I’ve noticed an increasing skepticism towards anything claiming authenticity lately. It’s as if we all are so used to people pushing their own agendas and having ulterior motives that when somebody really is transparent, we suspect foul play and manipulation, immediately objecting to the person, even before we ever even begin to entertain what has just been said. We throw out people with their ideas. I’m afraid many of us don’t know the difference between entertaining an idea, believing an idea, and loving a person anymore. It’s not just critical thinking, but the art of thinking uncritically has become lost on us.
In our music it’s no different. We all know that many people write songs just to make a buck, or they sing songs that have been written by someone else for the same thing, money and fame. Yet, when it comes to one of my favorite artists, I listen a little more intently. For one thing, he always says what’s on his mind, and even though I don’t always agree, usually it is thought provoking. For another, he gives away his music for free, even though his music career is his living, meaning that he isn’t trying to please crowds with his music, he’s just calling it like he sees it. As he says, “I’m just shaping the conversations that will happen at my funeral.”
His name is Jason Petty, but he is better known by his stage name Propaganda. Recognized for mixing insightful poetry, rhetoric, and discussing the intersection between faith and politics, all in the form of good hip-hop, Propaganda is and always has been a conversation starter. He sees the irony in his work, and loves every minute of it.
His most recent album, Crooked, is no exception, and although it’s a little early for a full scale review, a few thoughts do come to mind almost immediately after listening to it for a few times and discussing it with friends.
As the name would suggest, this album is darker than his others. It is done in his usual style of punchy lines and pure authenticity, even while humbly admitting he doesn’t have everything figured out. From the title track “Crooked Ways” to “Cynical,” Propaganda seems to be very interested in raising questions. This album seems at first to be a tirade against many of the flaws that he sees in the American political landscape. This particularly appeals to the restless up-and-coming generation, who seem to lack no shyness in speaking their mind and raising questions also, even while this album dropped the same weekend as the fourth of July. It is currently popular to bash our Politicians and country, and although Propaganda doesn’t stoop low enough to take shots at individuals, anyone who listens to Crooked with an open mind will have quite a few things to think about. He finds a way to vent personal frustration, even while not making personal accusations.
Another marked difference from this album and his others is the lack of humor. In past albums, Propaganda has made jokes out of inconsistencies and through satire raised issues that were pertinent to the message of the album. This time, the inclusion of “I Hate Cats” starts off humorous enough, but soon listeners are introduced to the dark side of “innocent” prejudice that Propaganda exposes as being systemic. One is left to wonder if he hasn’t made a few errors in his broad-brush statements that are, ironically, what he adamantly opposes.
Several things said on this album will not sit well with affiliates of either political party. Propaganda repeatedly takes shots at our “sacred cows” of political schemas, raising the question of what we put our hopes in, and if what we are really trying to achieve is achievable through the means we are implementing. This album is in line with his previous record, Crimson Cord. Whereas the last seemed to focus on issues of racism in the private sector and discuss America on only one or two tracks, Crooked takes the reverse approach so that what was a minor on Crimson Cord is played in major tones, and in this way, Crooked is a sister album to Crimson Cord. Offering blistering criticisms that are the opposite face of the same coin. Yet, he reserves his most blistering criticisms for discussing his own private struggles. True to his own style and humility, Propaganda freely shares about his own inadequacy and inconsistency, enabling him to give freely to his listeners the lessons learned from wrestling with his own failings. Tracks such as “Made Straight” and “It’s Not Working” are full of introspection, and helpful insights. In these tracks he exposes the false hope of political idolatry, even as it runs through his own heart. The last verse of “It’s Not Working” may be one of my favorite verses Propaganda has written thus far:
It’s a frightening indictment
That even if all these world problems are solved
It still wouldn’t resolve what you are actually looking for
And it’s not like these problems, they don’t need to be addressed
But fixing systemic issues, it ain’t the source of your rest
Or satisfaction, and I know it’s your life’s work
But the work of a man’s hands, it has never quenched his thirst
You say I’m King of kings but son, I don’t get it how
You could trust me for eternity but can’t trust me for now
Hoping in a broken system to fix what’s broken in us
It’s not working, is it?
Finally, and the real reason I wanted to discuss this album is this, Propaganda gives a voice to the thoughts of a restless, disturbed, and desperate generation, powerfully speaking truth and raising awareness to promote a nation-wide conversation. Propaganda has a true talent for persuasively presenting viewpoints that may seem foreign to our own and giving us an understanding, not just in mind but at the level of heart where it really counts, enabling his listeners to walk away from his albums better prepared to helpfully engage their neighbors in a real way.
To make the analogy: I used to work in a bookstore and in my free time I would browse the joke books. We always had one that was a bestseller, it was called “A Manual For Men: Everything They Need to Know About Women.” It was nearly blank up until the last page that said, “Don’t read this, listen to your wife instead.”
The reason people pull that book off the shelf is because, let’s face it boys, we don’t understand women! Yet, if there was a chance, maybe just for one good piece of advice in the two-hundred and some-odd pages of “A Manual for Men” that would help us better love our wives, we’d have the whole book memorized. If any of us could write a book like that, we’d retire a billionaire.
Propaganda writes that book in his albums. Not for understanding women, but for understanding a plethora of counter-perspectives and challenging his listeners to consider it uncritically, and that is what understanding is all about. Before we find a solution, we have to agree on the problem. Propaganda pulls no punches in exposing many of the problems as he and many many others see them. Even if you find yourself disagreeing with him, you’ll walk away better prepared to put an arm around your neighbor and discuss their frustrations with them. I suspect that if we loved our neighbors as much as we love our wives, we would stop trying to find a manual for fixing them, and instead sit down and listen to them. Propaganda has talents that enable us to do just that.
If Propaganda was trying to start a conversation he has succeeded. I’m hoping that many will join in. Crooked is guaranteed to make you pause and give thought to the way you communicate some of the most pertinent issues of our time, and what you are doing about them, which is a good thing. In his own words, “The presence of good art will unconsciously refine a community.” Give it a listen, it is sure to shape many conversations throughout the upcoming year.