Favorite Songs: Words I Never Said by Lupe Fiasco

November 2nd, 2013
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For almost any song to be among my favorites, it has to be interesting lyrically and have an ear-pleasing sound that makes me happy to hear it repeatedly. Of course, my focus and primary interest is in words and ideas, so that’s what I’ll be discussing here. I could tell you that it sounds great to me as well, but I would not be able to explain too much more about why. On the other hand, I could talk at great length about the very important ideas brought up in this song. I’ll also be referring to details from the music video, so I suggest you watch it:




It’s so loud inside my head
with words that I should have said
as I drown in my regrets
I can’t take back
the words I never said.
I can’t take back
the words i never said.

I really think the war on terror is a bunch of bullshit
Just a poor excuse for you to use up all your bullets
How much money does it take to really make a full clip
9/11 Building 7, did they really pull it?
UNH! [pause] And a bunch of other cover ups
Your child’s future was the first to go with budget cuts.
If you think that hurts, then wait here comes the uppercut
the school was garbage in the first place, that’s on the up and up.
Keep you at the bottom but tease you with the uppercrust.
you get it then they move it so you never keepin up enough.
If you turn on tv, all you see’s a bunch of what the fuck,
dude is dating so-and-so, blabbering bout such-and-such.
And that ain’t Jersey Shores, homey that’s the news.
and these the same people sposedly tellin us the truth.
Limbaugh is a racist, Glenn Beck is a racist,
Gaza strip was gettin bombed Obama didn’t say shit.
That’s why I ain’t vote for him, next one neither,
I’m a part of the problem, my problem is i’m peaceful.
and i believe in the people.

It’s so loud inside my head
with words that I should have said.
As I drown in my regrets
I can’t take back
the words I never said.

Now you can say it aint our fault if we never heard it,
But if we know better then we probably deserve it.
Jihad is not holy war, where’s that in the worship?
Murdering is not Islam, and you are not observant.
[pause] And you are not a Muslim,
Israel don’t take my side, cause look how far you pushed them.
Walk with me into the ghetto, this where all the kush went.
Complain about the liquor store, but what you drinking liquor for;
Complain about the gloom but when d’you pick a broom up?
Just listenin to Pac ain’t gon make it stop
A rebel in your thoughts, ain’t gon make it halt.
If you don’t become a actor, you’ll never be a factor.
Pills with million side effects, take em when the pain’s felt.
Wash it down with diet soda, killing off your brain cells.
Crooked banks around the world would gladly give a loan today,
so if you ever miss a payment, they can take your home away!

It’s so loud inside my head
with words that I should have said
as I drown in my regrets
I can’t take back
the words I never said.
(never said)
I can’t take back
the words i never said.

I really think the silence is worse than all the violence.
Fear is such a weak emotion, that’s why I despise it.
We scared of almost everything, afraid to even tell the truth,
so scared of what you think of me, I’m scared of even telling you.
Sometimes I’m like the only person I feel safe to tell it to;
I’m locked inside a cell in me, I know that there’s a jail in you.
Consider this your bailin out, so take a breath, inhale a few
My screams is finally getting free, my thoughts is finally yelling through.

/end Lyrics

The main theme of this song is that there are lots of things that are wrong with the world, but people are not speaking of them. In the music video, the entire population walks around with these masks over their mouths, and it is open to interpretation whether these masks are a requirement of society or an individual choice. Censorship can exist at several levels: overt, legal censorship, in which the oppressive organization formally forbids certain expression and associates penalties with it; structural or implied censorship, in which people simply understand that they should not say certain things as they will lose professionally or personally if they do; and self-censorship, in which you are afraid for any reason (e.g. embarrassment) of saying what you think. And before we go on, let me make clear that I don’t think self-censorship is always bad; imagine if people never stopped saying everything that popped into their heads. I think we’d all become hermits.

There are several suggestions that the censorship Lupe is thinking about here is self-censorship. The refrain is a very internal set of thoughts, the speaker regretting what appear to be their own free decisions. There is no mention anywhere in the lyrics of any cost associated with speaking out, until the short final stanza, where the speaker says they are afraid of what another person will think of them– consistent with self-censorship. And in the video, it turns out that one can easily remove the face mask with one’s hands if one so chooses, suggesting it could be a matter of personal courage, not instruments of oppression. That said, there are a couple indications that argue against this being entirely self-censorship. The video begins with a spiritual leader being abducted by police at a rally; most likely her only crime was speaking (she is then apparently placed in a device to keep her eyes open to be re-educated by a video of soda, pills, etc.). Similarly, when Lupe begins speaking freely in the bus, one of the other passengers hurriedly dials a phone number, and at the very next stop, police come on to attack him and stop him from speaking; they then also lock him away indefinitely. Within the lyrics themselves, there is only the metaphor allusion in the final stanza to the “cell in me” and “jail in you.” This could simply be a natural metaphor (internal inhibitions and fears feeling like a prison), but it could also be an apt reference to a society where the specter of prison (featured in the video) haunts us.

I believe different conclusions could be drawn, but personally feel that the focus of the song is on self-censorship and the personal choice of whether or not to speak, within a background of structural censorship. The society and problems he describes in the first two stanza are so full of violence, that it seems to me that violence is a constant threat, and a piece of the censorship that occurs. But Lupe thinks that regardless of the threats, people always have the power to make the right choice– to speak the truth.

The final stanza, whose uncharacteristic brevity (typically rap songs have 3 verses of 16 lines each; Lupe’s first and second verses are 19 and 16 lines; the third is 8) emphasizes its importance begins by stating that “the silence is worse than all the violence,” which clearly says that regardless of cost, we are required to speak up. The chorus also repeats “regret” for not speaking up, again indicating that speaking up was the correct choice. But Lupe is not just speaking of a personal choice for himself. He is not saying that he personally regrets if he does not speak up, so that’s his choice, and we can make our own. No, in his final couplet he tells us to “consider this [his speaking up] your bailin out:” he expects us to now free ourselves of self-censorship and speak up as well.

“What hope is there?” many people wonder. Indeed, this video shows a grim picture of the world: violence all around, our fellow citizens so cowed or brainwashed or drugged-up they call the ever-present police on us, and hordes of citizens carted away to jails for reeducation or long-term incarceration. But Lupe is offering a small hope in that final couplet and the final image of the video: though he may be carted away for speaking, we have been bailed out and are now able to carry on his message (in the video, the young woman who reads his manifesto and takes off her mask is a stand-in for the addressee). Also note how Lupe himself was freed in the video: a previous inmate of the same cell speaks to him via a message left in the wall. There’s a chain where one of us frees the next, which could potentially lead to lots of free, honest, brave people.

I believe this is quite a plausible and powerful idea. Hearing someone else say something you have been thinking can go a very long way towards making you feel more confident, and thus able to end your own self-censorship. Let me go back a step: in our present society there is dissent, there are criticisms leveled publicly at Obama and other politicians. But there is permissible dissent, and impermissible dissent. There are certain criticisms and arguments that are on the table, and that people are in fact encouraged to yell back and forth at each other about ad nauseum. But there are other arguments that are absolutely not acceptable; people rightly recognize that they may be ostracized in various ways for voicing them.

Let’s clarify with examples. You can argue about whether it’s America’s business to be involved in wars overseas; or whether or not they are worth the cost in American dollars and American lives. You can discuss whether income taxes should be increased or decreased by 1%. You can argue whether the Fed raising interest rates by .1% would stimulate job growth or stymie it. You can not talk about the American military being the most murderous organization in the world. You can not talk about capitalism being a complete failure, and the need to redistribute all society’s resources evenly. I went through much of my life thinking that I could find some sympathetic ears if I argued that in a rich society, the poorest should have access to basic necessities: food, water, shelter, health care; but I figured that very few would even listen to me if I suggested that capitalism has proven a monstrous and violent failure. So in general, I kept that to myself, even though it seemed a self-evident truth to me.

Lupe opens this song with a bang: the War on Terror is BS, its goal is just a pretext for continuing militarism. That being the case, we have to ask ourselves about the pretext that launched the War on Terror: 9/11. Did the architects of the war design that as well? And after a single quatrain, Lupe pauses for half a line to give an enthusiastic UNH, as you can feel the prison bars around his listeners being shattered. Saying that the U.S. government or military-spy-industrial complex could have executed or allowed the attacks of 9/11 is a perfect example of the kind of comment that one feels will cause others to dismiss you as a lunatic. Lupe just throws it out there without fear at the very start of the song, and you feel so much freer and braver for it. I observed the same in my own life, when I met an old friend after years without contact and after only a minute of catching up ventured: “Capitalism doesn’t work.” “No, not at all,” he replied, with a grin and a chuckle. I told other people. They also knew. What?? All this time that I’d been afraid… for no reason. I wasn’t alone; I was only made to feel I was alone. Lupe says he despises fear, but the very project of this song shows that he also understands fear: how it is deliberately created, how it takes hold in us– and how to break it!

For any of the unacceptable lines of dissent, there are certain refutations that have been propagated throughout society, so that they will pop-up as unscrutinized knee-jerk reactions. For example: did the U.S. government have a role in the 9/11 attacks. Reaction: you are insane, the people who run our country would never murder their own citizens. Correction: of course they are completely indifferent to the murder of their own citizens. Look at the scale with which our government commits murder, and then ask yourself who is out of touch with reality: the person who admits that the government could have committed a particular massacre or the person who thinks it is impossible?

Capitalism doesn’t work. Reaction: it may not be pretty but it’s what works. What’s your unrealistic, idealistic, impossible utopia? Correction: apparently your definition of “working” is “hurtling towards the annihilation of the human race and nearly all other species on our planet. Pointing out that something is not working does not require a detailed plan of the best possible alternative, merely a belief that there is a chance that something better is out there, and that it would be worthwhile to start working on it. Additionally, it’s illogical to dismiss something out of hand for having good ideas or ideals behind it; that should be an advantage, rather than cause for rejection.

In many cases, the people throwing these responses at you may actually be doing so reflexively, because it’s the safe thing to do. Maybe they are hoping that several other people will speak up and agree with the lunacy you have just uttered, so that they will feel brave enough to admit that they have the same heretical thoughts.

Lupe’s skill as a lyricist, along with a variety of random factors, has put him in a position where he can speak and be heard by millions; and he has used that position not to convince us to shake our asses, but to speak truth and give us courage to also speak truth. That’s what the words we should have said are: the truth (see verse 3, line 3). The haunting regret of the chorus is so perfectly rendered, but let’s all leave that behind us, and instead free the world with some enthusiastic “UNH!”s.

I could go on and on about the excellent lines and ideas in this song– almost every line is fantastic. One more nice point lies in the phrase “I can’t take back the words I never said.” Normally, we only talk about undoing an action, something that is done. But doing nothing or saying nothing is a choice and an action just the same as doing something. This idea is highlighted in a few other moments like “if we know better, then we probably deserve it;” “when d’you pick a broom up?” “if you don’t become a actor.” Lupe is strongly rejecting the false palliative that if we don’t become involved in something we are absolved of responsibility for it. This is a wrong idea, but one that is widely circulated because it suits masters and slaves: it breeds apathy and inaction, which preserve the status quo for the masters; and it’s easier for the rest of us to just go about our daily lives and small responsibilities. I’m sorry to lay this burden on you, if you did not shoulder it already, but you, my friends, are all responsible for the world around you.

Word Spotlight: Bitch

September 5th, 2013
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As this is the first of these “Word Spotlights” I should preface it by explaining the idea behind them. The words available to us exert some control over what ideas we are able to think and express. I am neither an expert linguist, nor have I even executed the most superficial of internet researches, yet this idea seems self-evident to me. Lacking a certain word will remove certain ideas from our collective consciousness. Furthermore, many words carry with them a set of meanings; their frequent repetition can enshrine these meanings in our minds.

My first interest was to examine some of the words/usages that I have suspected of possibly being pernicious– e.g. gay, rape, nigger, bitch, slut, player– with the goal of answering for myself: are these words (or usages) I should avoid? That I would recommend others avoid? I suspect in advance, that I won’t always be able to conclude yes or no. Regardless, along the way, I imagine there will be other interesting lessons about our society.

Literal meaning:
Female dog.

Colloquial meanings with examples:
She’s such a bitch.
Someone who is nasty and very unkind to others.
Don’t be a bitch about it./ Quit your bitching.
Whiny, timorous, fearful/ Complaining.
It was a really bitchy thing to do.
Backstabbing, petty.
Life’s a bitch.
Painful, full of disappointments and tough times.
He really bitched him.
Put him in a position of subservience, taught him who was boss, made clear the current unequal power dynamic or disempowered the other to establish such a dynamic.
John is Sarah’s bitch.
John is either in a position of extreme subservience towards Sarah or is dominated by her in some other way.
I’m sorry, I’ve been acting like such a bitch lately.
Moody, unsympathetic, critical, mean.
Hell yeah, I’m a bitch.
Assertive, knows what they want, unintimidated by men.

There are these meanings and many similar to the first seven. All but the last are absolutely mainstream, common meanings; and I can not think of a single positive meaning for “bitch” that I am leaving out. If there is one, I’m confident that it represents a minute sliver of the total usages of the word.

What do these meanings mean?
For this word to carry so many negative meanings, it most likely must be based on a widespread negative impression of either dogs or women. And it’s not hard to see that in this case almost every one of these negative meanings aligns with a popular misogynist trope; only the one about power could possibly apply to dogs, and thus might have originated from the “dog” part of bitch. For example:

– Moody, unsympathetic, critical– there is an idea that women are more emotional than men, both during the heightened hormonal stage of their period, and just normally. This supposed heightened emotionality is then linked to being overly critical, saying nasty things to hurt people, snapping before thinking, and a generalized lack of self-control.

– Whiny, timorous, fearful– there is a dichotomy established between men who bear pains and disappointments with a firm upper lip (“men don’t cry”), and women who will give expression to their emotional state more frequently. Here, this “expression of your emotions” is implicitly severely devalorized. Additionally, there is the idea that men are supposed to protect women, since they are on average physically larger, and that idea has been extended to the notion that men are braver, while women are more cowardly (image of a female cowering behind a male).

– Backstabbing, petty– this is in opposition to the supposedly male-gendered way of dealing with problems or disagreements, which is to face the thing head on, address it openly and directly, and employ a code of honor (chivalry being one example) while fighting (whether through words, weapons, politics, trade). Consider the phrase “man up;” what is understood in this use of “bitchy” is the opposite of “manning up.” So this phrase carries the ideas that women are not honest about their disagreements, present a false face while scheming to hurt someone, and don’t employ a code of honor in their conflicts. Further there is an additional notion here, which goes back to the over-emotionality idea: that often women are upset over trivial things; that they are over-reacting and attacking even their friends over unimportant slights that would not trouble a man.

– Subservient, dependent, another’s property– this one could come from the fact that dogs are typically at the beck and call of their master, following orders and being entirely dependent upon them. However, there has been a very unequal power dynamic between men and women for a long time in most human cultures, so it is easy to see this use as being derived from or designed to reinforce that inequality.

– Assertive, knows what they want, unintimidated– this newer use of the word has been put forward by feminists, in an attempt to reclaim a word that has been used against them. Part of the point is to simply turn something on its head: the ideas of the oppressors are so wrong, that any criticism from them can be seen instead as a badge of merit. This usage opens up the broader debate of whether a word historically used as a tool for oppression is better reclaimed or relegated. Regardless of where we fall on that debate, I personally don’t like this use of bitch, as the qualities being played up tend towards selfishness to me, and thus I fail to see the positive message here. Just as women becoming CEOs of big companies thanks to scheming and immoral behavior does not strike me as an important avenue in the struggle for gender equality.

Why/when is this word used
One notable occasion for the use of “bitch” is when a woman becomes powerful. The totally common ways that powerful men act are often accepted without the blink of an eye (though I don’t excuse them), but when a woman acts at all like that, she is immediately criticized harshly. Which is funny, since theoretically, “bitch” is supposed to refer to these awful female characteristics, yet in this instance it is applied in particular when a woman acts more like a man. The purpose of this application of the word is to censor women who take power, discourage other women from taking power, and in some cases to take away from the accomplishments of more “accomplished” women, by implying that they have achieved what they have through methods other than hard work, like conniving. Never mind that this applies to almost all “high-accomplishment” men in a capitalist society.

Another ubiquitous application of the word is in the “war of the sexes” going on endlessly in heterosexual mating couples. Here it is part of an intense power struggle, and is designed to establish the general framework that women are over-emotional and hyper-critical. It follows that with their partner they should criticize less, apologize for themselves and their behavior, be thankful for the men who put up with their moodiness, and consider many of their complaints to just be the conjurations of their hormones, rather than based in any actual shortcomings of their male partner. This is a massive long-term strategy, of which the use of the word bitch is just one facet. See for example the invented medical condition of “Female Hysteria.” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Female_hysteria

I recently discovered that this word is now popular in the San Francisco gay community. One example: when I assumed that a man who appeared twenty years my senior was older than me, he told me (in apparent good humor) that I was “such a bitch.” (The implication being that it could be hurtful to tell someone they are old). I was surprised and dismayed to find this word has become popular in this community. For one thing, gay men have suffered from rhetorical de-masculinization, so you’d expect them to be sensitive to such a gendered word, especially one designed to call out false weaknesses based on gender. For another thing, they must have experienced the colloquial uses of the words “gay” and “homo” at some point in their lives, and thus should be sensitive to the power of taking a word that refers to a group of people, imbuing it with tons of negative meanings, and then throwing it around ad infinitum.

So I asked around a little, and here’s what I understood: it’s another instance of a reclaiming of a word. People are taking something that has been thrown in their face as an accusation (a lack of masculinity), and by using the word themselves (in reference to either themselves or friends), calling into question the idea that it’s a bad thing. Similar to how the word “slut” is bandied about as a means of arguing that promiscuity is not a sin. These usages aim to really take away a lot of the power and sting from the harassment and aggression that has been aimed at a group of people. “Bitch” is also sometimes used as a warning when teasing is pushing the bounds between friendly fun and something that could be hurtful, as a humorous rejoinder that allows people to back off without a conflict. This is enough to allow me to make some sense of this usage of “bitch,” but I am still concerned about it. It seems to me that the meaning being used is in the ‘moody, unsympathetic, critical, mean’ area, and I don’t see why we’d want to continue using a gendered word for a set of generally unpleasant characteristics.

This is a very widely-used word in the English language today, and almost every time it is used, it bolsters untrue and negative stereotypes about femininity. I could only think of one single colloquial use of the word that is not part of a rhetorical war to increase the power of straight men and decrease that of women. It de-values the opinions, emotions, feelings, words, actions, and thoughts of women (and non-traditionally masculine males). It continues to feed us false notions about the difference between men and women. Even in the cases of reclamation, it’s not convincing to me that any positive ideas are being advanced.

I used to use this word– perhaps not a lot, but sometimes. In the context of both a power dynamic and the brave-cowardly dichotomy, the term is quite common in the world of competitive chess. I would also sometimes thoughtlessly toss it out in reference to a mean person who happened to be female. When I first started pondering this topic, I quickly felt this was a word with a lot of negatives and no upside. After further thought, I decided to weed “bitch” out of my vocabulary, and after a few months the slips are tapering off. I have not yet determined with confidence whether this is a word I would want to actively discourage others from using: for now I’m hoping to hear what some others think about it.

Why I Quit my Dream Job

August 6th, 2013
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[Update: The situation at Chess.com has changed! You can read about that in a new post here. I believe the points I bring up in this article are still relevant for a very large proportion of American corporations.]

For four years, I worked a job with so many good aspects– educating people, entertaining people, being creative, working in a field that I love and am an expert in, fun co-workers with similar interests, flexible hours, the ability to work from anywhere, good compensation, constant flattering feedback– that almost anyone would call it a dream job. And so it came as a shock to many of my friends, coworkers, and customers when I quit.

Initially, Chess.com had no income, and thus there was no question of how to divide it. But in 2011 and 2012, the company did extremely well. How was our hefty income distributed? In 2012 we had about 35 full-time employees, 8 owners (7 of whom were employees), and dozens of contractors. If we leave out Chess.com’s second co-founder, the CEO took home as much in 2012 as the other 30+ full-time employees. While the other employee-owners (including myself) had sizable incomes, most of Chess.com’s employees were compensated far below what they deserved.

As I grew more aware of the developing exploitation of our workers, I was sickened. The possibility reared its head that the primary goal of the company was not to create the greatest chess site for the world, but to create the greatest profit for one person.

I hoped this was not the case. For years I had thought the CEO was my friend, a man with values different from most corporate executives’. He had once agreed it seemed a good idea to have a maximum ratio between the highest and lowest salaries in a company, suggesting the ratio should be between five and ten. Now in our company that number exceeded forty. Did this not trouble him? No. I pleaded for respect and fair compensation, suggesting multiple mechanisms for the company to share its profits with the fantastic people who created them. And my requests were quite modest: for example, I was willing to work for one quarter of my previous pay if the company would share 1% of its profits among its workers. All were rejected. It became clear that the status quo was indeed what he wanted, and that it would not be changing.

There is an interesting argument that continuing my work would provide value to millions, while the numbers in one person’s bank account are of little consequence. Much as I long for a day where the numbers in bank accounts are as meaningless as those in videogames, we currently live in a world where money is largely interchangeable with power. I further consider concentrations of power to be the greatest threat to humankind (this contention is the subject of a future essay). To expend the greater part of my time and energy increasing the concentration of money and power in a single pair of hands seems like an extremely dangerous occupation, so, regretfully, I had to walk away from the coworkers, friends, chess-lovers, and projects that I so loved.

How is it that a wonderful group project, with fifty plus people working on it, and millions actively engaged in the community should be used for this purpose of a single person’s enrichment? The answer lies in the structure of the economy, and the corporation specifically. Chess.com has a single person who can make any decision he pleases (the CEO), regardless of anyone else’s opinion, and a single person who chooses that CEO (the majority owner, the same person). In other corporations, there may be a small group of two or three owners who amongst themselves hold decision-making sway. This means lack of accountability, lack of input from many people, conflict of interest, and almost no check upon selfishness and corruption. And so throughout the economy we see bosses and their buddies setting their own compensation arbitrarily high while relegating the vast majority of the workers to poverty.

Within our present legal framework, there is no recourse. The law is written by and for the few wealthy and powerful individuals, so its goal is merely to perpetuate this situation where one person dominates many. In retrospect, I can only regret the damage I have done, wishing I had not fallen for the typical “the boss is your friend” trick, and that I’d been more savvy about the horrors that are corporations.

I have felt for months that I owed this explanation to the people I worked with and for over the last four years. Its publication was postponed for a long time because when I left I was sad, upset, insulted, disappointed, angry. I did not want to do anything based on those feelings, and so I waited and considered at length how to communicate this message. Even when lies were posted on Chess.com, I held my tongue. I needed to be sure of my feelings, thoughts, and expression.

One important question I had to resolve was: could we the various stakeholders in Chess.com do anything to save the site from its owner? I’ve spent months reflecting upon this question, without coming up with any satisfying answer; my ideas and hopes seem unrealistic. I think any number of letters from customers, co-workers, and co-owners would fall upon a pair of deaf ears. I think my co-workers do not have the economic independence to leave and start over without the boss. Still, I hope one day to help build an online chess community without a greedy overlord.