Over the last couple of posts, I’ve written about politics and social commentary in “Christian” bands and songs, specifically metal, punk, and ska. I chose not to write about hip hop because that is another discussion altogether, one that I have written about before when discussing songs by Lecrae, Sho Baraka, and Propaganda. In his new book, He Saw That It Was Good, Sho Baraka writes about the ways that individuals view Jesus, and he comes to this point, even when discussing music such as CCM: “My assessment is that Black Christian expression, especially in its art, has never departed from the Jesus of justice. He is a savior who cares about pain, liberation, and provision.
This focus manifests itself in hip hop, and it does, on varying levels, in punk, metal, and ska, just not necessarily in he same manner. I grew up on these latter genres, in the white evangelical church, and that is why I have been focusing on these songs and bands.
mewithoutYou “The Dryness and the Rain” (2006)
On the surface, mewithoutYou is not an overtly political band that explicitly addresses issues throughout their work. They do this, of course, in various songs, most notably on the song “Cleo’s Ferry Cemetery” (2016) where Aaron Weiss sings, “There’s a cemetery deep below the sea, where I’ll hide from news of the GOP.” However, for the most part they are a band that incorporates literary and religious allusions at every turn, to me in a very modernist manner. While I think that the more obvious political and social commentary in mewithoutYou’s oeuvre is important, I want to focus on what I would call the more subtle aspects, especially in a song such as “The Dryness and the Rain.”
“The Dryness and the Rain” appears on 2006’s Brother, Sister, an album that I wore out when it first released. However, as I do with albums, I gravitate towards specific songs and while I may listen to others, I do not dive deeply into the lyrics. This is what happened with “The Dryness and the Rain.” I would always listen to “Messes of Men,” “Wolf am I! (And Shadow),” and other songs on the album. Yet, just like the Stavesacre songs I wrote about in the previous post, “The Dryness and the Rain” rearose recently as I shuffled through my music. I always liked the song, musically and stylistically, partly because of the inclusion of Jeremy Enigk (Sunny Day Real Estate) providing some vocals.
What stands out to me about “The Dryness and the Rain” is the fact that it brings together Christian, Jewish, and Muslim religious imagery alongside cultural references and the use of English and Arabic within the song. This bringing together of Christianity, Judaism, and Islam is a constant thread throughout Aaron Weiss’ lyrics and mewithoutYou’s work, and it is, in and of itself a political statement, one that, especially with this song appearing in 2006, works to counter the stereotyping, specifically, of Muslims in the United States. Aaron and his brother Michael are of Jewish descent. Their father was Jewish and their mother was Episcopalian. Their parents became Sufi Muslims, so the brothers grew up with a mixture of all three religions, and this mixture serves as a way to explore and reflect on ones’ relationship with God.
Overall, “The Dryness and the Rain” uses imagery to point out the ways that we look for God in the big things, but that God appears in the still small whisper. The entire first verse plays on this, clearly referencing Elijah hiding out in the cave in 1 Kings 19 because he was afraid for his life after he killed the prophets of Baal. As Elijah is in the cave, and angel comes to him and tells him to stand in the presence of the Lord and cry out. A strong wind, an earthquake, then a fire come to him, but God is not within them. a “gentle whisper” follows all of this, and within the whisper God speaks to Elijah.
In “The Dryness and the Rain,” the wind and the storm causes the animals to scatter, and the cows trample on the pumpkins as the horses start “ambling in the corn.” The food gets left in tatters, but God comes and uses it to nourish. This occurs in the second verse which begins, “I’ve flown unnoticed just behind you like an insect.” The listener, like Elijah, is oblivious to God’s presence in the smallest things. God takes the crops and presses them together, making bread and sustenance for the listener.
Both of these verses are followed by a praise to God, sung by Jeremy Enigk, in Arabic. Enigk sings, “Isa ruhu-lah ‘alaihis-salat was-salam” (Jesus the Soul of God, peace and prayers be upon him). Here, the use of the Arabic “Isa” for Jesus brings together regions and ethnicities. It brings together Christianity and Islam. The praise calls to Jesus and exhorts that “peace and prayers be upon him.” Thinking about this move in 2006, the use of Arabic here, in the lyrics from a “Christian” band, is important, especially when we consider it in relation to the rest of the song.
During the bridge, Weiss alludes to both Rumi and the Qur’an. At the start of the bridge, Weiss sings,
A fish swims in the sea
While the sea is in a certain sense
Contained within the fish!
These lines allude to Rumi’s poem “The Road Home,” a poem that calls upon us to see beyond what exists immediately in front of our eyes and think about the abundance of God. Rumi’s refers to oceans pouring through a jar in the same manner that “it swims inside the fish!” This seems like a paradox, of course, but is it? The fish takes water in, right? So, the water enters the fish. As well, the inside of the fish contains numerous organisms, thus containing an ecosystem within itself. This, again, plays into the overall theme of “The Dryness and the Rain.”
Weiss follows the allusion to Rumi with an illusion to verse 31:21 of sūrat luq’mān from the Qur’an which reads, “And if whatever trees upon the earth were pens and the sea [was ink], replenished thereafter by seven [more] seas, the words of Allah would not be exhausted. Indeed, Allah is Exalted in Might and Wise.” This verse speaks to the vastness and abundance of God. Thinking about these lines in relation to the first verse which references Elijah and the cave, Weiss highlights how Christianity, Judaism, and Islam all approach the vastness of God and the ways we sometimes become blinded to God’s vastness by looking merely at want stands before us.
The song concludes with Enigk singing he chorus again and Weiss, underneath him, speaking a prayer and some of the 99 names of Allah in Arabic. He says,
Nastagh-firuka ya Hokan
Ya Dhal-Jalah wal-Ikram
Isa ruhu-lah ‘alaihis-salat was-salam
Ya Halim, ya Qahhar
Ya Muntaqim, ya Ghaffar!
La Ilaha ilallahu, Allahu Akbar!
We ask for your forgiveness, Oh Judge
Oh Lord of Majesty and Generosity
Jesus Christ, the spirit of God, peace be unto you
the Forbearing, the Subduer
the Avenger, the Forgiving
There is none worthy of worship besides Allah, Allah is the greatest
Again, while “The Dryness and the Rain” does not make an overt political or social statement, it does make a statement through its imagery, allusions, and language. It challenges, as Weiss said he was doing in 2016 when he sang “I was the ISIS flag design” on “Lilac Queen,” the stereotypes and Islamophobia around Islam and Arabs. Weiss told Ryan Burleson in 2016, “I’m also thinking of the fear-mongering mass media, which can be used to justify bigotry and the sentiments of the Republican presidential candidate, who issues sweeping condemnations of all Muslim people.”
Weiss continued by telling Burleson why he chooses to sing in Arabic and he draws a clear distinction between ISIS and Islam and the ways that the Qur’an gets used: “ISIS claims Islam and uses the Quran to justify much of what they do, but, when I sing in Arabic, I’m singing heart-felt prayers or simple acts of praise to Allah.” He wanted that line to “dismantle or challenge some of the fear-mongering that I’ve sensed.” Whether or not you agree that Weiss’ line in “Lilac Queen” does that, I would argue that he does confront the “fear-mongering” in songs such as “The Dryness and the Rain.”
A lot of listeners, however, would not see it this way. I always think of “Allah, Allah, Allah” the last song from the band’s next album, It’s All Crazy! It’s All False! It’s All a Dream! It’s Alright (2009). Christian bookstores pulled the album because of that song, or they had the titled changed to “Untitled.” This act is the same thing that happened with Squad Five-O’s album, and it speaks to the insular nature of “Christian” music that does not want any thoughtful conversation on social or political issues. There is more I could say, but I’ll leave it here.
What are your thoughts? As usual, let me know in the comments below, and make sure to follow me on Twitter at @silaslapham.