Monday, December 10, 2012

On Selling Out and Redemption

by Ben Howard

In the summer of 2010 I spent a lot of time watching the World Cup. Games would start somewhere around 6 am (Nigeria v. Greece, what a morning!) and go until early afternoon. I was working at a bookstore, so I typically had random hours off to just enjoy the spectacle. Since, I was watching the whole event online via ESPN3 (Now WatchESPN), I was treated to the same commercial on repeat for the duration of the event. It was a World Cup-style Coke commercial and even though I had heard it blaring at least 200 or 300 times by the end of the month I was obsessed with the song they used.

After some digging I found out that the song was actually a remix of a song called “Wavin’ Flag” by a Somalian poet and rapper named K’Naan. I went online, listened to a few of his songs on YouTube, and then downloaded the album Troubadour. It’s amazing and is still my favorite rap album.

The stories he told and the worlds he painted in his songs were just the right mix of playful and serious. And the serious songs weren’t the na├»ve emotional pinings of most artists, instead they were stories about his youth in Africa, about his friend’s who died, about the difficulty of immigrating to North America, and about all the uncomfortable feelings of hope and pain that we experience as we grow up and learn about life.

That’s why I was both heartened and grieved to read this op-ed piece by K’Naan in the New York Times. I was grieved because in the piece K’Naan details the advice that led him to change his latest record in the search for a wider audience and more success. He laments how the changes robbed his latest album of the soul and grit of his earlier works, and how he feels like he has lost his voice in a search for success.

But I was simultaneously heartened to discover an artist who is exactly what I wanted him to be. He isn’t pretending to be thoughtful and reflective; he actually is thoughtful and reflective. It was heartening to hear an honest and, yes, painful story about selling yourself out and trying to recover your authenticity.

In one particularly heart-breaking passage, K’Naan writes, “A question had raised its hand in the quiet of my soul: What do you do after success? What must you do to keep it?”

After acknowledging the way he changed his music, he continues, “So some songs became far more Top 40 friendly, but infinitely cheaper,” and reflecting on the difference between his albums, “The first felt to me like a soul with a paintbrush; the other a body with no soul at all.”

Reading this article made me ache for K’Naan, but it also made me admire him for being so honest, so vulnerable.

You see, this isn’t just the story of a rapper, not just the story of an artist selling out. It’s the story of all of us. This is a story of how we too often dismiss the reality of who we are, the story of our lives with all of its baggage, in favor of a nicer, more stream-lined story that we hope will win us love and affection.

On Saturday I posted a song by Pedro the Lion that speaks to this very sentiment. Its title sums up the fear so many of us feel, the same fear that K’Naan apparently felt, “When They Really Get To Know Us They Will Run.”

I’m here to say that the stream-lined story, the one I present when I want to be cool, or composed, or accepted, or successful, is not true. Neither is yours. Neither is anyone else’s. Everybody has their baggage and their cracks, they don’t define us, but they are a part of who we are and we must own them. It’s your story, tell it!

That goes for the institutions in our society as well. I focus a lot of attention here on critiquing the Church and calling for them to be more honest and more open about who they really are and this moment is no different. Guess what, the Church has done some horrible things in its history and we need to acknowledge that and realize that it’s a part of the Church’s story. The Church has also done some amazing things, some well-known, some lost to the sands of time, and that’s part of the Church’s story too.

This goes for your country too. As a citizen of the United States, I’m aware that my country has done some pretty terrible things, in fact we’re probably doing some terrible things right now, and that is part of our story. No matter how far we try to run from the ways in which we have compromised ourselves, no matter how far we run from our past and we’ve done, we cannot escape or gloss over it. It is part of who we, as a nation, are. But it is not all we are.

There are many wonderful things about the United States, perhaps they’re overwhelmed by the negative, but that would require a mighty cynical worldview in my estimation. This goes for other countries too; there are positives and negatives for every nation, every country, every tribe, and every ethnicity. Everybody has a story and every story has a few twists and turns that nobody originally intended and no one wants to remember.

In my mind, this acceptance of what we’ve done in whitewashing our stories, and simultaneously embracing who we are, even if it’s gritty and dirty and occasionally uncomfortable, is part of redemption. It’s part of being made new. We have to learn who we are, who we truly are, in order to live into who God has created us to be. Also, we have to be gracious enough to allow others to do the same, whether they are people, the Church, or the United States of America. Redemption does not avoid pain, it comes through it and I look forward to K’Naan’s redemption, just like I look forward to mine.


You can follow Ben on Twitter @BenHoward87 or email him at benjamin.howard87 [at]

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