“The Message” by Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five – the most wrathful grieving song ever. The refrain is an anthem that people will chant as long as they sing “The Star Spangled Banner”:
Uh huh ha ha ha
It’s like a jungle sometimes it makes me wonder how I keep from goin’ under
This is poetry whose imagery and argument rival Allen Ginsberg or Lawrence Ferlinghetti. In the words, amped up by the backbeat of the rhythm loop and Grandmaster’s scratching, you FEEL the feelings of the dangerous streetlife and downtrodden hope and smoldering rage.
Broken glass everywhere
People pissin’ on the stairs, you know they just don’t care
I can’t take the smell, can’t take the noise
Got no money to move out, I guess I got no choice
In this song you are dragged through horrific scenes of squalid dwellings, broken human beings, bill collectors, bag ladies, fragile health, the human trash bin of prison, petty murder, and that powerless heartbreak of the parent who cannot find a way to protect their child from the rottenness of the world. And, even more bitter, the poet contemplates how each child “is born with no state of mind, Blind to the ways of mankind,” only to be smacked down by this second rate life. And the rapping is all kinda slow, so you don’t miss a single detail.
The song ends with an ironic humorous little skit in which Grandmaster Flash and The Furious Five, jamming on a street corner, are busted by the cops. And what is The Message? The rapper seems to be a sensitive and gentle guy. And yet every person, every hope, every need in the song is crushed. There is no redemption, there is no escape, there is no reprieve.
If you had to look for hope, and you’d have to be a liar to do so, you would take the words, “It makes me wonder how I keep from goin’ under,” as a sign that the narrator has not yet “gone under.” But so what? He is a poet. He perfectly understands and expresses his own desperation amidst the devastation in which he lives. This is the same futile lucidity that was awakened in those lonely beaten souls just before they were herded into the gas chambers.
E. Fletcher, M. Glover, S. Robinson, & J. Chase, “The Message,” Sugar Hill Music Publ. Ltd. (BMI) (1982). From: Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, The Message, Sugar Hill Records, SH 268 (1982). Album Design – AQ Graphics, Inc.; Photography – Hemu Aggarwal.