Culture, Religion

Counting the Omer in Song: Gvurah Meets Indie Rock and Hip-Hop from Chicago to Palestine

For Week Two of the Omer, we focus on G’vurah, which generally centers around discipline, boundaries, judgment — essentially providing a channel and exercise through which the Hesed, the lovingkindness, of Week One can flow.

Over the past year, we have all had our discipline and our boundaries challenged. In difficult — often fatal — ways we never could have imagined. On personal, familial, occupational, communal, national, and global levels. For nearly all of us, the ways in which our world and lives existed in January 2020 looked so very different from the way they did in January 2021. The pandemic, the struggle for racial justice, the U.S. elections and subsequent “Big Lie” and insurrection, continued climate-related catastrophes — they have all helped to break open the realities of our old systems and highlighted the need for new approaches, new strategies, a rebuilt set of boundaries and disciplines.

The week of g’vurah within the Omer forces us to consider our own discipline, our own approach to boundaries and judgment of how to live, how to be in our own lives and in the world. These seven songs highlight the challenges we face, the new frontiers we seek, and the new patterns we can establish to replace the old ones that were not working.

These songs come from a range of genres and geographies: from hip-hop to singer-songwriter and from Chicago to Minnesota to Palestine. The full playlist is found here:

Day 8: Chesed b’g’vurah, lovingkindness in discipline: Angles by Mick Jenkins. Just about every track from Chicago MC Mick Jenkins’ debut full-length, The Healing Component, could have worked for this day, where we consider how love interacts with discipline. But in this song, Mick considers more directly how he can grow as a person, as a friend, as a member of his community through love. He uses a line near the top that will make you smile — “You use the same muscles to cough with as you would do to laugh/It’s perspective, really, the collective is merely suggesting a theory that love is a blessing” — and then focuses on diving deep through love. “Had to get to know myself before I claimed I loved me/Nobody else, just for myself, got more myself just for me/Growing everyday, I’m growing everyday, growing everyday.” This song also features an early-ish verse from Noname, who has become a dominant voice in pushing for lovingkindness in the world. You’ll hear from her again.

Day 9: G’vurah b’g’vurah, discipline in discipline: For My Upstairs Neighbor by El-P. It may feel off-putting to focus on a song in which the narrator is telling the police he knows nothing about a killing in his building. Later in the song, we learn that he knows all about it, and the killing was of a man who was beating his partner/girlfriend/wife so loudly that the narrator could hear it in his apartment. At one point, the narrator passes the domestic abuse victim in the hallway and gives her support. “But as you passed I stopped and put my hand on your left arm/And we both paused, I meant no harm/And you look startled as I leaned into your ear/And said the first and last thing ever to you/”Do the thing you have to and I swear I’ll tell them nothing.” It’s a harrowing song on every level by El-P, now better known as one half of rap giants Run the Jewels, but centers around the discipline, and sometimes desperation, needed to overcome tragic situations.

Day 10: Tifereth b’g’vurah, beauty in discipline: Jasadik-Hom by DAM. If you listen to no other song in this week, listen to this one. It is from Palestinian hip-hop group DAM, but in this song, there is just a simple audio track and beat, with an almost startlingly direct and damning spoken word by guest Maysa Daw. In the track, Maysa discusses how she came to love her body and its beauty, despite all the challenges of misogyny, patriarchy, toxic masculinity, politics, Zionism, etc. To find her way to loving herself and her body, she needed excruciatingly honest discipline. You will want to watch the video on repeat to catch every word, but here are a few of the key lyrics translated into English: “It took me time to learn how to be in love with my body/My feminine Arab body/Standing in front of the mirror, I took off my glasses because they are man-made/I want to see my imperfections through my own eyes/Shut your eyes (don’t stare), these breasts are mine/Hold your hands (don’t touch), these hips are mine/Hold your criticism, these armpit hairs are only mine/Control your facial expressions, these few extra kilos are mine.”

Day 11: Netzach b’g’vurah, endurance in discipline: Holy by Jamila Woods. One of the most innovative artists of the last several years, Chicago’s Jamila Woods brings a unique mix of soul, R&B, hip-hop, and spoken word together with her remarkable and powerful voice. Rooted in the Chicago gospel and spoken word scenes, Jamila has tackled a wide array of social issues and demanded we look at them differently. In this track, she espouses the holiness that comes from one’s self, as your relationship with yourself is the one that is most central, eternal, holy to your existence. We often look past it, but Jamila reminds us that we need to center ourselves in ourselves: “Woke up this morning with my mind set on loving me/With my mind set on loving me/I’m not lonely, I’m alone/And I’m holy by my own.”

Day 12: Hod b’g’vurah, humility in discipline: Oom Sha La La by Haley Heynderickx. This song gives us a chance to smile while diving deep. A simple and earworm-ily catchy song, Haley focuses on unpacking who she is and recognizing she needs to laugh a bit at what’s around her — sour milk, lethargy, weeds. “The milk is sour/With olives on my thumbs/And I’ve been doubtful/Of all that I have dreamed of/The brink of my existence essentially is a comedy/The gap in my teeth and all that I can cling to.” She almost glides over the lyrics, passing by them in a way that perhaps explains why she’s got sour milk in the fridge in the first place. As the song builds to a crescendo in which she proclaims, “I need to start a garden,” you realize she’s not gliding at all, but rather finding the parts of herself she needs to build from.

Day 13: Yesod b’g’vurah, bonding in discipline: Mythological Beauty by Big Thief. In this track, Brooklyn (by way of Minnesota) prolific indie rock stalwarts Big Thief work through a range of verses about the challenges of young parents, who are often fighting their own bonds as couples and bonds with themselves trying to maintain their own senses of self. The track has an infectious beat and melodic riff that balance Adrienne Lenker’s heart-wrenching lyrics, “You have a mythological beauty/You have the eye of someone I have seen/Outside of ordinary situations/Even outside of dreams/You lie in bed at night and watch the lines/Of headlights through your screen/There is a child inside you/Who’s trying to raise a child in me.”

Day 14: Malchut b’g’vurah, sovereignty in discipline: I’m Not Part of Me by the Cloud Nothings. Overall, discipline requires prioritization. While overemphasizing discipline can take away individuality and personalit, this song reminds us that the determination is still essential. This track by Cleveland punk band the Cloud Nothings is an anthem to the idea of what discipline can mean to someone who needs a change, who needs to find who they are and make a new start. After a few guitar licks to kick off the track, almost representing the false starts of past efforts, we go right into these lyrics that explain discipline as well as any others: “It starts right now, there’s a way I was before/But I can’t recall how I was those days anymore/I’m learning how to be here and nowhere else/How to focus on what I can do myself.”

May these songs carry you through a meaningful, focused, and honest week of reflection.

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