DECODING "THE MESSAGE" BY GRANDMASTER FLASH AND THE FURIOUS FIVE. PAGE ONE OF THREE
Giving Voice to the Voiceless: Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five's "The Message"
Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five's ("Grandmaster Flash") song "The Message" addresses the negative aspects of life in the city and citizens' ongoing battle to endure. The artifact is the title song from Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five's debut studio album The Message (released on July 1, 1982) and runs seven minutes and ten seconds.
American music has been used to address social issues dating back before the earliest days of blues and jazz and continuing with folk music and rock music. "Some of this integration of music and social justice has become so deeply embedded in the identity and culture frameworks of particular groups that it is understood today primarily as culturally constitutive" ("Music and Social Justice"). Hip-hop music has a strong association with social commentary but that was not always the case.
Grandmaster Flash were one of the first hip-hop acts to examine social problems. Traditionally, hip-hop music consisted of house party music and rap battles between competing bands but that changed after "The Message," which led to artists such as KRS-One, Whodini, Ice-T, Public Enemy, and N.W.A. incorporating social commentary into their raps.
This essay uses Ernest G. Bormann's fantasy-theme method of rhetorical criticism to analyze the lyrics of "The Message" to determine what tools a rhetor uses to give voice to disadvantaged people suffering in the city. The fantasy-theme method relies on the theory of symbolic convergence and the method of fantasy-theme criticism.
The theory of symbolic convergence holds that "communication creates reality" (Foss 97) and "symbols not only create reality for individuals but that individuals' meanings for symbols can converge to create a shared reality or community consciousness." Symbolic convergence can be used to determine if a group "shares a common consciousness and have the basis with one another to create community" (Bormann qtd in Foss 98).
Fantasy-theme criticism uses the unit of "the fantasy theme" for purposes of analysis (Foss 98). A fantasy theme, "…is a word, phrase, or statement that interprets events in the past, envisions events in the future, or depicts current events that are removed in time and/or space from the actual activities of a group" (98).
Fantasy themes are made up of setting themes, character themes, and action themes (Foss 99). These fantasy themes are then used to create a rhetorical vision. A rhetorical vision is "a unified putting together of the various shared fantasies" (Bormann qtd in Foss 100) or "a swirling together of fantasy themes relating to setting, characters, and actions that together form a symbolic drama or a coherent interpretation of reality" (Bormann qtd in Foss 100).
Fantasy themes can be used 'to create community, to discuss their common experiences, and to achieve mutual understanding" (Bormann qtd in Foss 98). An argument can be made that Grandmaster Flash is not only using "The Message" to show empathy with people suffering in the city but to make others aware who may be able to improve things.
Fantasy-theme criticism can examine "…all kinds of rhetoric in which themes function dramatically to connect audiences with messages" (Foss 97). As we shall seem Grandmaster Flash takes the chaotic conditions of living in the city and organizes them via song lyrics to connect with their audience and let them know they empathize with them. The structure of the song allows for this since:
While experience itself is often chaotic and confusing, fantasy themes are organized and artistic. They are designed to create a credible interpretation of experience-a way of making sense out of experience. Thus, fantasy themes are always ordered in particular ways to provide compelling explanations for experiences" (Foss 99).
The organized lyrics provide a structured way to address the plight of people enduring life in the jungle-like as various characters, actions, and settings are put together to show that many people are enduring suffering with varying degrees of success.
Two fantasy themes are found in "The Message." The first is the jungle, a place of ruthless struggle for survival. The second is endurance, the ability to experience pain or suffering for a long time.
Fantasy Theme One: The Jungle
A jungle has traditionally been associated with the wild but it has also taken on meaning in the phrase "an urban jungle," which refers to the city. Grandmaster Flash only uses the word "city" once but it is clear from this use and many implied settings that the song is set in an unnamed city (thus the default fantasy setting is "the city"). Here, the jungle is a ruthless place of survival where danger lurks everywhere. The song addresses a number of fantasy characters, actions, and settings that make the city "like a jungle" as the narrator repeats throughout the song ("it's like a jungle sometimes").
The character of nameless people who are engaged in and/or indifferent to bad behavior is seen with "Broken glass everywhere" and "People pissing on the stairs, you know they just don't care." It can be implied that the broken glass is from the people who don't care about basic issues of quality of life. These same people might be some of the ones pissing on the stairs. Their behavior contributes to making the city into a wild place i.e. a jungle.
The jungle is a violent place with potential and active dangers. Early on, the narrator speaks of "junkies with the baseball bats." The idiom of "a walk in the park" is turned on its head as the narrator describes the fantasy setting of the park, "I can't walk through the park cause it's crazy after dark." Not only is there potential violence but actual violence, as seen when "They pushed that girl in front of a train." "They" can refer to anyone and arguably could even refer to the jungle itself as it spawns violent people. This is followed up with "stabbed that man right in his heart." Again, Grandmaster Flash uses unnamed fantasy characters and their violent fantasy actions in the fantasy setting of the city to develop the fantasy theme of the jungle.
The jungle possesses other characteristics besides violence that make life difficult for its residents. The narrator, his son, and an unknown newborn whose life is depicted from the cradle to the grave shows the obstacles facing city residents. One is the uneven playing field they are on as shown when the narrator complains of "a bum education." "Double-digit inflation" (a characteristic of the fantasy setting of the city) is mentioned which means the narrator (along with everyone else in the city) must pay more for things. The city stymies the narrator's efforts to work as he laments that he "can't take a train to the job, there's a strike at the station." The double-digit inflation and difficulty to get to work is shown when the narrator talks of "The bill collectors, they ring my phone/And scare my wife when I'm not home," These economic woes keep the narrator (and presumably others) from leaving the city. This is shown when the narrator talks of how "I tried to get away but I couldn't get far/ Cause a man with a tow truck repossessed my car." The characters have no ability to get out or get ahead in the danger-filled jungle-like city.