Music is always selling more than music. It is selling a tribe. Whether it is Soul, Jazz, Punk, Classical, EDM, or Hip Hop, the music industry is packaging and selling membership in a tribe. The musicians might not think this way, but the record labels do. And, to be frank, you do too.
Music is packaged with dress, dance, a vocabulary, a poetry, and a set of insiders and outsiders. When Sam the Sham and the Pharaohs recorded “Wooly Bully” and put in the lines, Hatty told Matty, “Let’s don’t take no chance/ Let’s not be L7, come and learn to dance,” not everyone understood their lyrics. Most people still have no clue what Sam the Sham is even saying, let alone what it means to be L7. But that did not close the billboard charts to the garage rockers. Wooly Bully spent eighteen weeks there, more than any other song in 1965. Because everyone wanted to be on the inside of the newly minted tribe. No one knew what L7 was, but they knew that they were with Hatty and not L7.
Netflix’ new documentary Hip Hop Evolution is a history of the development and rise of Hip Hop and Rap. In one of the interviews, Ice T, a primeval purveyor of Gangster Rap, talks about his early rhymes: “I was just writing about my reality.” He was trying to capture “the laid back vibe of reality.” The people in the neighborhood listened because they recognized their life in his words. According to Ice Cube, another early Gangster Rapper, Ice T wrote rhymes that “were our version of what a day in the life of Los Angeles was like.” They were not trying to create a new genre. They wanted to fetter their daily insanity with verse.
But the record label saw opportunity. They packaged a tribe and sent invitations via every music store in the nation. They made money. And suburban kids started wearing puffy jackets and throwing gang signs over their white picket fence.
The labels understand that they are selling an in-group. They understand that they are selling connection and identity. None of this is necessarily a problem. Tribalizing, in and of itself, is not an issue that Christians need oppose. The fact that people make music, fashion, dance, and poetry that separate us into tribes is not a problem. In fact, as political and economic forces become increasingly imperialistic, as simple nationality fails to supply us with meaningful identity, this tribalization will help secure the sanity of modern man. We need to be careful that we exorcise the demons and not the defenses keeping demons at bay.
Because, of course, there is room for every tribe and tongue in the church. As the four monster-angels and twenty-four new-heavenly elders sing:
“You are worthy to take the scroll,
And to open its seals;
For You were slain,
And have redeemed us to God by Your blood
Out of every tribe and tongue and people and nation,
And have made us kings and priests to our God;
And we shall reign on the earth” (Rev. 5:9b-10).
Tribal divisions of mankind are not a problem to be solved. Tribal rivalries and competing loyalties are a problem. That is what the atoning death and the church-loving Spirit will overcome. But the tribal distinctions themselves are not the actual problem.
When I first began attending church in high school, I remember sitting and talking with another high school kid from the church. I was this little fuzzyheaded punk rock kid. New to Jesus. New to church. Still weirded out by the Bible. Most of the kids at youth group listened to Dave Matthew Band and other easy-listening music. That was hard enough. But this kid said, with complete confidence and sincerity, that Garth Brooks was his favorite.
I thought, “What am I getting myself into?” All these kids were listening to Ben Harper and Brooks and Dunn and, not only were they not mocking one another, they seemed to genuinely care about one another. I had clamped my identity to my declarations that ‘Country sucks.’ But this Church was not simply a new tribe, in competition with other social tribes. It was a tribe of tribes, superseding them. They were each loyal to Jesus—and therefore to one another—before their social tribe.
Dropping tribal markers is not a requirement to come into the church. But dropping tribal rivalries is. The tribal markers need only be superseded by the greater marks of baptism, eucharist, love of the brethren, and the repudiation of idols. Jesus is King of kings, Lord of lords, and Chief of chiefs. The church is not a social tribe in competition with the other social tribes. The church is a threat to all merely human universalization attempts. Because the church undoes rivalries. The church teaches all of the tribes to sing together.
Of course, the music industry is not the only tribal identity boutique. Political parties, sports, and countless others clamor their promises to provide meaningful identity. Few Americans will be without a social tribal identity, but our tribal identities are almost always voluntary, we ought to become self-aware. If we can learn to see hook through the bait we can learn to resist the temptations and manipulations that make so many of our decisions seem unavoidable. Our loyalty to Jesus should make all of our other loves look like hate. The music that we listen to, the way that we dress, the poetry and vocabulary of our conversation—all these must be held lightly. They must be a part of the oblation of all of our life in worship. Because they do not ultimately define us. Jesus has named us and claimed us in our entirety. That is our most fundamental identity: Jesus’ people. All other loves, all other loyalties, all other identities are secondary to his cruciform love.