Junior year of high school my AP English teacher assigned the class Milton’s Paradise Lost. As a fun activity, we were split into two groups in order to argue whether in the epic poem Satan was a hero or villain. My best friend at the time was assigned to the “Satan is a villain” group and I, of course, was assigned to “Satan is a hero.”
In the context of the poem, Satan proved himself heroic in the way he stood up to God and demanded equal status. Despite the negative stigma to the name — everyone hates Satan, especially Christians — I went hard in class that day for Satan’s cause.
When it comes to debates, especially when I’m being the devil’s advocate (no pun intended), I must win them. Not everyone on my team was willing to put forth the same energy as I, despite the fact that the “Satan is a villain” group was coming for my jugular. More particularly, my best friend was coming for me — and not in the “academic argument” kind of way. No, she was furious. This was personal.
After class I asked her what’s wrong and she said to me, “You’re an atheist. I can’t be friends with an atheist; it goes against everything I believe in.” Her statements were followed by some mention of her needing to pray for my soul so I can stop being a devil worshiper.
Was I an atheist? Absolutely. Did I worship the devil? No.
My beliefs, or lack of, caused a rift in our friendship. I was constantly asked by others how I “knew” I was an atheist; my certainty always being a topic of debate. I had a cemented stance on the impossibility of a higher being existing ever since I could remember. I never felt compelled to believe. I never had a spiritual epiphany nor made any spiritual connections when I would go to church. I prayed at night hoping to hear something, feel something, but nothing ever presented itself to me.
When my grandmother lost her battle with cancer, I sought out a priest to express my disillusionment with Catholicism and God. I asked him how a woman who spent her entire life on her knees praying, going to church, and who performed such kind selfless acts could suffer in such a way. When he said it was God’s will I became furious. It wasn’t God’s will. There wasn’t an isn’t a God. The priest only said that so I could feel as though there was purpose behind such a horrible death. He didn’t make me a believer that day, if anything, he solidified what I was already suspecting.
The summer after Junior year Joe Budden released Pray For Me. The song, such a brilliant song, captures how a conversation with God would play out at the gates of Heaven. In the song, Joe challenges God:
You make mistakes like ME far as I can see
I think its a mockery whenever rich niggas win the lottery
Gave us Bush twice God I hate to be rude
But you let skinny niggas starve give obese niggas food
THE NERVE of you telling me I don’t deserve to stay here
When you gave us drugs and GUNS you put AIDS here!
Take a look at you, your actions are cold hearted
The harsh shit is you bring babies in the world retarded
I know most my actions put me in a cell
But how you mad at me when you put me in the hell
I was impressed by the structure of the song; back-and-forth dialogue in a rap song was new to me. But then again, up until this point my knowledge of hip-hop was limited. Hip-hop didn’t exist in my house; my mother raised us to be predominantly Spanish speaking and it wasn’t until my mother bought us our first computer (a refurbished one) that I found a Cam’ron song that the previous owner had forgot to erase. My life changed that day.
I will never forget Cam’ron’s verse on Hey Ma:
Now that I got a girl, my Ex wanna holla and spit
Told me to acknowledge her quick
She like Cam stop fronting
On that Dave Hollister Tip
Come over lets swallow and sip
To be honest, at the time I had no idea what he was talking about. All I knew was that the arrogance in his voice was intriguing and I aspired to have such confidence. I didn’t know about relationships, I didn’t know who Dave Hollister was, but Cam’ron made anything sound good to naturally I rocked with it.
Unlike Cam’ron who lacked depth and substance, Joe Budden didn’t shy away from emotional darkness and intellectual pursuit. Cam’ron, till this day, is one of my favorite rappers; however, Joe Budden is my favorite MC. Joe’s narrative sequencing and flow was superior to Cam’ron’s, but then again they weren’t the same kind of artist.
The questions Joe posed in Pray for Me resonated with me. I had been struggling with similar thoughts and finally felt as though I wasn’t the only one. Everyone around me was quick to just accept things as they were — no drive whatsoever to challenge the norms. I hated that everyone was weak. I respected those that had faith, but I lacked respect for those who couldn’t question their own faith. Despite being 16, I was open-minded and thus couldn’t have my thoughts hindered or judged by anyone who was not.
In 2009 I lost my best friend to Christianity but in turn I finally began to learn about hip-hop and what it had to offer a conflicted young woman such as myself.