Media Dump: Music of gods

This post originally appeared on I Read Odd Books

I am not a big fan of most modern R&B, and hip hop has never been my bag. I’m sure that doesn’t come as a huge surprise, given that I am a middle-aged white woman from Texas. But also bear in mind that I detest most pop and cannot bear country music that does not involve people named Cash or Carter. So it all sort of evens out.

But despite not being a fan of R&B and hip hop, I rather like Erikah Badu. She and I are age peers and we both grew up in the same area, though in completely different worlds. She went to the Booker T. Washington Magnet School for arts, which is a big damn deal. The school has produced singers like Edie Brickell and Norah Jones. There was something amazing about her voice, a reminder of Lady Day that was not forced and hackneyed like so many singers whose only claim to talent is an ability to emulate Billie Holiday. I also liked her style. Her poreless skin, her interesting head wraps, the graceful way she moved her arms as she sang. Even if I had little cultural allegiance to what it is that Erikah Badu represented, she certainly seemed special in her talents.

And she writes and sings songs like this:

You need to call Tyrone. But you can’t use my phone. I love this song.

My favorite song of hers is “On and On”:

I am lyrically oriented in music. And while some of these lyrics appeal to me, I found them difficult to pin down. Like the sections where the singer is discussing being born under water with three dollars and six dimes. Somewhat puzzling was the chorus:

“If we were made in his image then call us by our names.
Most intellects do not believe in god but they fear us just the same.”

I always took this as a demand for respect – call us by own names, the real names that some black people take on when they achieve a level of spiritual and social awareness. But intriguing was the idea of “fear us.” Not fear him. This was not just Badu addressing the intellectual speciousness of some who claim atheism while still superstitiously fearing God, because she very clearly says those who may not believe in god (lower case) fear us. Interesting.

“On and On” came out in 1997, before the Internet was overrun with lyrics sites and places where people pontificate song meanings, so I never really pursued my ponderings. But I heard the song on the radio coming home last week and my questions rose again. I’m in another insomnia cycle, so at 4:00 one morning, me and my smart phone got to the bottom of my bafflement.

Oh dear lord. Dear readers, how is it I have gone so long without knowing of the Nation of Gods and Earths and the Five Percenters?  I feel kind of embarrassed that this is the first I am learning of them.

I have taken a very shallow dip into a very large and deep pool so my discussion and analysis may be incorrect, and I welcome anyone with a deeper knowledge to correct me if they read anything wrong here. The Nation of Gods and Earths began when a man named Clarence 13X, who had studied with Malcolm X, left the Nation of Islam because he held differing opinions about the nature of Islamic godhead. I think it is a mistake to consider Nation of Gods and Earths to be an offshoot of the Nation of Islam, though some may consider them a sect. From what I managed to glean from various sites, Nation of Gods and Earths is far less dogmatic than Nation of Islam, asserting that Nation of Gods and Earths is less a religion than a natural way of life. Allah is God, or possibly god, but each follower is in his or her own sense a god as well.

The term Five Percenters comes from the idea in Nation of Gods and Earths that in the black community, 10% of the people know the truth of the world and how it works but hide this truth for their own personal gain, 85% have no idea how the world works and through their ignorance are manipulated by the 10%, and 5%, the members of Nation of Gods and Earths, know the truth and share their knowledge. Some of the truth that the Five Percenters share stems from Afrocentrism, the notion that all life began from black people. The descendents of these creators of the world are gods themselves. Southern Baptist refugee that I am, this reminded me of Thomas in the Bible, insisting that the light of Jesus is within us all, and that the only true path to salvation is to find the god that has always been within us.

But to me the most interesting Judeo-Christian corollary found in Nation of Gods and Earths are Supreme Mathematics and Supreme Alphabet. Supreme Mathematics, not unlike the Kabballah, teaches that within numbers there are specific concepts and essential universal truths (and realize this is a gross generalization of both concepts). For example, in Supreme Mathematics, the number seven equates the concept of god. That puts Erikah Badu’s decision to name her first son Seven into a whole different perspective and not just one of those wacky names that celebrities often give their kids. Her son’s name conveys both the notion of Supreme Mathematics as truth as well as Badu’s belief that her son, like all black people, is a god. In all those lists of strange names celebrities give their children, Seven really shouldn’t be lumped in there with Apple, Pilot Inspektor and Audio Science.

And though I hope I make it clear I have only the most basic idea of what it is the Five Percenters believe, the tiny bit I was able to grok made “On and On” much clearer to me.

Obviously “Most intellects do not believe in god but they fear us just the same,” makes a lot more sense. Badu’s belief that black men and women embody the creator concept of their forebears, that they are gods themselves, shines through here. Those who do not believe in god may fear god, and if blacks are gods, then they fear her and those who believe as she does.

I’m still not wholly clear on the lines “I was born under water with three dollars and six dimes. Yeah you may laugh but you did not do your math.”

Obviously she is mentioning Supreme Mathematics here, because “you did not do your math.” And water, outside of the Five Percenters, is a universal symbol of life, from amniotic fluid, to baptism, to just the ancient notion of water as a force of life. But what about the 3 dollars and 6 dimes?

My first idea is that this is a representation of the number 360. 360 degrees implies a circle, a perfect circle, again leading me to the idea of perfection of man and man as god. It also implies experience, a perfect orbit of the Earth around the sun, a 360 degree trip. This section also includes Badu singing the lines, “Na qua 2..3. Damn, y’all feel that? Oh… Qua 2..3. The world keeps turning.” No idea what the Na qua section means because attempts to find out lead me down a rabbit hole, but the idea that the world keeps turning fits in well with the notion of 360 degrees and orbits. (See the comments for this entry – I myself and others misheard the lyrics as the lyric is “Like one two three, damn, y’all feel that, oh one two three.”  Which adds a lot to the discussion as feeling the impact of numbers recited feels very Supreme Mathematical.  Thanks to those who corrected me!)

But in Supreme Mathematics the number three means understanding, a deep understanding of all knowledge. The number six means equality, but from what I could read, that equality is the equality that the Five Percenters give other people as they explain their beliefs, not the American belief that all people are created equal. Only through knowledge of their role in the world can black people become equal, according to the beliefs of Five Percenters. So it may be the passage of dollars and dimes means a rebirth wherein Badu discovered the Nation of Gods and Earths and came to a perfect understanding and now wants to encourage equality through education.

There is so much more to this than just the little bit I have read and then applied to a song I like. I found a book called The Five Percenters: Islam, Hip-hop and the Gods of New York by Michael Mohammed Knight that I will read probably sooner rather than later. There’s likely an ocean of information out there on this sect.

I just found it deeply interesting that running to ground some interesting lyrics led me to an entire religious sect to which some very famous musicians belong (Ghostface Killah, Badu, Rakim and Busta Rhymes, among others). But then, I had no idea Opus Dei existed until Dan Brown wrote about them. Us Protestants who grew up in the American South were seldom let in on much that was Catholic – we were told even less that was Muslim in nature. This is one of many reasons why I snert in the face of people who reject popular culture as being without merit. You can learn from anything if you are so inclined.  Had it not been for a popular song, I’d still be in the dark about the Five Percenters.

So that is this week’s Media dump, a whole religious sect that flew under my white radar for many years that I discovered through a song. I’ve got some other interesting dumps in February, including an odd book zine out of Australia and hopefully Friday I will have up a Jim Goad discussion. If not, look for it Monday.

(And because these days writing about anything is seen as an open endorsement, please be clear that I write about all kinds of things that I don’t believe in. I am an atheist who finds religion interesting. And if you want to discuss this sect in a negative manner, stick to the actual beliefs of the sect that you can verify via research you can share or stick to what I have written. I am so sick of Islam-bashing that if you act the fool and I don’t ban you, I will be very unkind to you, and I hate being unkind. So stay on topic, all you Islamaphobes who came here for Breivik and stayed for my many, obvious charms, namely that I don’t ban you at first sight.)

21 thoughts on “Media Dump: Music of gods

  1. My friends and I found the five percenters through busta rhymes and the wu-tang clan back when we were in college and when we were picking apart the song C.R.E.A.M. by WuTang we discovered the the number of words that rhyme in a given section tells is actually related to the Supreme Mathematics.

    For example, the line

    “But it was just a dream for the teen, who was a fiend
    Started smokin woolies at sixteen”

    dream, teen, fiend, sixteen all rhyme (mostly) and the line (to us) was about culture (what 4 stands for in SM). the idea that the rhyme scheme was laid out so that the number of rhymes tells you what the line is about is completely…mind blowing. it made me love wutang more than i already did.

    it gets even more impressive. there are two versions of this song. the original version goes like this:

    “A young buck sellin drugs and such who never had much
    Trying to get a clutch at what I could not… could not…”

    the later version on a different version of “enter the wutang” changed it slightly:

    “A young buck sellin drugs and such who never had much
    Trying to get a clutch at what I could not touch”

    buck, such, much clutch – 4 rhyming words
    buck, such, much clutch, touch – 5 rhyming words

    the line moves from being related to culture (drug culture) to being about power (after going to jail he learned about the 5%ers and so gained power and creative energy).

    it’s possible that we all made it up in our heads and we found a pattern because people like finding patterns, but method man went from calling himself “METH” to calling himself “mef” after he became a father, so….

    crazy theories within crazy theories. i’m should probably get back to work now

    1. No, this is actually mind-blowing. It’s almost a form of subtle cryptography. There’s the message anyone can read then there is the real message inside that only those with the encryption keys – the knowledge of Supreme Mathematics – can decode. If this isn’t crazy theories within crazy theories, those who practice the ideas of the Five Percenters can preach a doctrine openly while seemingly only engaging in entertainment. If that is the case, it’s almost genius.

    2. Also, fascinating comment. Thanks for writing this down. I see hours of listening to Five Percenter artists and seeing what I hear below the surface meaning of the words.

      1. Good, I’m glad the theory didn’t come across as crazy.

        And it seems like something that fits in entirely with the tenets of the 5%ers: knowledge hidden in the open for those that have eyes to see, etc.

        if i remember right, the Gods and Earths believe that Clarence 13x helped invent hiphop through his teaching methods and the way he preached on the street, which would make it the perfect method to continue it.

        and i noticed that someone brought up RZA a little later on, GZA has some of the same references in some of his solo work. his album B.I.B.L.E. (basic instructions before leaving earth) seem like a reference to the supreme alphabet. and of course his name comes straight out of the alphabet too.

  2. Reading this just brought back a very clear memory of one of my afternoons spent in front of MTV back in the 90s when they used to play music. I recall seeing Erykah Badu talking about her lyrics, and using the line you mention as an example.

    She said that “Born under water” was a reference to her being born under the sign of Aquarius, while the “3 dollars and 6 dimes,” were a reference to the 360 degrees of the earth’s circumference. So it was a statement of having been born on this planet at that time, and also makes reference to the idea of the “Earth”.

    She said of the following line, “You may laugh…” that it was an indicator to the listener that instead of dismissing it as nonsense, they should go back to the line before and listen more carefully, specifically to work out the 360 degrees allusion. To me it seems very likely that the other connotations you mention (the perfect circle, the SM meanings of 3 and 6 etc.) were intended to be represented by the planet, though she didn’t spell any of that out.

    “The Birth” by RZA is another song where he makes use of these kind of references, although he’s a lot more explicit about the religious dimension.

    1. Oooo… So I was right on part of it. Thanks so much for posting this!

      I am unfamiliar with RZA and sense I have another interesting night of Googling. Thanks for bringing him up.

      1. Years later and so many people still wander about her messages ..She is indeed an icon ..
        3 dollars and 6 dimes=
        To 360 which geometrically represents a perfect or complete circle what she is saying is she was born into this world complete with everything she needs to live out Her divine purpose already within her perfectly prepared from birth and the only 1 who can stop us is ourselves looking outside of ourselves for what we need to be divine ….And while the building math may be similar she is using sacred geometry or sacred math …She is a Alchemist and a master teacher amongst all of her many other Gifts ..
        Peace ,and light …

        1. I am so stunned at how many search queries still land on this entry from people searching for the meaning of “3 dollars and 6 dimes.” Several a week, at least. This song, over 20 years old, is still puzzling people and intriguing them enough to search out the meaning. And if you take into account all the searches that actually hit song sites with lyric lists and comments regarding song meaning, you gotta figure that lots and lots of people never reach this little weird site’s discussion. Lately I’ve been thinking of the line:

          Does it seem colder in your summertime and hotter in your fall?

          I have all kinds of ideas about what this may mean, the intended meaning and what I take from it. This really is a remarkable song.

  3. Hey there, Anita. I’m not going to argue with you about the effect of Islam upon Western civilization. No, I wanted to ask you something more interesting. You say that you are “an atheist who finds religion interesting” – do you feel that being a non-believer allows you broader perspective of the denomination than would be found in a member of the faith? Or does not being able share in the communal credence limit your understanding of religion – by placing the “ultimate meanings” forever out of reach? Do you feel that you are missing out – or does your non-belief bestow a sort of secret advantage?

    1. EG, you were grandfathered in before the whole ABB discussion. You were my favorite antagonist before 7/22 so you don’t count when I am defiant toward those who want all Muslims in prison or deported and think I need to get back in the kitchen.

      I tend to think I don’t really have a broader perspective where religion is concerned. I mean, I do think that not being married to any faith means I can look at all kinds of faith and see the appeal. That is a broader perspective of a sort. When you are a Christian, it is very hard to be fascinated with anything but your own small part of Christianity. I have relatives who think Methodists are WRONG WRONG WRONG and Catholicism obscene. Being atheist means I can sort of sit back and look at religion like a tourist, able to see the good and bad without prejudice.

      But at the same time it likely does limit me. The capacity for faith, regardless of whether is it based on soul-faith or reliance on scripture and dogma, is something I envy. To know emphatically something on such a deep level is something I wish I could experience and the absence of it means that I often do not get the beauty of religion. I can revel in the interesting parts but I have no connection to what it feels like to be a faith-filled person.

      I think I have enough good (I get to see all religion as something worth discussing and exploring from sheer interest alone) and enough bad (faithlessness means there is an element of religion I will never understand) that I have no real advantage. I think they both cancel each other out in terms of advantage. I’m just a spectator.

      1. I was fascinated by your discussion of the Five Percenters’ practice of embedding doctrinal information into their music. However, I do think that this idea of “secret, esoteric meanings” being deliberately inserted into popular culture to be rather more widespread that might be imaged. From Masonic secrets encoded in Mozart’s “Magic Flute” to alchemical processes in Strindberg’s dramas to (as I just read) the idea of occult teachings being found in Stanley Kubrick’s movie “Eyes Wide Shut.”

        So how much bizarro fiction is just weird for weird’s sake – or odd because it conceals some arcane secrets?

        1. I think, and I may be wrong, that the Five Percenters present their beliefs in music because the movement is largely an oral movement, not based in doctrine, and certainly not based in any written doctrine. I don’t think Clarence 13X ever wrote down his beliefs.

          Oh man, I fell down a rabbit hole when I discovered some of Adam Gorightly’s rifts on Kubrick. I read further online and what sweet lunacy if it is correct. Hidden cults, Masonic eyes, the esoteric ritual use of bathrooms. At some point, the huge mass of evidence seemed too large to dismiss.

          I don’t think the bizarros’ as a group have arcane or doctrinaire information in their books, though some of the more esoteric of the bizarros, like Eckhard Gerdes, Bradley Sands and D. Harlan Wilson, often write with multiple levels of meaning. I think a lot of it is bizarre for bizarre’s sake, which is only condemnation if one does not appreciate their take on absurdism or surrealism. But since the group as a whole does not have a common purpose or even commonly held belief system, it would be hard to find arcane secrets because they would be arcane as the authors saw fit. Some compare the bizarros to the discordians but there is no unifying lunacy to their beliefs. If they are salting their manuscripts with arcane messages, it is not a unified message, nor as purposeful as, say, the work of Robert Anton Wilson.

          1. Malcolm Lowry’s “Under the Volcano” handles Crowleyite and Kabbalistic speculation far more subtlety and effectively than does anything by Robert Anton Wilson. Even Robert Kelly does better with such Thelemic themes in his fiction than does Wilson.

          2. Good to know. I stopped being as interested in Discordianism and such when I was in my mid-twenties and was no longer in the Church of the SubGenius, so I suspect there are many tomes on similar topics that I have not read that did it better.

  4. I just stumbled upon your blog after googling about Erykah’s lyrics. This was thoroughly entertaining and interesting to me!

  5. I’m not sure how I even stumbled across this but it was very well written and pleasure to read.

    My only real thing to add is that Erykah’s On & On lyrics are “LIKE 1, 2, 3″… not ‘Na qua’

    1, 2, & 3 refer to Supreme Mathematics in which it means “(1)Knowledge, (2)Wisdom, and (3)Understanding, but Knowledge, Wisdom, and Understanding are also symbolic for Man (knowledge), Woman (wisdom) and Child (Understanding).

    You were correct on both accounts in your interpretation of 3 dollars and 6 dimes.

  6. My eyes have been opened… Wow…. I always thought since she was born on February 26, A pisces… a water element. I understood the 360.

  7. If you’re interested in literature about the Nation of Gods and Earths, the 5 Percenters!
    Check out the following authors; Allah Jihad–The Immortal Birth.
    Wakeel Allah–In The Name of ALLAH; VOL.1 & VOL.2.
    Starmel Allah–The Righteous Way.
    Shakim Bio– Love Hell or Right.
    Just to name a few of the books out there that have been authored by members of the Nation of Gods and Earths. So you will get a greater understanding of what and who we are and who and what we aren’t!

  8. “I was born under water with three dollars and six dimes. Yeah you may laugh but you did not do your math.”
    1, 2, 3 ya’ll hear that?

    5 percent lessons or based on the supreme lessons (120 lessons).
    She basically stating she has 120 degrees of knowledge, 120 degrees of wisdom, and 120 degrees of understanding. equaling 360

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