Shad, Hip-Hop, and the Prideful Ego-Drama

August 18, 2022

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(Image courtesy of OzFutura via Flickr)

Shad, whose real name is Shadrach Kabango, is a Canadian rapper and broadcaster. He’s released seven studio albums, was the host of the CBC’s Q radio program, and currently hosts the documentary series Hip-Hop Evolution on Netflix.

Shad is more thoughtful in his lyrics than most rappers and has never shied away from putting his faith in music. His style is very self-aware and intellectual. He doesn’t curse in his music, yet he is widely considered one of the greatest Canadian rappers of all-time. He is also quite clever in how he incorporates his faith into his lyrics, while still having a large mainstream audience.

One of his early songs, “I Heard You Had a Voice Like an Angel / Psalm 137,” tells the story of Lucifer’s fall from grace, while also drawing parallels between Lucifer’s pride and the present state of the hip-hop music industry, including the rappers working in it.

The primary sin of Lucifer—the primary sin of all us sinners—is that of pride. Some scholars hold that Lucifer was the most perfect of God’s creatures. He was the Angel of Light but thought himself better than God and attempted to usurp God’s throne. This resulted in Lucifer living in hell, something vividly described in Dante’s Divine Comedy. Lucifer’s punishment is the opposite of his aim: power over God.

Instead, pride causes Satan’s separation from God. In Dante, the deepest punishment is to suffer separation from God, who is Being itself—to be apart from what is “to be to-be.” Recently, Bishop Barron was on the Lex Fridman Podcast, speaking about Dante’s image of Satan in hell:

[Satan’s] at the center of the Earth. Like a black hole that way—he’s at the center of gravity. He’s at the heaviest place. And there’s not fire where he is, but ice. It’s a much, much better image. You’re frozen in place, and you’re stuck. And he’s got wings. They used to be angel wings because he’s an angel, but now they’re like batwings for Dante. They’re flapping, and all they’re doing is making the world around him colder—because he’s ice, he’s stuck in his own iciness. He’s beating his wings over the ice, making everyone else colder.

For Dante, Lucifer is in the fourth ring of the ninth circle of hell. This place is reserved for those who betray people who offer them help, such as Judas with Jesus, or Lucifer with God. Bishop Barron continues:

He has three faces, Satan, because he’s a simulacrum of the Trinity. Every sinner thinks he’s God: “I pretend I’m God.” He’s got the three faces, and from all six eyes he weeps. Also, from all three mouths he’s chewing a sinner. He’s got Cassius, Brutus, and Judas in the three mouths—the three traitors. But I’ve always thought, it’s just a great image of all of us sinners. We’re stuck, it’s heavy, it’s cold, we’re chewing on our past resentments, we’re weeping in our sadness, and we’re making the world around us colder.

Now, Shad is keenly aware of hip-hop’s tendency to make pride a virtue. It’s the aspect of hip-hop that either turns people away from it completely or attracts them to it in the first place. There is something to be said for drawing confidence from someone else’s self-belief, which hip-hop provides. But unfortunately, when that feeling turns into pride, it leads to separation from God. Even those among us who have a voice like an angel can lose our brightness, when we think our star is brighter than the Origin of stars. Many hip-hop artists, and all of us in our less-inspired moments, attempt to live in the ego-drama, which is our own drama that we direct, rather than the theo-drama, which is the great drama that God is directing. 

The ego-drama tends to draw us apart from each other, and this is far too often the case in hip-hop. That is what most people do not like about the genre: self-confidence often turns into pride. There is a place for healthy competition, where people are striving to be the best within the confines of a game. However, as Shad notes through the story of Lucifer’s fall, stars can think they are brighter than the One who created light. When that happens, the ego-drama becomes more important than the theo-drama, and we soon find ourselves near Dante’s ninth circle of hell.

This is often the case with music superstars, as fame changes a person’s life and sense of self. A person begins, subtly, to think they are above God. Then they are lead down an icy path of separation, pulling everything into their collapsing self, like a black hole. Lucifer’s name means “Morning Star.” He’s a bright star who collapses in on himself, like a black hole. 

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“It’s so heavy, it draws everything including light, and nothing can escape from it,” Bishop Barron says about sin, the wages of pride, comparing it to a black hole. And that is what we sinners are like; we fall into thinking the moment is ours. “What that does is it kill us off. It darkens life. It makes it small, and heavy, and awful,” Bishop Barron says. But to be really radiant is to put God’s light above ours, including one’s own success. That is to live in the theo-drama, and some hip-hop artists do it well. That is the place where God’s story is more important than our own project for our life. And while the ego-drama tends to lead to battles, which are so common in hip-hop, the theo-drama leads to collaborations, also very prevalent in hip-hop. When we step into our role in the theo-drama, God is more noticeably present in our relationships.

Bishop Barron contrasts our prideful tendency with the image of a dog on the beach, chasing a ball in the surf, completely lost in the moment. That is the true definition of humility, humilitas: to not even be thinking of one’s self, but to be lost in God’s moment. “Those are the best moments in life. Because they’re the least prideful moments,” Bishop Barron says. “The light comes out. I become radiant because I’m overcoming this tendency to fall into myself.”

Shad’s song has the alternative title of “Psalm 137” because the artist who is trapped in the ice of the ego-drama can often find themselves in a situation similar to the Jewish people during the Babylonian captivity. Being ordered to perform songs in an alien land, for strange people, who are now in charge of the artist’s life—an icy separation for thinking one is above God. Yet, the musician in Psalm 137 refuses and swears an oath to always sing songs that exalt Jerusalem.

Tragically, the more success that surrounds an artist, the greater is the temptation to think of oneself as Being itself, even subtly. And that is often the case, and even celebrated, in much of hip-hop. But it’s not a necessary feature of hip-hop. One can have humilitas and self-confidence without pride, while knowing the light of one’s God-given talent.

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