Becoming Diamond with Sasha Shulgin, Rihanna, and MDMA

To celebrate the memory of the psychedelic chemist Alexander “Sasha” Shulgin, what follows is an account of the significance of the empathogen MDMA (Ecstasy, Molly) for the intersection of religion and popular music, with specific attention to the meaning of the MDMA references in Rihanna’s song “Diamonds.”

In popular music, whenever you find lyrical expressions of exalted states of consciousness (e.g., love and unity), references to psychopharmacology often can be found close by. To put it more simply, mind-altering drugs are a big part of the sacred dimension of popular music. In what follows, I focus on one drug in particular, MDMA, a drug whose widespread use owes much to the chemist Alexander “Sasha” Shulgin (June 17, 1925 – June 2, 2014), a pioneer in psychedelic research. Shulgin’s recent passing provides an opportunity for reflection on his unique role at the intersection of religion and popular music.

Shulgin experimented with numerous chemicals (including hundreds that he invented), testing them on himself to explore their psychoactive potential. His accounts of those experiments can be found primarily in two books that he wrote with his wife Ann Shulgin, Pikhal and Tikhal. One of the chemicals that he worked with (but did not invent) is MDMA (3,4-methylenedioxymethamphetamine), variously known as Molly, Ecstasy, Adam, and many other names. It is described as an empathogen, as it generates experiences of empathy and love. Shulgin helped disseminate MDMA to psychologists and therapists in the San Francisco Bay Area in the 1970s, and its popularity has continued to grow ever since, eventually spreading outside of research and therapeutic contexts and into various subcultural milieus (e.g., raves and S&M parties).

After years of growing use and abuse, MDMA became illegal in the United States in 1985. Perhaps that was for the best, as the unsupervised use of the drug led to medical problems (e.g., dehydration from overexertion, and oppositely, water intoxication from overhydration) and to deadly overdoses, and the quality of the drug was often suspect as many dealers were mixing it or replacing it with other drugs. Furthermore, even if MDMA is used in a safe and supervised context, it is nonetheless a neurotoxin. The drug has real dangers and real benefits. The question remains open. Should MDMA be legalized? For medical use? Religious use? Recreationally? These questions are being explored in detail through the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS).

In any case, the illegal status of MDMA has not stopped its spread throughout subcultures and even into mainstream popular culture. In popular music, one can find references to MDMA in numerous songs. Of course, sometimes the references are hidden in slang and euphemisms, and sometimes the songwriter will even deny the reference, like when Miley Cyrus said that her lyric about “dancing with Molly” (from her hit single “We Can’t Stop”) was actually just “dancing with Miley,” which sounds like “Molly” because of her southern accent. Cyrus later acknowledged the drug reference while bemoaning the censorship her work undergoes.

While some artists disavow drug references, others are more explicit. In “Empire State of Mind,” Jay-Z mentions the euphoric exaltation accompanying MDMA experiences: “MDMA got you feeling like a champion.” In 2012, Madonna released an album called MDNA, which combines her name (and her DNA) with MDMA, as if to suggest a complete integration of MDMA into her identity, not unlike the homonymous integration of Miley and Molly. While there is much to say about the religious implications of the MDMA references in Miley Cyrus, Jay-Z, Madonna, and numerous other popular musicians, I want to focus on the religious implications of the MDMA references in one song in particular, “Diamonds” by Rihanna.

“Shine bright like a diamond.” That lyric is the first in the song, entering after a sustained chord played by a synth piano opens the song. Similar to the repetitive rhythm and chord changes of the synth, which are the same throughout the entire song, that lyric is repeated at the beginning and ending of the song and throughout every chorus, occasionally becoming the background over which other lyrics are sung. The listener is inundated with the repeated injunction to perform an act of becoming diamond, that is, becoming a mineral of unsurpassed iridescence and hardness (resistance to abrasion). That injunction provides a hint of the religious dimension of this song. A brief analysis of some of the other lyrics can further elucidate this religious dimension.

The first verse introduces an intense interpersonal relationship or, to borrow a phrase from Martin Buber, the sacred relationship of I and Thou: “You and I, you and I / We’re like diamonds in the sky.” We are stars, suns, sky-diamonds, and I and You become one in knowledge and in vision:

I knew that we’d become one right away
Oh, right away
At first sight I felt the energy of sun rays
I saw the life inside your eyes.

Knowledge of mystical unity (“knew that we’d become one”) accompanies a primordial vision (“first sight”) of the eyes of the other, eyes in and through which the vital rays of the sun emanate, as if celestial infinity (You) is united with the terrestrial face (I) in a single shine.

Eye to eye, so alive
We’re beautiful like diamonds in the sky.

The diamond-to-diamond relation is an eye-to-eye relation between solar emanations, rays of infinity. This warrants comparison with another term for sacred relationships, Emmanuel Levinas’ “face to face” relation, wherein an encounter with the face of the other is an encounter with infinity (see Levinas’ Totality and Infinity).

The image of an interconnected network of diamond-beings also resonates with the Buddhist image of the Jeweled Net of Indra, which depicts all of existence as a net with a jewel (a being) at each node, and every jewel reflects and is reflected by the others in a vast cosmic connectivity. One could connect that image with the multiple meanings of the vajra (“diamond” and “thunderbolt”) of Hindu and Buddhist traditions. Indeed, this discussion could lead to a much deeper analysis of many religious symbols and rituals involving diamonds.

Overall, Rihanna’s lyrics express a profound vision of existence as a beautiful, interconnected, and most inviolable substance. Being is diamond-being, and its shine radiates a repeated injunction to “shine bright like a diamond.” You and I are beautiful like diamonds, so we should shine accordingly. “So shine bright.” Shining bright, you and I are always under the weight of the injunction to shine. I am always already diamond-being, which means I am continually returning to practice the injunction, repeating the refrain, “Shine bright like a diamond.” One could interpret Rihanna’s “Diamonds” as a lyrical exegesis on Alex Grey’s painting “Diamond Being.”

What conditions occasioned this enlightened vision of interstellar unity and beauty? To put it rather allusively, the conditions include a molecular mode of ecstatic inspiration. More explicitly, the conditions include MDMA (Molly, Ecstasy) and probably some whiskey or some such high-proofed spirit. The following verses are relatively unambiguous.

Palms rise to the universe
As we moonshine and molly
Feel the warmth, we’ll never die
We’re like diamonds in the sky.

You’re a shooting star I see
A vision of ecstasy
When you hold me, I’m alive
We’re like diamonds in the sky.

Although Rihanna and the song’s writers and producers were not necessarily thinking of Sasha Shulgin, they nonetheless created a song that is indicative of Shulgin’s contributions to the religious dimension of popular music. The song conveys at least three significant contributions.

1) One key contribution is that Shulgin’s work with MDMA and other molecules makes religious feelings and perceptions available to large numbers of people who might otherwise have no sense of the sacred or who might participate only in institutional (not experiential) aspects of religion.  Moreover, this contribution is quite risky, as it makes intense experiences available outside of supervised or controlled contexts.

2) Another important contribution is the empathic quality that MDMA brings into one’s religious sensibilities, such that religion is not based on private beliefs or individual experiences but is primarily shared, relational, and interpersonal (I-You, face-to-face, Jeweled Net).

3) Insofar as this feeling for relationship seems to extend beyond the human sphere into mineral and cosmic dimensions, one could argue that it contributes to the development of a more ecological sense of the sacred.

In sum, we can thank Sasha Shulgin for unleashing MDMA and a multitude of chemicals that open up possibilities for altering consciousness, chemicals that, on one hand, can lead to escapism, abuse, and health problems, and on the other hand, lead to more sensual, empathic, and ecological religious expressions, providing occasions for us to shine together like the precious jewels that we are. So shine bright!

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