“Gangsta’s Paradise” and Prayer

During the last month, I was a bit sick and had to stay at home, in bed. In order to escape boredom, I started to search for video-clips of songs I devoured at age 15, approximately. Upon opening the clip of Coolio’s “Gangsta’s Paradise,” I noticed two embarrassing interrelated facts: One is, that even though I did not listen to this song for at least 15 years, I know its lyrics by heart. The other is, that these lyrics have absolutely nothing to do with the life of 15 year-old Gymnasium-girls from Northern German small towns: “As I walk through the valley of the shadow of death…you better watch how you’re talking, and where you’re walking / Or you and your homies might be lined in chalk / I really hate to trip, but I gotta loc / As they croak I see myself in the pistol smoke, fool…”

Not a grain of dust in there that would somehow qualify as being related to my experience. So why do I know “Gangsta’s Paradise” by heart?!

My theory is this: “Gangsta’s Paradise” was composed, arranged and marketed as a song about the “ghetto,” for people who absolutely do not live in a ghetto: It was the soundtrack to a major blockbuster (Dangerous Minds with Michelle Pfeiffer) and was never meant to address anybody else but people like me. Because people like me (and with me, millions like me) are attracted to products, that are unlike the boredom surrounding them. Of course, those products cannot be too much unlike – that would make them awkward, unintelligible and as such unsellable. They have to be a mixture of “totally different, yet close enough to fantasize.” And ”Gangsta’s Paradise” was such a mixture: Even I had an image of American ghetto-life in my head, and that image of course cohered to the one evoked in “Gangsta’s Paradise.”

The distance between the consumer’s lived experience and that of the gangster is thus part and parcel of the marketing strategy. I am supposed to be a stranger to the gangster’s world. And more: I am not even meant to actually understand what the gangster says – I’d never be able to write the lyrics down, because even though they are in English, this is “some other kind of English.” Somehow related to the language we learn in school, recognizable, but different. So when I claim to know the song’s lyrics by heart, I do not mean to say that I know the text like an actor knows his script. I mean to say that once I hear the song’s first beats, my lips can imitate the sound of the words. This is not like memorizing a poem, but more like a child’s learning of its mother’s language: It captures the mood, the rhythm, the melody, long before understanding what its mother is trying to say. It imitates a sound without intellectually understanding the word.
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It seems to me that this mechanism is similar to prayer – not that kind of prayer one utters spontaneously, when one is in distress or great joy, but the prayer one repeats regularly, daily, or weekly, the prayer which is part of ritual and embodied practice. First of all, on the level of content, this kind of prayer entails both distance and closeness: it is remote, but not too remote. I have absolutely no “real” memory of, say, the Exodus from Egypt or the Temple and am not even interested in the historical details of this. The prayer’s world is, in this sense, very, very far away from me. But in another sense, it is close: When joy is expressed over the Exodus from Egypt, this somehow reenacts those moments in life, when one had a hard time, that passed by. When the prayer focuses on the hope for the Temple’s re-building, I understand that when the centre of one’s life is destroyed, one does not let it go. Even though politically speaking, a “re-building” of the Temple is probably the very last thing I long for, this prayer reminds me of the fact that things and people are not there forever, but really get lost, or are destroyed…

And like “Gangsta’s paradise,” prayer has a meaning beyond its verbal content in the narrow sense: As a non-native Hebrew speaker, the prayer’s words are partly unknown to me. That is, I “know” them in the sense, that I utter them, I know their sound, their context – but I have no idea how to translate them into German. Especially in those parts, that consists of Psalms, I am not grasping the precise meaning of words, but of sounds and arrays of words. I know parts of them “by heart,” but could never recite them if I’d had to begin at some other verse than the one I am used to start from, let alone translate them. One is not able to sing a song, when one has to start in the middle of the tune, but one is able to sing a song without understanding its lyrics. Like children, who imitate the sounds of those words they hear daily, again and again, a praying person, too, imitates a sound, again and again. And after a long while, that sound becomes the fundament of some kind of other, praying native language. It becomes part of one’s self.

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