Lupe Fiasco (AP/Paul A. Hebert)

This cancer anthem is the song of the summer

Could Lupe Fiasco's "Mission" make a disease go Top 40?

Mary Elizabeth Williams
May 21, 2014 6:15PM (UTC)

This is not a Hallmark card. This is not a Lifetime movie or a Nicholas Sparks novel. This is a cancer anthem unlike any other.

It took Lupe Fiasco, a hip-hop artist with a decidedly punk rock sensibility, to come up a song about sickness that eschews the treacle-filled potholes that dot the road of creative works about disease, and instead pumps up the volume with unflinching power. "Mission," which debuted earlier this week, is, as explained on Fiasco's YouTube page, "a track to empower those facing cancer, revere cancer survivors and remember those who have passed to due to cancer related illnesses." It opens with a minute and a half of overlapping sound bites from a variety of cancer survivors -- including the Gap Band's Charlie Wilson -- and then segues into three distinct verses telling three distinct stories: a woman with breast cancer who decides "You can have that hair cause real talk bitch, I think I look better," a 7 year-old child with Stage 4 cancer who thinks, "Killing kids -- well, kiss my ass; it ain't killin' me," and a man who went "undiagnosed and untreated" and says, "If I died, it'd die with me, so let's do it."


That a song with the theme of illness would be the first single off Fiasco's new album "Tetsuo & Youth" is an unorthodox choice, to say the least, especially in a season usually reserved for lighthearted blockbuster hits involving dancing and sexual harassment. Perhaps even more unusual is the fact that the Grammy-winning artist, an ambassador for Stand Up to Cancer, collaborated with the charity to use the song to "honor those touched by cancer." A fierce, profanity-laced track that acknowledges both survival and loss -- that bears the stamp of approval from a major cancer charity? A message that isn't all sunshine and ribbons and smiling through the pain? Oh my God yes please more.

I happen to already be a big fan of both Lupe Fiasco and Stand Up To Cancer -- where I have been fortunate to be part of its immunotherapy patient advocacy team. But "Mission" transcends even its built-in fan base. It's supportive of survivors and those still living with cancer – those who "could've died but came out fighting" -- in an entirely visceral way. Yet it's additionally respectful to those whose disease takes a different path, and that is huge. It's a massive, whopping step up from the perpetually peddled narrative that casts people with cancer as either plucky, adorable optimists who cheerfully refused to let cancer get to them or tragic failures who "lost their battle." It acknowledges, ferociously, that cancer sucks and it makes a person really angry, but that anger is powerful and at times even beautiful. I have never heard anything that depicts the experience more honestly or intensely. Nor, for that matter, did I know till I heard it that what the world really needs is the first message about cancer that includes the word "crunk." And I'm already entirely predisposed to declare that Michael Jackson and Justin Timberlake have just been unseated as kings of my new summer jam.


Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a staff writer for Salon and the author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

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