Metalcore and rap

Every Living Thing
Will bow down at his feet,
And every enemy
Will suffer their defeat.
Our deliverer has come.
This is WAR.
-For Today, "From Zion" (2013)
Like most of you I was indoctrinated with religion
at a time when I was much too young to make decisions
dragged by the hand without permission
lacked the cognitive ability to see the contradictions and the superstitions
I know my mother really thought that she was doing right
cause after all this wasn't a war that she was taught to fight.
-Tombstone da Deadman, "Ballad of a Non Believer" (2012)

For decades, the words “Christian Music” evoked little more than swirling recollections of late Elvis, twangy Louvin Brothers revival songs and a mass of innocuous fluff on the order of Amy Grant or Carman. Meanwhile, the term “Humanist Music” drew mostly blank stares. The last fifteen years, however, has wrought some rather titanic shifts for religion (and anti-religion) in music. On one end of the spectrum are the growling, pounding sermons in thrash by Christian Metalcore bands like For Today. Though different in instrumentation and use of melody, they all share that heady potpourri of violent ressentiment, saviour guilt and low self-esteem that has been the bread and butter of Christianity since Saint Paul first hung out his Faith Before Works shingle.

About as far from Christcore as you can get, a community of humanist rappers has been slowly congregating since the early 2000s. These performers wield the lyrical deftness of the rap medium to do everything from recounting their personal experiences of a youth laden with imposed religion to correcting misconceptions about scientific theory and practice.

It is a fascinating battle to observe, the Christcore contingent in possession of all the massive psychological machinery of Christian imagery and rhetoric, while the humanist rappers carry into the fray little more than a wagonload of textbooks and the fearless irreverence of the historical underdog. In the back and forth between these camps there is much that we as humanists can learn, not only from how our rap champions are infusing philosophy and science into a living art form, but also what day-to-day psychological needs the Christcore musicians are fulfilling that will always keep us coming up short with their fanbase and the large slice of humanity they represent, no matter how clever or creative we are.

To delve deeper into the strengths and tools of the genres, I’m going to limit myself to two sets of representative work, the EP Prevailer by For Today released just this month, and a set of tracks from the rap collective Grand Unified featuring the work of Tombstone da Deadman and Greydon Square.

Prevailer (you can listen to some sample tracks here) begins with the call to arms that I began this article with, and just gets creepier from there. It is a straight out military order to rise up under the command of Jesus and destroy this world of sinners. As if the opening declaration of war were too mild and understated, the song continues

Rise up, rise up.
Never again do we fight alone.
The promised One has come to set His people free.
From the ashes came our greatest victory.

This mystery has been revealed to the discerning:
The Lamb was slain; the Blood was shed; let death pass over us.
The sacrifice was made for sinners, undeserving.
Now we stand set apart to storm the gates of hell.

As extreme a rhetoric of ecstatic genocide as all of this is, it’s not atypical for the genre. “Wages of Sin” by War of Ages, “The Call” by In The Midst of Lions, and “Condemned” by Impending Doom are all more or less interchangeable songs that glorify holy war by dehumanizing the unfaithful. No, where For Today really pushes the envelope is in the inclusion of a concluding mass chant of “Rise Up! We are the Resistance!” that has a certain whiff, well more than a whiff – a positive SCENT, of Nuremberg to it.

For the suburban kid playing Call of Duty at three in the morning, unnoticed by his peers in the present and nothing more grand than a managerial position at Quick Burger to look forward to, this call to glory could easily be an attractive thing. The danger, of course, is that if that guy ever feels more than halfway decent about himself, the call will lose its lustre and start to appear more like the grotesquely shambling farce it is. That’s where the rest of the songs come in. Track two, “Crown of Thorns”, seems at first like the usual “Crucifixion is really quite unpleasant” song that we’ve been hearing since televangelism first made mass market thorns-and-nails fetishism a thing back in the ’80s. Where it starts to turn is with the tear-soaked lament-scream of…

It should have been me,
With the nails through my hands and feet,
Facing the wrath of God.
It should have been me,
Left to pay for my sin, forsaken.
But in the blood, I stand here.

Is there anything more diabolically well suited to keep somebody enlisted in the warrior mindset than thrusting upon them a world-historical level of survivor’s guilt? (Though, come to think of it, if one would define Christianity generally as Survivor’s Guilt Gone Galactic one wouldn’t err over-much.) You will stay, and you will fight, because this perfect man died when it should have been YOU. And so, by track four, after several more exercises in declaring one’s own personal worthlessness and being assured that the rest of the world despises you as you are, we are set for the rousing terrorist in training conclusion that

I walk the narrow road,
And follow the one that can set me free.
I never have to walk alone.
This is my destiny.
I’ve found something worth dying for.

End album. I’m not saying that the musicians of For Today are master manipulators of mass psychology. For the most part, they can barely be compelled to play their guitars outside of The Box let alone craft a master plan for building an army of disaffected youths. What they are is six guys who were so utterly overtaken by a tradition of imagery and linguistic feints that they can’t help but reproduce that process of subjugation in their work. In Prevailer what we see is men re-enacting their own emotional execution at the same time as they perpetuate it. That’s a powerful thing when you’ve got nothing going for you. It carries an intensity that fills voids which humanism, and particularly atheism, has been justifiably reluctant to engage with.

Or rather, had been. Enter Grand Unified, a collective of around 20 humanist musicians formed in 2011. The collective is the brain child of rapper Greydon Square, a veteran of the war in Iraq and committed atheist whose 2007 album The Compton Effect stands as one of the foundational works of humanist rap. What makes the album work so well, and has also served as a template for the larger success of the Grand Unified project, is its willingness to add personal narrative to the usual atheist repertoire of clever argumentation and snark.

Don’t get me wrong – there is enough of both of those in the average Square song to keep an old school atheist happy. “A Rational Response” faces off against Pascal’s Wager and clarifies the finer points of Argon dating. “Squared” quotes Stephen F Roberts and Carl Sagan while delving into the theological issue of God’s benevolence. It’s fun and clever, and turns the fine-honed smack talking skills of the rap battle tradition firmly at a target fully worthy of their devastating deployment. But if it were just fun and clever games of logic and science, humanism would be where it has always been – that kid in the class who knows the answers but whom nobody can identify with and therefore nobody wants to emulate.

No, Square and Grand Unified offer something more – a biographical approach to the atheist story, a humanizing of humanism that anybody can relate to and sympathize with. In “Molotov”, Square raps about what it was like to be a soldier in a United States Army that was overwhelmingly suspicious of atheism and atheists:

God Bless the troops, that's kinda odd
America only blesses you as a troop if you believe in their Gods
So where does that leave me?
They tell me to leave G
But at the same time they tell me America needs me.

In those five lines, Square captures an entire way of life – a desperate and confused hiding in the shadows not for something that you’ve done, but for something you don’t personally believe. There’s not a person in the world who hasn’t had to deal with the dull ache and fear of carrying convictions that aren’t those of one’s peer group or colleagues, and for those people, should they hear this song, humanism becomes less The Practice Of Insufferable Smart Alecks and more A Hard Fought Path Against Far Odds.

Tombstone da Deadman, another member of Grand Unified, continues this mixture of emotional investigation and rigorous positivism to great effect in “Ballad of the Non-Believer”, the first lines of which I quoted at the outset. Leading up to the first chorus, Tombstone ruminates on his upbringing, on being a kid thrust into a belief system not of his choosing. What makes it such a uniquely powerful piece of music is that he is honestly concerned with parsing the experience in its fullness, rather than simply raging against lost innocence and ignorant parenting, as many of us are wont to do. He peels back the layers of emotional significance in search of what that type of upbringing offered, why it felt so natural for so long, and how easy it would be just to rest in the comfortable place it provided. It’s one of the few pieces of humanist music that I can play for theists that they don’t instantly reject out of hand, just because they sense how earnestly Tombstone is working to understand what was done to him and where it all tends when stretched to the global scale.

Of course, that indulgence usually vaporizes with the second verse, where Tombstone rises to attack the hypocrisy of defaming science and villainising scientists while benefitting massively and directly from both, while the third is a full-on rap battle call out, a throwing down of the gauntlet in the grand style. Each verse could form the backbone for a whole song, and those songs would be enjoyable, but fused together they represent a sort of living document of a new approach to positivist artistic expression – uncompromising in fundamental principle, fearless in its championing of science and human freedom, but with an emotional sophistication that was often lacking in the “And here is a forty-SEVENTH argument against the Ontological Proof of God’s existence” brand of atheism that I grew up with.

Even at their most inflammatory, in those songs dripping with frustration and disappointment that so much of the structure of daily life is ordered on religious principles of dubious provenance, Grand Unified keep on their message of education and discussion, a devotion which keeps them from the excesses of the Christcore camp. Instead of calling lonely and hopeless individuals to rise up and destroy the enemies of their wrongfully executed saviour, Grand Unified urge them to demand the right to think, and offer up their own stories of struggle and hardship to light the way out of the dark.

If we could do that more often, laying aside our love of debate and conflict in favor of the simple connection found in creatively sharing our stories of adversity overcome (and not yet overcome), perhaps we could finally work our way as humanists out of the tightening circle that the logic of over-cleverness often demands. Taking notes on human frailty from Christcore and on ourselves from Grand Unified, perhaps humanism can craft for itself a face to go with its brain.

Wouldn’t that be something?