A funny thing happened to Alfred North Whitehead on his way to writing Process and Reality. He drew the conclusion that all actual entities in the universe – atomic, molecular, cellular, mammalian, and galactic – are driven by a desire for intense experience. This includes the person walking in the photograph. Yes, the person is alone, and often we seek intensity in relation with others. But inside the person's heart and mind, there is a desire for intensity. Indeed Whitehead believed that the very Soul of the universe is also driven by that desire.
This Soul is more than everything added together and in this sense it is transcendent. But it is inside the person walking as an indwelling lure toward intensity. A Sufi mystic, or John of the Cross, would speak of this soul as the divine Beloved. Jewish and Christian mystics throughout the ages have seen this Beloved in erotic imagery of the Song of Songs in the Bible. Whitehead leans in this direction when he compares God to an invisible magnet or "object of desire." The Beloved dwells within each heart as a lure toward intensity.
Whitehead believed that this desire for intense experience is an end in itself. A single moment of such experience may last only for a moment, but in that moment there is something beautiful and alive. There is, in the words of the theologian Mayra Rivera Rivera, a touch of transcendence.
What is transcended in the transcendence? In truth there are many things that can be transcended. The ethically-minded among us want to emphasize the importance of transcending self-seeking, ego-based desires for personal well-being. We will say that we become fully alive when our small selves have dropped away and we feel more connected with other people and the wider whole; when we dwell in harmony with the Ten Thousand Things.
There is indeed something beautiful and transcendent in these moments, as evidenced in simple acts of kindness. Jesus called these moments “the kingdom of God.” They are the momentary incarnations of the Love Supreme. Their extension lies in quests for justice, for what Martin Luther King calls beloved community. Certainly there is some rap which is in the spirit of King. It is a protest against the injustices of our time and a protest for a more just society. Call this ethically-minded rap.
But there is another kind of transcendence we see in rap which is also connected to the Love Supreme. Let’s call it ecstatic transcendence. It is driven, not by a quest for justice, but rather for a quest for ecstasy: for what Whitehead calls a moment of joy. This quest for a moment of joy is as religious in its way, as is the quest for a just society in its way. But the religion at issue is not that of ethics. It is that of orgiastic pleasure, of returning to the cosmic womb in which boundaries have fallen away and all there is, for the experiencing soul, is harmonious intensity and intense harmony. Sometimes the ethically minded do not understand this intensity. This intensity can lean in one of two directions: rebellion against established order or surrender to the all. Both are intense.
Of course rappers did not invent this kind of transcendence. We hear ecstasy as we listen to the screaming of John Coltrane’s saxophone in its exploration of pure possibilities for sound. To be sure, there are moments when the sounds are tinged with ethical sensibilities. But so often they are propelled by a different but no less compelling spirit. Whitehead called it a revolt against heaven or, for short, storming heaven.
In Part Five of Process and Reality he talks about a need in human life to achieve order and stability, which is a form of beauty, but also a need to revolt against forms of order and stability when they have grown stale. The order at issue can be a certain form of social order or it can be a certain form of mental order. These forms of mental order are not disconnected from social order. They are habitual ways of thinking or speaking or feeling as expressed in predictable grammar and syntax; in prohibitions against profanity. Oppressive stability is found in predictable forms of speech which never surprise anybody but only “inform.” Here, too, there a need for revolt, for exploring new possibilities which require a breakdown of the old forms, in order to make room for novelty: Let “heaven” be a metaphor for the old forms of order. There is a need to storm heaven, to take it over, to rebel.
Please understand: “heaven” is not evil. There is beauty in the predictable, too. Often there is glory in stability. But there is also a time for revolt. As Ecclesiastes puts it: for every time there is a season. In Whitehead’s words:
"There is a greatness in the lives of those who build up religious systems…and a greatness in those who destroy such systems: they are the titans who storm heaven, armed with passionate sincerity. It may be the revolt is the mere assertion by youth of its right to its proper brilliance, to that final good which is immediate joy. " (PR 338)
I am sure that Whitehead’s phrase “mere assertion by youth” might be offensive to those of us who love hip-hop. But let’s forgive him and recognize the wisdom of saying that there is room in life for the “brilliance” of a “final good” which is “immediate joy.” Is this not ecstasy? And is this not what Lil Wayne and other rappers have become vessels for?
Byrd McDaniel, makes it clear in an article written in The Third Word (www.thethirdword.net.) about Lil Wayne.
"What is inside Lil Wayne? The plight of a black man in today's America; the hallowed voice of a destroyed city; the catharsis of a sexualized monster; the vexation of a diabolic genius; the vengeance of a raging demon; the hallucinogenic wanderings of a vanquished soul; the plea of a devastated alien; the limits of language; the wicked screams of a mad hatter; a tour through the tormented mind of a haunted ventriloquist; the plight of the modern man. He's so misunderstood. But what's the world without enigma?"
So writes Byrd McDaniel. The enigma of Lil Wayne -- to quote Byrd McDaniel -- is that he is all these people, and many more besides. His perpetual movement into something new – his revolt against heaven – is itself inspired by heaven. Even the Soul of the universe seeks novelty for own sake and sometimes inspires us to do the same. There is a joy in newness itself: a freedom in the freshness.
In any case, like the Soul of the universe, Lil Wayne and many other rappers in perpetual pursuit of novelty. They are as driven in their way as was Coltrane in his way. Sometimes this drivenness leads to self-destructive behavior. We recall that Coltrane had a problem with drugs, and that he attributed his own release from addiction to the tenderness of the Love supreme. But he never stopped screaming with his saxophone. Lil Wayne may well be addicted, too. Certainly he ingests enough cough medicine and marijuana to merit the question.
But at issue here is the question: What’s driving him? With Whiteheadian ears I suggest Heaven itself is driving him. Not the Heaven of predictable forms of order, but the Heaven which sometimes inspires a revolt against heaven and enjoys the freedom of pure sound poetry, pure rapping.
Would it be good if Lil Wayne tailored his revolt with kindness? I think so. Would it be good if he let go of his preoccupation with guns? Of course. There is ecstasy in violence, which all soldiers known, but not the kind of beauty sought by the Soul of the universe. The spirit of violence is intoxicating but self-destructive. The Soul seeks mutually enhancing ecstasy, where people grow more alive, not dead, from intensity. Harmonious intensity. Would it be good if Lil Wayne had a dose of John Coltrane and Martin Luther King in him? Would it be good if he became smitten by a Love supreme? Could he rap even better? I think so. Who knows, perhaps in the spirit of Martin Luther King, he could learn to rap like Jesus, in whose crazy stories -- sometimes called parables, turning everything upside down -- we find the spirit of rap, too. Christians believe that Jesus was rap incarnate.
Still there is something profound in the sheer act of rapping, and in the excellence with which he does it. And in the excellence with which sisters in the house of rap -- Eryka Badu, for example -- rap as well. And Chinese and Korean and Japanese rappers, too. And African and Russian and Brazilian rappers as well.
It’s a little like speaking in tongues. When people speak in tongues they are not trying to get somewhere else. They are experiencing a moment of joy in an immediate act of communion with the soul of the universe. When Lil Wayne raps, he, too, is experiencing a moment of joy – tinged with pain and anger – in communion with the soul of the universe. After all, the Soul of the universe experiences pain, too. The Soul is, in Whitehead’s words, a fellow sufferer who understands life’s agonies and who shares in these agonies. God, too, knows pain. Even in Heaven there is agony.
Understood in this way, the very act of rapping is a kind of ecstatic speech, a revolt against heaven, inspired by Heaven, for novelty’s sake, for Heaven’s sake. In the spirit of Martin Luther King, may this novety be tailored by love. And in the spirit of Coltrane, may it never lose its freedom.