The perils of rejecting God’s call
In our last two posts, we discussed how the track “DNA.” depicted Kendrick as a representative figure whose tendency to pursue sex, money and murder are embedded within his DNA. After “DNA.” the album continues with the track “YAH.”. “YAH.” opens with Kendrick taking on a new persona, one that seems to have fully embraced the more negative tendencies inside his DNA.
New shit, new Kung Fu Kenny
As we discussed in the podcast episode, Kung Fu Kenny appears to be the main character of DAMN.’s narrative. His introduction by Kid Capri seems to signal the formal beginning of the narrative. Indeed, it doesn’t take long before Kung Fu Kenny makes a decision that sets the entire plot into motion.
I got so many theories and suspicions
I’m diagnosed with real n-word conditions
In these opening lines, Kenny seems to be indicating that he has significant doubts about the way of life that he has been living up until now. He also describes himself as being diagnosed with “real n-word” conditions. In the podcast, we discussed how the term “real n-word” is typically used within hip hop culture to describe black men who are worthy of honor based on their success in pursuing sex, money and murder. The fact that Kenny has been conditioned to pursue these vices leads Kenny to make his pivotal choice.
Today is the day I follow my intuition
Keep the family close — get money, fuck bitches
Despite the fact that on the previous track, Kenny declared himself to be a prophet — someone who has received power from God to speak the truth — here in “YAH.”, Kenny declares that beginning today, he is going to follow his own intuition. This means that instead of making decisions based on what God has revealed to him, Kenny will now make decisions based solely on his instinctive feelings. Indeed, Kenny’s feelings seem to be the main source of interference which prevents Kenny from listening to God.
My world been ecstatic, I checked the signal that read —
Buzzin’, radars is buzzin’
Yah, yah, yah, yah
As the first verse ends, Kenny notes that his life choices seem to have created static interference between himself and God. As Kenny, checks his metaphorical signal strength he sees that he is getting an incoming call from Yah. Yah is short for Yahweh, which is the personal name of the God of Israel. This name was first revealed to Moses when God called Moses from a burning bush. God then told Moses to go back to Egypt, prophesy against the wickedness of that nation and lead God’s people out of slavery. Because the Egyptians were polytheists who worshipped many gods, Moses was concerned that the Israelites would ask for the name of the god who had called Moses. God then told Moses that he should tell the Israelites that he had received a call from “He will be”, which in Hebrew is the name Yahweh. The implication of this name is that the God of Israel is the one who existed before all time and will exist forever without dependence on anyone else.
Moses accepted Yahweh’s call, went to Egypt, led the Israelites out of slavery and eventually gave the Israelites God’s commandments. Moses claimed that following these commandments would lead to life and blessings. In contrast, Moses warmed that if they followed their own way, it would lead to death and generational curses. This idea was best summarized by the passage from Deuteronomy that we first discussed during our episode and post on “BLOOD.”
“Look! I have set before you today life and prosperity on the one hand, and death and disaster on the other. What I am commanding you today is to love the Lord your God, to walk in his ways, and to obey his commandments, his statutes, and his ordinances. Then you will live and become numerous and the Lord your God will bless you in the land which you are about to possess. However, if you turn aside and do not obey, but are lured away to worship and serve other gods, I declare to you this very day that you will certainly perish!
Today I invoke heaven and earth as a witness against you that I have set life and death, blessing and curse, before you. Therefore choose life so that you and your descendants may live! I also call on you to love the Lord your God, to obey him and be loyal to him, for he gives you life and enables you to live continually in the land the Lord promised to give to your ancestors”
- Deuteronomy 30:15–19
Fittingly, this section of Deuteronomy seems to be directly referenced in “YAH.”, when Kenny raps:
My cousin called, my cousin Carl Duckworth
Said know my worth
And Deuteronomy say that we all been cursed
Given that Kendrick/Kenny has previously declared himself to be a prophet like Moses, it seems that the buzzing that Kenny mentions during the hook of “YAH.” means that like Moses, Kenny is receiving a call from God to speak out against the wickedness of the nation where Kenny was born, and teach his people to follow God’s commandments. Indeed, this would not be the first time that Kendrick used the idea of a phone call to depict his communication with God.
Stuck inside the belly of the beast
Can you please pray for me?
Get God on the phone
- From “untitled 02 | 06.23.2014.”
In 2016, Kendrick released a compilation album called untitled unmastered. That album contained a track called “untitled 02 | 06.23.2014.”, in which Kendrick specifically requested for God to give him a phone call. In addition, Kendrick also said that he was “stuck inside the belly of the beast.” As we mentioned in the podcast episode, this phrase seems to be a reference to the Book of Jonah, a book from the Old Testament which seems to have been one of the major inspirations for the narrative of DAMN. Thus, to fully appreciate the story of Kung Fu Kenny, we need to first understand the story of Jonah.
Before understanding the message that the Book of Jonah is trying to convey, it’s important to understand how the book tries to convey this message. In particular, we should note that the Book of Jonah makes extensive use of humor and irony in ways that mark the book as a form of satire. In literature, satire is a genre that utilizes exaggerated irony by professing to accept or approve of the very things the author wishes to criticize. In doing so, the author aims to expose the absurdity of human vices, particularly as it relates to contemporary politics.
Within the story of Jonah, we can first observe the beginnings of satire when we consider the only other time that Jonah appeared in the Old Testament. In the Book of Kings, Jonah prophesied in favor of King Jeroboam II, who was a notoriously wicked king who ruled over the Northern Kingdom of Israel. Jonah had prophesied that King Jeroboam II would gain a specific territory. Another prophet named Amos later prophesied that this territory would be the place where a foreign enemy, later identified as the Assyrian Empire, would afflict the Kingdom of Israel due to Israel’s injustice. Hence, even before the Book of Jonah was written, Jonah and Amos represented two figures in dialogue about God’s justice towards both Israel and Israel’s enemies. As a result, the earliest readers would have reason to doubt whether Jonah will be committed to God’s justice if such justice went against the interests of Israel.
The story doesn’t have to get far before it reveals Jonah’s opposition to God. In the opening sentence, God calls Jonah and tells him to go to Nineveh to prophesy against the city’s injustice. However, in contrast to Moses who accepted Yahweh’s call and prophesied against Egypt, Jonah rejects Yahweh’s call. Moreover, Jonah flees by getting on a ship heading in the opposite direction.
The author does not immediately provide us with any reasons why Jonah turned away from the way God had instructed him to go. From the historical context, we know that Nineveh was the capital of the Assyrian Empire, the first full-scale empire which would later conquer the Kingdom of Israel through a brutal military campaign. Maybe Jonah is afraid of being killed by the Assyrians. In part, the narrative does not provide a logical reason because running away from a God whom one believes created the land and sea is illogical. Instead, the narrative focuses on the consequences of Jonah turning away from God.
Jonah doesn’t escape very far. God sends a powerful storm which places Jonah and the sailors in deadly peril. All the sailors realize that there is more to the storm than meets the eye. They know that some god is at work within the storm. Fearing death, they call on their gods. Meanwhile, Jonah is asleep at the bottom of the ship, completely oblivious to the storm. Jonah has no idea that his choices are leading to the destruction of others and that everyone around him is praying for him. Eventually, the sailors wake Jonah and determine that he is the cause of their troubles. When the sailors ask Jonah to tell them who he is loyal to, Jonah informs them that he is an Israelite and has given his loyalty to the God of Israel who made the sea and the land. The sailors are perplexed that Jonah claims to be loyal to such a powerful, all-encompassing God and yet is trying to hide from this God.
When the sailors ask Jonah how to calm the storm, Jonah suggests that they throw him into the sea. After failed attempts to sail out of the storm, the noble sailors reluctantly throw Jonah overboard. Immediately, the sea becomes calm. The sailors are convinced that they have just killed Jonah, so they make sacrifices to the God of Israel and vow to follow him. Then as Jonah is sinking to the bottom of the sea, God sends a large, carnivorous fish that eats Jonah.
At this point, the story would seem to be over. However, in a mysterious turn of events, God brings Jonah back from the dead — this despite the fact that the carnivorous fish has been digesting Jonah for three days and three nights. While still in the belly of the fish, Jonah composes a prayer that acknowledges that he had been proud but now God has humbled him by bringing him down to the lowest point possible, even to the point of death. It is from this point of humility that Jonah finally recognizes that God’s saving grace is powerful enough to restore him from his watery grave. Jonah then promises that he will accept God’s commandments, make a sacrifice and speak rightly about God. Finally, he declares that “Salvation (Yeshua) is from Yahweh”.
In response to Jonah’s prayer, God causes the fish to vomit Jonah up back onto the dry land. For a second time, God calls Jonah to go to Nineveh and prophesy against the injustice of the city. Jonah walks in the direction that God commanded, arrives at Nineveh and preaches to the people of Nineveh. However, somewhere along the way, it seems that Jonah lost the humbleness he had in the belly of the fish and his heart departed from the path. This leads to the story’s second half which we will cover later on in the season.
As we go through the season, we’ll keep returning to the story of Jonah to observe how the story of Kung Fu Kenny can be seen as a modern version of the Book of Jonah. Indeed, already here in “YAH.”, we can see that Kenny’s decision to follow his own intuition combined with the static interference suggests that Kenny is going to reject God’s call. Rather than becoming a prophet like Moses, Kenny is now identifying himself as a prophet like Jonah, one who may soon find himself “stuck inside the belly of the beast” while asking us to pray for him. Moreover, Kenny’s pattern of opposing God seems to also relate directly to a particular group with whom Kenny now identifies.
I’m not a politician, I’m not ‘bout a religion
I’m a Israelite
In the middle of the second verse, Kenny claims that he is an Israelite. As we discussed in the podcast episode, the word Israelite refers to anyone who is a decedent of a biblical character named Jacob. Jacob had an older twin brother named Esau, who according to the culture of the time, was meant to receive the father’s blessing. However, Jacob tricked his father and stole his older brother’s blessing. Fearing that his brother would retaliate, Jacob went into a self-imposed exile. Years later Jacob decided to return home. Along the way, Jacob encountered a mysterious figure who wrestled with Jacob throughout the night. Jacob said that he would not quit until the mysterious figure blessed him. The mysterious figure then conceded to bless Jacob. Moreover, the figure said that Jacob’s name would now be changed to Israel which means “one who wrestles with God.”
Much like Israel himself, Kenny seems to also be wrestling with God. In fact, this idea of being engaged in hand-to-hand combat with God may be one of the reasons that he has adopted the moniker Kung Fu Kenny, referring to a Chinese form of hand-to-hand combat. In particular, Kenny seems to be struggling to decide whether he will follow God’s path or continue to go in the opposite direction.
I know He walks the Earth
Kenny recognizes that God “walks the earth.” This seems to be an allusion to the biblical story of the Garden of Eden. Much like the current track, the Garden of Eden narrative occurs early on in the story of the Bible and sets up the primary conflict that the rest of the Bible will try to resolve. The universal scope of this narrative becomes quite apparent when one recognizes that almost everything mentioned in the story represents something much larger than itself. For instance, the garden that God plants is called Eden, which in Hebrew means “delight.” God then forms a creature out of the dust of the ground and names his creation Adam, which in Hebrew means “humanity.” God later splits Humanity (i.e. Adam) in half to make male and female. God then tells Humanity that they can eat the fruit from any tree in the garden of Delight except for the fruit of the tree of knowing good and evil. God warns that if they eat this it will lead them to death. Unfortunately, the prototypical humans eventually disregard God’s commandments and eat the fruit.
As soon as the prototypical humans eat the fruit, they realize that they can no longer trust each other and must cover themselves for their own protection. Moreover, they now are afraid of being punished by God which leads to a pivotal scene.
“Then the man and his wife heard the sound of the Yahweh God walking in the garden at the windy time of the day, and they hid from Yahweh God among the trees of the garden.”
- Genesis 3:8
Ironically, the first reference to God walking the earth is the moment when Humanity ran away from God because they rejected his commandments and decided to follow their own intuition. For Kenny, this act of away from God is expressed as Kenny raps:
I know He walks the Earth
But it’s money to get, bitches to hit, yah
Zeroes to flip, temptation is, yah
First on my list, I can’t resist, yah
Much like Humanity in the Garden of Delight, the knowledge that Yahweh walks the earth is undermined by Kenny’s desire to know and enjoy good and evil for himself, apart from God. For Kenny, this enjoyment comes from pursuing money and sex, two of the three vices that are in the DNA of all Humanity.
Everyone together now, know that we forever —
Buzzin’, radars is buzzin’
Yah, yah, yah, yah
Hence as “YAH.” comes to a close, we are again reminded that just like Kenny, all of us have received a call from God. So while we are about to embark on a narrative journey in which we will look closely at the life of Kung Fu Kenny, we should not forget that Kung Fu Kenny’s life is a mirror for each one of us.
- “Word Study: YHWH — LORD” video by The Bible Project
- “Jonah: Read Scripture” video by The Bible Project
- “The Book of Genesis Part 1” video by The Bible Project