An Ultralight Beam: Joy Is the Weapon 2017 Needs
If you want evidence that 2016 was a nightmare for most people, Google the “Me Before vs. Me After 2016” meme. You’ll scroll through countless examples making claims about the quality of life before 2016 and how badly the year marred it. Examples include Carrie from Carrie holding flowers as prom queen on stage vs. Carrie drenched in pig’s blood, and Harry Potter as a fresh young wizard at the beginning of his first Hogwarts semester juxtaposed with an angsty adult Harry staring into the sky, face bloodied to a pulp after receiving a whooping from Voldemort.
My own self-care efforts--staying up late to watch West Coast NBA games, buying IPAs from microbreweries in Oregon, or indulging in long baths while listening to pop culture podcasts--didn’t allay the darkness of the year. I found myself scraping the bottom of my life’s bowl for goodness, and it felt impossible to get a lick of icing on my spoon. The year was one of those mornings you wake up with a scratchy throat and mucus in your chest. You take a hot, steaming shower hoping it’ll clear things up, but despite your attempts to believe you’ll start feeling better the next hour, yuck persists. 2016 was a virus not cured with a Dayquil x Nyquil x diet ginger ale cocktail.
But there were scraps of light. Slender particles of good floated in the air, despite the miasma. Joy was hit-or-miss, but still present, and I learned something about it: easy joy isn’t really joy. If joy is necessary to live a meaningful life, that joy must be real: not finicky, flimsy, or fleeting.
As I reflect about the glimpses of that kind of joy I felt in 2016 and look forward to shining some of it on 2017, I’ll carry hope with me from an unlikely source: Kanye West performing two songs from his album The Life of Pablo on Saturday Night Live, on February 13th, 2016. The second song he performed on SNL that night is called “Ultralight Beam.”
A large, angled screen hangs against the black backdrop of the SNL stage and chaotically emits colorful blocks of dark pink and blue. A gospel choir clad in denim and white stands still before it, arms out and palms up. Kanye is serious - but not in “the bad mood Kanye / the always rude Kanye” fashion we’ve come to know in recent years. He is solemn because he’s earnest. He’s somber because he has a significant word to deliver.
Kanye never comes out and says what an “ultralight beam” is - he just keeps singing that we’re on one and it’s a “God-dream.” According to one Rap Genius contributor, the phrase might refer to the conversion of Saul of Tarsus in the Bible. You know, when Saul--then a real dirtbag--is on the road to Damascus and God appears to him as a “beam of light” and blinds him for three days. Through his illuminating conversion, Saul changes his name to Paul and becomes one of the most influential figures in Christianity.
That would be an apt allusion, as the chorus speaks about the quest for inner peace in the midst of a “holy war,” a nod to the turmoil between right and wrong or meaning and purposelessness humans experience. “I’m trynna keep my faith,” the choir sings.
As Kelly Price takes center stage and emits her plea, the choir urges her on with dancing and fluttering praise hands. Kanye is off to the side with The-Dream, mouth open, teeth gleaming in the shadows. Price sings that she used to be angry because she didn’t understand God, but now she is no longer “afraid of the night” because “I look to the light.”
Chance the Rapper takes over for Kelly Price with a whimsically pugnacious verse. He taunts the devil--“Foot on the Devil’s neck ‘til it drifted Pangaea”--and ultimately delivers a holy thesis: “You cannot mess with the light.” Kanye, still propped up by The-Dream, begins to bend his legs and sway a bit with Chance’s bars. When Chance belts “I’ma make sure that they go where they can’t go,” Kanye embodies the truism screen printed, framed, and hung on a million Millennial gallery walls: “Dance like nobody’s watching.” His arms flail and he dips down and up again and flaps his extremities.
The conclusion of the song is a benediction and features Kirk Franklin (yes, this Kirk Franklin) delivering a prayer “for everyone that feels they’re not good enough,” telling them “You can never go too far.” As Franklin takes the stage for his prayer, Kanye lays down on his stomach, arms stretched wide. This is a staged act of pageantry, sure, but it doesn’t make it any less symbolic or significant. Franklin, with a hand outstretched toward West, declares his prayer is “for everybody that feels they’re too messed up”--which is Kanye West, and also all of us.
As you wake and walk into a new year with a hopeful heart, let the truth of this sear you: A year isn’t an evil overlord. All the worst about 2016 was by humans, because of humans. This is terrifying. But it can also be intensely liberating because it means it’s possible for us to sail the ship of humanity toward healthier, more hopeful seas. We should feel indicted by what’s happening in our world. Convicted, too. We should also swell up with true joy, and go fight the garbage with it.
Real joy is our most potent strategy.
This performance has the power to help propel us to rise above personal, national, and global despondency because it presents and endorses joy as something more than a pleasant gift or blessing. Joy here isn’t a quaint brunch of bottomless mimosas or an intimate concert by our favorite singer-songwriter. It isn’t even the miracle of childbirth or love put on display at a wedding of two souls meant to be together.
Joy in the realm of “Ultralight Beam” is an instrument that can be used to achieve tough, disruptive change. Kanye’s joy isn’t composed of happy memories or a few good laughs; it is forged through a deep attempt--“I’m trynna keep my faith”--to reconcile personal demons with the often painful realities of our community and culture. His joy is fought for while trying to reconcile the catastrophes of our world (“Pray for Paris / Pray for the parents”) with the sacredness of everything. The performance invites us to consider our tough personal and global tensions with the good but so very challenging work of intentional living we’ve got to do, especially in a world of injustice. It's a reminder that we need a joy with teeth. A joy that throws punches.
Kanye’s infectious enthusiasm for this thing he’s created is a posture we need to grab and charge with us like a torch: into our relationships, political lives, even the stuff we make. Most of us won’t write a banger like “Ultralight Beam” in 2017, but what if we were so vulnerable, so earnest, so dedicated to the proposition that if we create things we deeply care about, they can change the world?
If we want our “me” and “us” in 2017 to be marked by progress in kindness and generosity, our joy can’t be weak. It can’t merely be wrapped up in Kraft paper and tied with trendy yarn and passed around whenever we need a boost of self-esteem.
Our joy, like Kanye’s, needs to be resilient. It isn’t going to be perfect, and it’s not always going to look holy or happy. Sometimes we’re going to be misunderstood and criticized for it. The kinds of evils best fought with joy are complex.
But if we remember one truth the performance impresses upon us--“You cannot mess with the light”--we have an eternal spring of tough brightness on our side. It’s a good mantra.
This month, we begin our march to redeem 2017. Go and save your worlds with light and a clenched fist full of rugged, messy joy.