Philosophy: the word comes from the Greek philo – love – and sophos, wisdom. But what does it have to do with us – or, more to the point, with modern music?
Even though a lot of people (probably your parents) dismiss rap as “not really music,” it’s an incredibly complex art form that explores questions about social justice, ethics, and other big-picture issues. Here, we’ll break down some of those topics through the lens of Classical philosophers: Plato, Aristotle, Socrates, and the other OGs someone made you read in high school history classes.
Here’s an example: in Plato’s Apology of Socrates, presented at the trial that led to Socrates’s execution in 399 BCE, Socrates is quoted saying, “Oh my friend, why do you care so much about laying up the greatest amount of money and honor and reputation, and so little about wisdom and truth and the greatest improvement of the soul?” In simpler terms, why is improving your status more important to you than improving the person that you are?
Over two thousand years later, in 1993, Nas, AZ, and Olu Dara would record Life’s a Bitch, a genre classic: “Visualizin’ the realism of life in actuality; f*** who’s the baddest, a person’s status depends on salary.” Even though the lyric initially seems to glorify financial gain and a laundry list of bad behavior when taken out of context, in a 2007 article with Rolling Stone, Nas would go on to discuss how much the collaboration had meant to him and Olu Dara, his father: “I asked my dad to play on the end of it — I told him to play whatever comes to mind when he thinks of me as a kid. I think he’s really proud to see me coming up and really taking my life serious and doing what I want.”
Both Socrates and Nas stress the importance of living an authentic life that holds true value, with the latter writing: “I woke up early on my born day; I’m 20, it’s a blessing. / The essence of adolescence leaves my body, now I’m fresh and / My physical frame is celebrated cause I made it / One quarter through life some Godly-like thing created.” The optimism and sense of rebirth and renewal in Nas’s lyric is a perfect rebuttal to the disappointment and disapproval of Socrates’s two-thousand-year-old question.
As Canibus says in his Poet Laureate II, “A wise man sees failure as progress, a fool divorces his knowledge and misses the logic.” Even though philosophy and hip hop seem to be worlds apart, the questions at the heart of both have remained largely the same for millennia, and the two complement each other in fascinating ways.
We’ve started this blog to increase interest in and appreciation of both disciplines, and we hope you’ll enjoy exploring along with us. Argue with us in the comments, suggest a song for us to deconstruct, or just reach out to let us know what you think. Thanks for reading!