Remember Death by Matthew McCullough, Free for CAPC Members
Matthew McCullough suggests that death awareness allows us to find joy in the problems of this world.
When Nina Simone debuted her controversial single “Mississippi Goddam” in 1964 in front of a majority white audience at Carnegie Hall, it was in direct response to the assassination of Medgar Evers and the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in Birmingham, Alabama, which killed four little girls. Simone’s lyrics, “And everybody knows about Mississippi goddam!” was a true declaration that everybody indeed knew about unjust happenings in the South. But personalizing those atrocities seemed to confound appreciators of Simone’s music, which motivated her to craft the jazzy show-tune.
Like Simone, Reach Records artist WHATUPRG also aims to personalize the struggle of his people with his recent EP Raul. Most know about the highly politicized debate involving the cruelties of family separation and the immigration crises that’s sparked exaggerated claims of “bad hombres,” “animals…rapists…[and] criminals” trying to invade our country. But I wonder how many of us actually know how this debacle is affecting our immigrant neighbors.
WHATUPRG uses Raul—his birth name, J. Raul Garcia—to give outsiders an opportunity to understand the struggle and collateral damage caused when we objectify and break apart families. Raul offers a unique and in-depth look of how the crippling weight of deportation can create emotional trauma for hard-working, law-abiding families. Throughout the EP, WHATUPRG (RG) exposes his struggle with faith, the emotions of missing his deported father, and the oxymoronic religiosity he observes from most Christian leaders who’d insist all people worship Jesus, but just not with them, in “their” country.
Many listeners quickly pointed out the laws and regulations regarding legal immigration. Even worse, some evangelicals took to social media to “educate” and confront RG on the legality of citizenship. But before the rift of what is legal or should be legal permeates the conversation, we’d all do well to consider RG’s humility in the face of hostility.Unfortunately, the only facet some people hear when they listen to Raul is a critique of “MAGA hats” and Christian conservatives; but, if we listen closer, we’ll find it’s much more than that.
When confronted with a lack of empathy via social media from some critics, RG humbly replied, “I have love for… anybody who [doesn’t] understand or sympathize [with] our struggle. It’s ok. I’m grateful they took the time to listen. Regardless, I got hundreds of messages from people who get it. People being challenged and changed. It’s all love. My heart is at peace.” In a cultural climate marked by bitter exchanges, RG’s response is a graceful alternative for the way believers can interact with indignant dissenters.
Regardless of his deferential response to disdainful detractors, some persist in over-looking RG and his family’s pain. Most of the pushback has come from his song “4AM”—the title referring to the time of day immigration agents came to his house to deport his father. The song is an honest acknowledgement of his shaky faith in light of his father’s absence and an open assessment of what he’s experienced from politically conservative-leaning evangelicals. “I don’t see Christ,” he raps, “Cause half the pastors in America/Don’t want my family in America/And even Jesus was an immigrant/But don’t nobody seem to give a…”
But a line in his second verse seems to rouse his critics most: “I had trouble believing the pastor say, ‘God’s got a plan in all of this’/As he smiled in a MAGA hat, I had to question his common sense/I mean can’t you see that we strugglin’/And you gon’ hit me with Bible scripts?/Forget religion and politics, man I just wanna have my dad back.” Some overlook the obvious pain in his words and instead focus on the “MAGA hats” line. For that reason, it’s worth briefly analyzing what those hats have come to mean in and for our society.
The “Make America Great Again” hats have become their own cultural symbol. Fashion critic Robin Givhan observes that the baseball caps are no longer statements of policy as much as they are “an inflammatory declaration of identity.” For her, and many others, like RG, they signify a set of cultural standards associated with the sitting President of the United States, white supremacist hate groups, and, unfortunately, unconcerned evangelical associations. So for WHATUPRG—a Christian hip hop artist—to highlight the MAGA hats is courageous and risky.
Rebuttals to the Raul EP and families grappling with separation have become a harmonious soliloquy: “Laws are laws.” But before we uphold all laws as sustainably moral, it’s safe to assume most of the same critics would not dismissively say the same as it relates to the legality of abortion. Most evangelicals uphold that those laws are unjust to the unborn—and they are. In the same light, it’s fair to say that some laws are unjust and some are indeed just. Nobody is immune to bringing their sociopolitical experiences and cultural influences to the table when determining which laws fall into what category—even if we’re trying to walk in a manner pleasing to the Lord.
So when dissecting the devastating psychological consequences of dividing families like RG’s, it might be worth considering how just, or unjust, America’s deportation practices are. The American Journal of Community Psychology’s policy statement on “The Effects of Deportation on Families and Communities” provides an informative and comprehensive perspective on the psychological effects the current deportation practices have on people—people made in the image of God. Those effects include, but aren’t limited to: fearful mistrust of public institutions, like churches; “associated anxiety and psychological stress… linked to cardiovascular risk factors”; anxiety; anger; depression; sadness; and shame. In light of these discoveries, the Society for Community Research and Action recommends that “the US should make policy and practice changes,” which include “[keeping] families together through comprehensive immigration reform that ends the threat of deportation and bolsters hardship ex-emptions for all family members.”
WHATUPRG exhibits all of the emotional stresses outlined in the Association’s publication. From the beginning of his EP, he transparently grieves, “I was just a kid when my dad got deported,” and cleverly interlaces innuendo regarding the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency: “Ever since then everything I.C.E. cold.” He continues the lyrical acrobatics, fusing wordplay with reality on “SWISH.” “Papa was an alien, the flow illegal” is a brilliant way of acknowledging his God-given lyrical skills, while unashamedly declaring his familial ties with his, at one-time, “illegal,” or undocumented, father.
Since the release of Raul, some young, conservative evangelicals have identified with the central father-son theme highlighted throughout the EP. Some even admitted they downplayed or ignored the effects deportation and immigration have on some of their Christian brothers and sisters. Micah Hampton tweeted, “As a conservative, all I want to say is, [RAUL] broke through the white privilege I didn’t know I had… [“4AM”] hit me so hard. I BELIEVED [RG]. All I heard was a kid wanting his dad back. Take away the politics, and that’s what it is. Like, if I was where he is, I would be wanting my dad back just like him. I couldn’t help to ignore that pain. I believe it. It’s. Real.”
Even those who have trouble believing race or ethnicity is tied to a particular cultural pain still find reason to empathize with Raul. Another user tweeted, “I think it’s more of a privilege of being born in America more than skin color. I can empathize with the feeling of his father being taken, very sad. It’s a solid album he put out, and shines light on something others like us most likely will never experience.”
Whether we’ve experienced the pain associated with family separation or not, Christians can at least identify with RG’s tension of believing God is good in the face of adversity. But to understand his specific conflict, it is important to contextualize his story. Fortunately, there isn’t much to decipher; RG’s transparency on Raul allows us to understand the details of his faith struggle.
Throughout the EP, RG isn’t shy about voicing the trouble he has reconciling his faith with what he sees from his Christian brothers and sisters—specifically the legalities they buttress and who they support politically. “Why daddy got handcuffs on em’?” he questions on the track “4AM.” “He ain’t never did nothin’… All he ever did was work for his children, pay the rent, little income.” In this open assessment of his faith, RG exposes the back and forth struggle all Christians wrestle with at various moments of their life. Except his struggle is in believing God to be good with the image seared in his memory of his dad being whisked from their home in handcuffs at 4 a.m. I can only imagine trying to reconcile that God is good if my loving father was taken from me at an influential age. It’s even harder for RG to reason when the only illegal activity he watched his father participate in was driving the church bus without a license. But even then, RG reasons, “At least he was helping people get to church.”
The wordplay WHATUPRG demonstrates throughout the album is both a testament to the type of ironic beauty pain can produce and an auditory gut-punch that should awaken us to the brokenness in and around us. Thankfully, there are EPs like Raul which serve as beneficial reminders that there is a world beyond what we now know; a place we all can call home, where there will be no more weeping, pain, nor separation (Revelation 21). But for now, these pains remain, and we must deal with it. But even with this knowledge, RG lifts his eyes to remind himself that “God is still present through our most loneliest nights” and that we can sometimes get so caught up in all our problems that we forget to live.
Nina Simone’s relationship with her fanbase was drastically transformed when she changed her delightful show tunes to empowering revelations of injustice. The same happened to Reach Records owner and hip hop artist Lecrae when he began speaking for the oppressed and marginalized. RG revealed that Lecrae told him to “get ready for the long nights and anxiety attacks,” to which RG replied, “I’ve been dealing with that for years.” Like Simone and Lecrae, WHATUPRG too is refining his fanbase simply by sharing his experiences of family separation due to the current injurious practices of deportation.
Unfortunately, the only facet some people hear when they listen to Raul is a critique of “MAGA hats” and Christian conservatives; but, if we listen closer, we’ll find it’s much more than that. Raul is about family, compassion, and patience. It’s about looking across the broken landscape of our world and considering how we may use the cross of Christ to bridge the prejudicial gaps of humanity. It’s about the greatest, surest, and only hope mankind has in the face of biases, unjust laws, and walls of hostility. It is an explicit and intimate display of the glory of God in the midst of dreadful circumstances.
Despite the painful process of being misunderstood, fan refinement, and family separation, RG’s dad imparts useful wisdom to WHATUPRG. Likewise, RG shares it with listeners on the interlude track titled “SR.” We hear RG’s dad tell him (translated from Spanish to English): “No son, we can’t give up. I know it’s not easy but we have to learn that our plans aren’t always God’s and God’s plans are perfect. Son, give it your all and don’t ever doubt God’s plans.”
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