School’s Out

“Most people stop for signs, but I’ve driven through it:
If it don’t touch my soul, then I can’t listen to it.” – Big K.R.I.T., The Vent

Music so often becomes accidentally, inextricably linked with moments from our lives – a first kiss, a worst day, a best friend a last goodbye – so why not use those tendencies to create meaningful, even philosophical, connections? We’ve talked about social change as a function of music before, but a listener’s interior, personal changes, while less immediately obvious, are equally important.

In Plato’s Republic, Socrates is credited as having said that “musical training is a more potent instrument than any other, because rhythm and harmony find their way into the inward places of the soul – on which they mightily fasten – imparting grace.” And even today, music maintains an important role in learning, from Mother Goose rhymes in preschool to the Top 40 lyrics that become impossible to forget when the notes we’re desperately highlighting for finals seem impossible to remember.

In their song Waiting for the Beat to Kick In, which deals with subjects as diverse and as universal as sleep, kindness, serenity, anger, integrity, and inertia, the hip hop duo Dan le Sac Vs Scroobius Pip state their mission thus: “Silently I step up with a subversive subtext, / Trying to feed the need for more than just remedial subjects: / Place my faith in the belief that the general public / Will open up their minds to more than just an industry puppet.” The idea, then, is to write – and to listen to – music that has meaning as well as entertainment value for the listener, something that will improve not only the hearer’s mood but also his mind, changing not just a day, but a life.

Happy listening – happy learning.


Into the Light

“Meet me at the fork in the road, where the lost souls get indecisive; Meet me at the crossroads, so I can have someone to walk into the light with.” – Sage Francis, Crackpipes

As this adventure in blogging draws to a close, it’s time to look to other endings: death, while never exactly a pleasant topic, is a frequent one in art of all kinds. Music, visual art, and literature all try to explore what lies beyond the edges of our consciousness, what Shakespeare describes as “the undiscovered country from whose bourn no traveler returns” – the place no one has been and no one will come back from.

But what happens when we die? Does the essence of a person decay with his body? Our favorite artists and philosophers say no. Slug says that “a soul is a soul, and a shell is a shell – the border in between is full of everything you felt”: the body is mortal, but the soul persists after death. His thoughts are echoed by Plato’s idea that “the soul takes nothing with her to the next world but her education and her culture.” Material things, including the body, are worthless to us at the point of death. The answer, then, is not in how you die, but how you live.

Talib Kweli states that “Life without knowledge is death in disguise,” which is almost identical to the thought motivating Socrates’s declaration that “the unexamined life is not worth living.” In this light, then, truth is the highest aim of life – to know, to continually learn, is to fully experience the world around us.

So learn something every day. Listen to the people around you to see if they have something to teach you. Don’t be a lost soul when your time comes to walk into the light.

Get Schooled

“A wise man sees failure as progress, a fool divorces his knowledge and misses the logic.” – Canibus, Poet Laureate II

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!