God has given him the grace and ability to overcome all trials and difficulties that life may test him with. If the poet puts his trust in the Lord, there is no obstacle in life that cannot be overcome. If he is able to pass the test of life, through the grace of God, he will become a king, a saint, in the heavenly kingdom. The poet will, in a sense, be able to rejoice and proclaim to everyone that he is "the man", the perfect man that God intended him to be.

The second stanza seems to revert to a predictable mode of rap hubris in its repetitive insistence on the superiority of the poet to all others: "I got all the answers to your questions / I'll be the teacher, you can be the lesson / I'll be the preacher, you be the confession / I'll be the quick relief to all your stressin'". On first glance, these lines only seem to be the expressions of pride common to such personal empowerment songs. But perhaps we can see this in another light if we add another man to the mixture, "the Man", as it were. If we put these words instead in the mouth of Christ, the God-become-man in whom we are all able to say "I'm the man" if we conform ourselves to Him, then these lines of the song begin to take on a different quality. Through the words of the poet, Christ himself expresses to us His ability to provide answers to our serious questions about life; He is the Teacher who instructs our souls in the lessons they should imitate; He is the holy preacher in whom we confess our faith in His ability to save; He is the divine healer who provides our souls with relief from anxiety, fear, and despair. In this context, the poet allows us a chance to embrace the same God who has broken the mold in the creation of each of His unique children; we are encouraged to recognize both the blessing and the test that our lives are; we are shown how ultimately empowering it is to become "a king at kingdom come". According to the rest of the stanza, only three things are asked of us to pass the test of life: to choose love over hate, to live in the truth rather than in falsity, and to stand firm in the faith. If we can accomplish those things, we will have passed the test, become kings, and can rejoice in the fact that we truly are "the man".

Of course, it's entirely possible not to understand this song in the way just described. But, given the options, this interpretation seems to me to allow for the most positive and universal sense of empowerment. Let's all live our lives so as to become kings when kingdom come.


The point of this blog is not to tell anyone what they should or should not consider entertaining, nor what films, books, lyrics, or television shows are morally or artistically good or bad. The point is to engage with the stories that are creating our culture on an intellectual level, to meet the morals with our minds before they go to our hearts. Once you know what's in the entertainment you imbibe and you're aware of how it may be shaping your perceptions of the world around you, well then, imbibe away!

No comments:

Post a Comment