Revelations about Revolutions: Persuading Perceptions Through Music
Entertainers often use their forms of entertainment as a platform to bring awareness to social justice issues. This is seen throughout Hollywood: Dave Chappelle’s “Equanimity” and “The Bird Revelation” and celebrity speeches inspired by the #MeToo movement at the Golden Globe Awards. J. Cole is a rapper also popularly known for spreading awareness about social justice issues through his music. In his single “High for Hours,” released on Martin Luther King Junior Day in 2017, J. Cole addresses black oppression and a multitude of connecting issues. The main function of his song is to propose that the solution to equality does not come from the oppressed overthrowing the oppressors. Instead, the cycle of abuse must end, and the decision to revolutionize must be an individual one, must be a revelation, must happen on the inside. He recognizes that his message is perceived as controversial by different audiences and writes his song in a way that appeals emotionally, ethically, and logically to his audience. Pathos is established through a deceptive song title that, when juxtaposed with the content of the rest of the song, evokes shock; intentional word choices that elicit empathy; an overload of evidence, an emotional instrumental, and chorus that conjures hopelessness. He establishes ethos by demonstrating his extensive knowledge of current racially charged issues, his experience with oppression, and his sincere attempts to solve that very oppression. Finally, J. Cole establishes logos by providing evidence against a possible counter argument, and by using history and clear examples to support his final message: “the only real revolution happens right inside of you.”
In the very beginning, Cole gives the audiences a feeling of shock through a deceptively cool title and introduction that contrasts the serious content of the rest of song. The title of this song functions as a way to draw in listeners that may not otherwise seek out songs about oppression and also to evoke a feeling of shock. With a title referencing drugs in a nonchalant manner, one does not expect to be led through a series of reflections on suppression and abuse of power. The druggy, joking introduction also sharply contrasts the first verse’s list of American hypocrisies, and this surprising divergence elicits a powerful sense of shock from the audience. This astonished reaction functions to capture the listeners full attention and emotional investment in the song’s words by sparking their interest with the unexpected and forcing them to listen carefully in order to understand.
Cole’s specific word choice also evokes an empathetic response that deeper captures the understanding and emotional commitment of the audience. When discussing police brutality, he raps “now somebody’s son is layin’ breathless.” This reference humanizes the victim of such a brutal crime and captivates as much as it revolts. This line requests an empathetic response from both a black and white audience by noting a universally devastating and painful event; the idea of losing a child is horrendous to people of any background. This emotionally charged language works as an equalizer, bringing equal footing to an issue that often seems racially biased. Regardless of skin color or personal experience with police brutality, the loss of a child is universally understood. This increased ability to understand and share the feelings of the oppressed works to gain the listener’s emotional investment in the song.
Cole elicits a feeling of hopelessness through an overload of information in the first verse, and an emotionally charged chorus and instrumental to put the listener in a vulnerable state, creating the perfect window to easily pass on his advice. The first verse overflows with examples of hypocrisy related to black oppression: American settlers’ pursuit of freedom at the same time slavery was widely practiced, justification of murder by the Christian church and ISIS, police brutality by those who follow doctrines of “thou shall not kill,” and impoverished black communities lacking much-needed government funding. He chooses his words carefully, and this practice allows him to avoid unnecessary transition words and to go directly into the next rail against hypocrisy or example of black oppression. Cole’s intense rap provides the opportunity for a plethora of issues to be discussed in each line and leaves the listener feeling overwhelmed and hopeless at the endless injustices in need of solving. Both the lyrics and instrumental aspects of the chorus generate a feeling of desperation and sadness. Cole repeats his line “the type of shit that make you wanna let go” to emphasize that these issues and the lack of change make those affected want to give up. These words follow every verse to continuously remind the listener about the prevailing hopelessness surrounding the issues addressed. In addition to the depressing lyrics, the downward piano scale and groovy background give the listener a chance to breathe and contemplate the tragic aura that surrounds this song, a feeling that few rap songs attempt to reckon with. This continued sense of hopelessness leaves the audience feeling lost and without their own answers to these issues, awaiting the inevitable solution that J. Cole will provide in anxious anticipation.
Before attempting to pass on his controversial message about revolution, J. Cole establishes his credibility on this topic in order to show the listener that he is not blaming the black community, and that he is asking for this inner revolution to occur in people of all kinds. His ability to gain the listener’s trust in his character is critical because without the ethical appeal, his message may be perceived as dubious and distorted. His suggestion to fix one’s self to create the biggest change in world instead of revolting can be viewed by the black community as another form of black oppression because white people often hold black individuals responsible for unfortunate situations. This American ideal of “pulling oneself up by the bootstraps” is used as a way to silence their pleas for change and to maintain the forms of systematic racism that continue to disadvantage black people.
Cole establishes ethos by expounding upon his awareness of oppression, his personal experience with oppression, and his sincere endeavors to combat oppression. He gains authority in the first verse by demonstrating to the black community that he is well aware of the issues facing black people and that he even faces these forms of oppression. He describes his personal experience in Dallas as being “lost in the Wonderland where niggas still suffering” to indicate how closely he personally identifies with the issues discussed throughout the song. By including his own experience with oppression, he indicates to the listener, specifically a black listener, that his end message is not an attack on black people. In verse two, J. Cole says “I had a convo with the president, I paid to go and see him” to build his reputation by indicating that he had a discussion and established a relationship with a well-respected and qualified political leader like President Obama. It also shows that J. Cole is sincere in his attempt to end oppression because he personally paid money and spent time to go discuss issues about black oppression. He proves his knowledge on issues of oppression, discusses his experience with oppression, and demonstrates his sincere actions to solve oppression in order to build trust with the audience so he can pass on his message without perceptions of blaming or ignorance.
The last mode of persuasion is this song is effective inclusion of logos, a difficult feat in the rap world. Anticipation of counterarguments and almost universal examples take the listener through a logical procession of information and evidence. A counterargument to J. Cole’s theory of revolution could be to address the system itself and attempt to change the external rather than the internal. Cole takes time to refute this argument before he even exchanges his own message with the audience. In the second verse, he discusses how even our first African American president who wished to free black people from oppression and suffering wasn’t able to do so under our current political system. By showing that a man with “all the power in the clout” can’t effectively bring change to the system, J. Cole elucidates to the listener that attempting to change the system, or the external, is a fruitless action that even one of the most powerful people in the world could not enact. This example of government inaction also contributes to the overall sense of hopelessness in “High for Hours,” and once again Cole references a problem that is not specific for any racial group. It seems that no matter what station one holds, there is no effective way to revolutionize the systems we all exist under without first changing the ideals that rest inside each individual; this is not an effort to be completed without extensive transformation.
Cole openly acknowledges that he used to believe that a collective revolution was the answer until he meditated on the history of revolution which provided his current message with logical evidence. He suggests that the audience “take a deeper look at history” to realize that the “abused becomes the abuser,” and that the cycle of abuse effectively never ends. The listener must then reconcile her own knowledge of history with the unforgiving lens through which Cole is looking at oppression. A version of Cole’s observation on a massive scale is seen through the history of the French Revolution. The French people overthrew the monarchy in a violent manor that resulted in them becoming just as corrupt as their previous oppressors. Cole then slips easily into a riff on domestic abuse, pointing out that “the children in abusive households grow up knockin’ girlfriends out cold–that’s called a cycle.” He takes this large-scale, philosophical understanding of the endless cycle of corruption inherent in revolution and familiarizes it for the reader by referencing the tangible, the everyday, the known. This makes a theory that may otherwise be hard to comprehend more relatable and understandable for the audience.
Throughout “High for Hours”, J. Cole’s modes of persuasion function to inspire inward change among individuals in order to work towards the end of oppression. He uses his platform as an entertainer to address the problems he observes in the world and takes this even a step further by addressing the nature of revolution and the complexities of human behavior. His revelation about revolution offers a solution to the corrupt cycle of oppression, and there is no mumble in his message. He wants you, me, and everyone to come to terms with the nasty parts of our world and the general unwillingness to cleanse them. There is action to be taken, and it may not be what one expects—instead of pitting the oppressed against the oppressor, he is calling upon all of humanity to undergo an inward and individual revolution that will end the cycle of oppression forever.
Cole, J.”High for Hours.” Dreamville Inc. 2017, track 1.Genius, https://genius.com/J-cole-high-for-hours-lyrics.