As a lexivist, I choose not to be apologetic about being more concerned with (read: borderline obsessed with) the meaning and words in songs more than anything else about them. Usually. There are certainly exceptions. However, most often, the lyrics are what define excellence for me, and from what I’ve seen, in this regard, I am in the minority. But who cares? I’m a writer first and a musician anywhere from second to tenth.
Now as someone primarily concerned with lyrical meaning, I cannot help but desire to expose and explain songs or projects that I find particularly meaningful for their lyrical content. Examples on my blog are The Magnificent Relevance of Motherfuckitude and The Spiritual Journey of Gallant. And now, I want to talk about one of the most lyrically important songs I have ever heard in my life, especially considering my own geographical and cultural contexts: Breaking Bars, by Tronomie.
Aside from the fact that Tronomie is currently my best friend, whom I’d like to believe I know deeply well enough to write accurately about his intention, the thing that makes this post different from the ones about Motherfuckitude and Ology is that this is not an interpretation of the lyrics; it is an explanation. I understand the lyrics better than anyone other than Tronomie himself, precisely because I co-wrote them.
Before I go into lyrical meaning, I want to first acknowledge that this song sounds fantastic. Sonic quality alone. And if you want a better idea of why Breaking Bars’ sonic uniqueness is just about as relevant as its lyrics to the Ghanaian music society from people who seem to understand the sonic qualities of music several times better than I do, I suggest you listen to Episode 3 of Nkenten’s Decaf podcast, which talks extensively about the song and whatever industrial complexities surround it. (Aside: You can also listen to Episode 2 of the Decaf Podcast, The Lexivist Edition, which features yours truly!)
Now, on to my specialty area: the lyrics. (Which many people either seem neither to understand nor care that they don’t understand. And if you think this is salt…well, it just might be. LOL)
It’s been a while since the face in you was mine
Now all I see is a broken figure”
The lyrics begin with an awakening to self, or the consciousness within a persona/the singer/Tronomie that he is not doing something right.
“How long until I settle for ‘this is fine’?”
But a greater issue than the fact that the persona is no longer recognizable to himself is the fact that he can foresee a moment when he will no longer aspire to be better than he is – to conquer the true vice that makes him unrecognizable to himself in the mirror: mediocrity.
If you had no idea what the song was really about, at least you could follow the metaphor up to that point. Before we come in with our river metaphors, leave you baffled and potentially lose you entirely. And so, at this point, I would like to explain the actual meaning of the song.
The Christian artistic industry, especially the music one, in Ghana appears to be suffering from mediocrity with regards to content. Many are satisfied with merely scratching the surface of the religion, playing it safe in the name of approval from local audiences, content that as long as they mention Jesus’ name in their song, it automatically becomes great Christian music. Resultantly, they fail to address issues of prime concern in society which need to be tackled, but more than that, refuse to apply genius and creativity in the way they create their art – leading to an occasionally stunning difference in quality of what is considered “secular” music and what we accept as “Christian” music. While it is sometimes evident how much effort some secular artistes/rappers put into their songwriting internationally (note that international ≠ exclusively foreign, so save your breath if you wanted to attack me for that) is evidence of effort that is so often apparently missing from the works of Ghanaian Christian artistes who consciously or unconsciously know that whether their songs are trashy or not, they are likely to get coverage in the church context. (I’m talking about music specifically in this blog post, partially because I know that if I start going off on the Ghanaian Christian spoken word scene, this blog post won’t finish.)
What on earth does all this have to do with Breaking Bars? Well, you see, the Christian artiste who makes mediocre music, both lyrically and sonically, is exactly like the persona at the beginning of Breaking Bars, reversed; s/he hasn’t realized that his/her image is distorted, and has indeed settled, unknowingly for “this [mediocrity] is fine”. BUT
“Why should a river compromise if it reflects the sky?”
The persona – no, the Christian artiste – is the river. What is the sky? The sky is God. The Christian must reflect God the way a river reflects the sky. S/he cannot do that if there are a bunch of obstacles in his/her way – in this case, the obstacles are those of mediocrity. The idea of river and sky’s reflection is just a way to imperfectly (which metaphor can ever fully encapsulate a complex, real-world idea?) the concept of having a higher purpose or potential. The absolute highest thing a river can reflect is not the branch of a tree, nor a mountaintop, nor even a passing bird; it is the limitless sky. To be content with anything intermediary, less, is to be content with mediocrity, in the context of this song.
And again, here, we potentially lose you again with the confusing retention of the general river metaphor, while we swiftly change the dimensions of it.
“So I’m going to run on deeper,
Break the dam if the bars won’t let me by”
Where is the change? Well, it lies in how we have suddenly gone from looking at things in the upward direction (sky) to looking at them sideways. No longer are we talking about the river’s reflection, but now we are talking about its flow. The same way objects between river and sky stop the river from reflecting, so do the “bars” create a dam within the river, a stoppage that does not allow it to flow the way it should. The bar is mediocrity. And the goal is to break past it.
Then there’s another very rapid metaphor switch, sorry-not-sorry. The “bars” have transformed from river dam bars into prison bars. Either way, they are the unwanted obstruction. Now the bars of mediocrity are the ones that “hold the standards too low”. We are speaking again, of course, of the general standards of the Christian artistic industry. And so this persona/Tronomie sees an antidote as a course of action, to
“Rip every note,
Transcend what I’ve known”.
It’s somewhat metonymic. Ripping notes, singing excellently, stands in for also doing everything related to music creation or art creation excellently. Including writing lyrics. [This is where I am pleased to reveal my jon by mentioning that music is and/or lyrics are written in…bars. Hehehee!] So, fundamentally, this is the meaning of Breaking Bars. You could stop reading here because by now you should at least vaguely get it. But please continue reading because I am going to continue writing, as there are obviously more lyrics, and certainly more to say.
The second verse of the song more explicitly brings out the purpose of the song rather than just the meaning. The purpose of this song is to be a challenge to Christian artistes wherever, to step up their game when it comes to making excellent art.
“Step up, leader
If your speaker is connected to your mic
Your voice makes me listen, eager
But your message is disconnected from my mind”
If you have access to a platform, and an audience for anything that you do (e.g. If you have a working microphone and have a voice coming out through speakers that people are listening to), you are probably a leader of sorts, whether you know it or not. But now what is the point of the sweetest voice that claims to be doing the work of glorifying God but is really not saying anything that the audience’s minds can recognize as substantial content? If you have a platform, you might as well use it well.
“Silver spoon on a golden plate,
Do you only decorate?
Your guests will be starving for dinner
If you’re living your life behind your case.”
(Trust Tronomie to be there thinking about spoons when we’re talking about bars. I mean, it’s not like I didn’t already know that he was crazy but…LOL.)
How baffling that you can turn something so purposefully utilitarian (literally, utensils) into purposeless decorations. As an artist, you should not want to be a purposeless decoration – not when people are starving and you are the person that can be used to feed them. The “case” here is your comfort zone of mediocrity, of acceptability, of refusal to say or do anything that could disrupt the problematically silent status quo of Christian culture on issues that matter more than we give them credit for. This protective shield is another “bar” that must be broken. Christianity. Is. Not. Safe. You can’t even finish listing issues Christian culture, especially in Ghana, has too long been silent about. Examples that readily come to my mind are mental health, the de-contextualization of Scripture, and the very real struggle of going through doubt while still ascribing to the faith. I’m sure there are countless more you can name.
“Where is the mind God has given you?
Do you want to do better?
Do you want to say better?”
The minds that we have must be used. The Psalmist was an artiste who used his mind to create lyrical excellence. What is your excuse? To refuse usage of the mind in the capacity it was designed for is to transform it from purposefully utilitarian to purposelessly decorative.
And so as a whole, we tried to do with Breaking Bars what Breaking Bars is trying to challenge others to do. If the amount of deliberation, intentionality and effort that was put into trying to make this song transcend standards and expectations is any indication, I’d say we have reason to be at least a little bit proud of what Tronomie and everyone involved in the making of this song have managed to produce.
Lastly, I would like to emphasize that Breaking Bars is not a Gospel song. I have heard it referred to as such and I just can’t deal with it. What it is, plain as day, is a song written by a couple of Christians. It is a song. It is music. Aside from the fact that it simply does not fit the conventional “Gospel” category of music, there is also the (valid) argument that there really is no such thing as Christian music in the first place. And to illustrate, I shall pull up my favorite quote from rapper Lecrae’s Unashamed autobiography:
“There is no such thing as Christian rap and secular rap. Only people can become Christians. Music can’t accept Jesus into its heart. So I am not trying to make Christian music or secular music. I’m just making music. Hip-hop, like all music, is a good thing. I could use it for evil by filling it with violence and misogyny and profanity. Or I can use it to glorify God. Every song I write doesn’t have to have the Gospel spelled out or quote Scripture so that people will know I love Jesus. My goal is just to use my gifts to produce great art that tells the truth about the world. If I see the world through a biblical lens, the music will naturally paint a picture that serves people and honors God.” – Lecrae Moore
P.S.: The Genius.com lyrics to Breaking Bars can be found here.