I’m living for a symbol/The way I live my life/Symbol/the way I choose my wife/Symbol/the way I raise my kids/Symbol/to the way I live.
As a cultural critic, I spend a lot of time mining issues of race, class, gender and sexuality in the musical arts. My bread and butter is inking challenges to artists to go deeper than commercially appealing but soulfully destructive tales of exploitation and objectification of people, male and female, that has become our international booty shaking standard. Asking artists and listeners alike to consider how they contribute to pervasive, impressionable messages confusing sex for love, beauty for depth, finance for romance and cars for manhood. Asking us to reflect how our messages to each other, and even more devastatingly, to ourselves feed decisions that fail to fulfill us, fail to uplift us, fail to make us whole. So, it’s exciting to share a song that lifts a mirror to us, asking us is this really how we want to live, to be?
I don’t care about marriage/just the wedding day/Don’t care about learning/just give me my “A”/Don’t care about bleeding/just change my face/Don’t care about difference/just my own race/Don’t care about serving/just let me lead/Don’t care about sharing/consumed in my greed/I don’t care if you judge me/do whatever you like/Don’t really care what’s wrong or right/I’m living for a symbol.
I grew up listening to Labelle, The OJays, Curtis Mayfield, Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, Donny Hathaway, The Temptations, Gil Scott Heron, Joan Armatrand, Earth Wind and Fire, Harold Melvin and The Blue Note, so many artists whose 70s material was devoted to liberation, spiritual nourishment, helping people to consider the world around them and their additions or subtractions to that world. Their music spoke truth to clichés, “suppose to,” and presumptive ideals that fed the machine, but not the individual or community. With so many “brand-oriented” artists now narrowly focused in raising their own star and invested in reinforcing the status quo, instead of challenging it, who in music questions our assumptions now?
If I say I’m a vegan/would you say I was deep?/If I said I was honest/would you still let me cheat?/If I quoted a scripture/would you say I knew God?/If I bought me a camera/Would you call me a star?/If I spent time in prison/would you please call me a man?/If I went back in slavery/would you sell me a whole lot of land?/I don’t care if you judge me/Do whatever you like/Don’t really care what’s wrong or right/I’m living for symbols.
Soul band Marcell and The Truth on their new sophomore project Symbols boasts one of the most socially introspective lyrics of the last decade with their title track. Deconstructing our national values, our wholesale investment in symbolic appearances over true realities, songwriting frontman Marcell Russell first states our ugly, then interrogates it, before finally offering one of the many heartbreaking reasons why we are so willing to sell our soul for the empty and the weightless, even to the point of spreading our contagion of conspicuous consumption, empty calories, and quick fixes to our children.
And TV makes it seem so beautiful/lovely/that’s why I/I’m steady losing me/now I see that I’ve been just living for symbols/ The way I live my life/Symbols/the way I choose my wife/Symbols/the way I raise my kids/Symbols/to the way I live.
In doing so, Russell remind us what true soul was originally created to do: to speak truth in ways that disrupt, question, and ultimately inspire us to heal. As you consider his words, ask yourself: How you living? Yeah? How’s that working for you?