Modern digital technology is a blessing and a curse. Everyone knows that. It has brought the globe a system of unprecedented ease of access to communication, research, media, and art. But, consequently, this generation’s unwritten goal to make everything more convenient is slowly dismembering American culture–one built and sustained on hard work, guts, grit, dirt, and did I say hard work? Soon, even reading will become too hard a task for our poor, 21st-century souls.
In my opinion, the benefits outweigh the detriments, especially when it comes to art. One form of art that is worth comparing to modern technology is early American literature. Early American literature’s content is unique. It focuses on periods of colonialism, nationalization, and transnational literature, or “literature beyond the country.” But early America’s most potent and talked-about event is slavery. The literature at the time reflects why. The fictional slave stories of Frederick Douglass and Harriet Beecher Stowe (who was white) and the slave narratives by Harriet Jacobs and other African American authors speak the true words of what America was like in the mid- to late nineteenth century. Early American literature has had a lasting impact on our current, contemporary American culture, specifically in the section of slave literature. There are clear parallels between American slave literature and the musical genre of hip-hop. One hip-hop artist that stands out is Lupe Fiasco. Like his ancestors, Lupe explores the struggles of slavery in his lengthy twenty-four-song album, “DROGAS WAVE“. The thematic range of the album is remarkable, covering topics such as nostalgia for slavery, death, rebirth, all the way to describing with vivid imagery and extended metaphors the situations of African invasion, slave trading, and the horrors of slave transportation on ships from east Africa to the United States.
This where the track “Wav Files” comes in.
“WAV Files” is the sixth track on the album and is the second longest in the long list of twenty-four different pieces that all come together to form one cohesive narrative. We’ll get back to this later on. For now, let’s dive into the lyrics and musical accompaniment Lupe uses in this iconic track.
Before we can understand what the lyrics are doing, we first must know the musical accompaniment with which they are interacting. Lupe Fiasco uses the same few measures on loop in “WAV Files”. The sound is consistent and ubiquitous. Deep 808s and bass lines register in at a tempo extremely close to 60 beats per minute, which is the same tempo as a clock and a human heartbeat at rest. Lupe literally brings his music to life to give the listener something to connect with as time passes while he tells his story. The middle and treble layers use drawn out, crescendo, quarter notes that sound like edited human voices in distress. Nonetheless, the combination with the wicked deep bass line is sort of comforting and gentle. Sedating if you will. This serves to lull listeners or even hypnotize them into hearing dramatic recounts of horrifying events that they otherwise would not like to hear. Lupe thinks they are necessary, as do most of us, so he takes control, sits you down, and tells it how it is, while you sit headbanging to the rhythm of your own heart.
Lupe begins his first verse with the evocative lines, “Wade with us / Baptize and convert to the waves with us / I tuned into what the future holds”. The first three lines are compelling, addressing the audience, or the slaves on the slave ship on which this song is set, to wade into the water. This could be an ode to an abolitionist song, “Wade in the Water,” that helped guide African Americans to freedom along the underground railroad. Water is also a multifaceted symbol. It can symbolize purity or cleansing in a biblical way, danger or drowning in a horror-driven way, or refreshment and energy in an ecological way. All are noticeable throughout the song. “Baptize and convert to the waves with us” explains that in wading into the water, one will be baptized (which requires one to either be submerged in water completely or partially) and thus saved under the salvation of God.
Christianity plays a massive role in slave literature. They are strengthening to the slaves who use them to cope with their fate. However, religion is also used to oppress slaves. We can see this in Harriet Jacobs’s slave narrative, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. Lupe might be taking a stance here, using religion and baptismal promises of safety and healing as a lure to kill the Africans on the slave ships, or he could be offering them as a chance at eternal survival away from their impending fate as tortured slaves.
The chorus proves the latter. Lupe’s voice drops an octave into an enchanting low tone that, coupled with the deep bass line, resonates with masculinity; “My bones is why the beach is white / why the beach is white ’cause they bleached us light / So I’m goin’ back home, I took a leap last night / So I’m walkin’ on water ’til y feet just like Jesus Christ.” These lines are loaded. Lupe is stating in the first lines that the reason the beaches that border all oceans, specifically those bordering the States along the boat ride from Africa to the United States, are bleached white because of his bones. These bones are not just his, however, but all of the slaves who took the fatal “leap” to freedom from the slave ships into the ocean. Their bones, pulverized on rocks and coral, are the particles of sand that connect land to sea. This connection is extremely significant. Not only does it provide a clear contrast between the freedom for slaves in the sea and the slavery on land, but it explores the dynamic qualities of what beaches are made of. Sand. Sand is a primary material used in the metal casting process. Bronze and copper were two of the most abundant resources at the time to create the currency used for purchasing slaves from African countries. Manilla was its name, and also the name of the third track on “DROGAS WAVE”. These small metal pieces were traded for slaves and without them, the entire infrastructure of slavery would not exist. Lupe’s use of irony here states that even in death, Africans at this time were still in danger of being used as a mere resource.
In the next verses, Lupe calls out specific slave ships by name; over 70 of them. The accountability of being called by name is potent, to say the least. Before this, he calls the Africans on board to action; “Yeah, shipwreck with us / Grab vessels, bring ’em down to the depths with us.” Clearly, the speaker of the song is serving as some sort of omnipotent being who is gently guiding his fellow Africans to freedom, even if it means death.
The song ends with a soft outro. This softness parallels early American slave literature dealing with slave rebellion. There are two resulting schools of thought on what a slave rebellion should be. One thinks a violent, aggressive strategy is most effective while others believe a subtle, more passive/grassroots approach is best. Lupe is giving us a glimpse into a subtle, soft form of slave rebellion. He repeats the same four lines four times at different pitches; “Seas, all that I have for you, forest / Fire and maps for you, stars / Fall off the flag for you, sugar / Sweeten the path for you…” Giving all of himself to the seas is the speaker’s giving his life to the sea in exchange for freedom. Doing so slowly deteriorates the system of slavery that dominates the United States, which is symbolized by the stars falling off the flag. A powerful image to say the least.
Yes, Lupe Fiasco’s “WAV Files,” whose title refers to the type of file a song must be converted to be uploaded to iTunes or other music programs, is a song on its own that has its own purposes and tells its own story. However, it is important to know that the song is part of a larger narrative inside the larger project album, “DROGAS WAVE.” The length of the album is unconventional in its genre. Usually, longer albums in the rap/hip-hop game are seen as “trying too hard” or “pushing too much product at one time.” This one is different. Each song uses the previous song to tell the complete 24 track narrative. Other tracks that stand out are the aforementioned “Manilla,” regarding currency, and “Haile Selassie,” in tribute to the Ethiopian emperor. He even mentions one of the most widely known hip-hop artists out there, Nas, in the track “King Nas”–a tribute to one of the current kings of the rap game.
Music and song are becoming primary forms of media whereas, in the nineetenth-century, perhaps print literature held the title. Hip-hop is a predominantly black genre. It was built by urban African Americans for everyone and, with respectful exceptions, remains an exclusive form of art. It is important that “WAV Files” is a song and not a book or movie or even an album. Songs tell short stories and are designed to be listened to more than once. Their small size allows easy consumption and influence, whether that be conscious or subconscious. They are subliminal tools used, now more than ever, to convey political messages to the largest audience known to any form of art. More people listen to music than read books. That’s a fact of the twenty-first century. Music is filling the proverbial shoes of books and coming in with dignity and respect to serve as the new form of literature–in “WAV Files’s” case, Early American Literature.
To listen to the song “WAV Files”, click here (headphones recommended).
For the lyrics of “WAV Files”, and some insight into what they might mean, click here.
For information about the song “Wade in the Water”, click here.