The new single by hip-hop artist Missy Elliott featuring Pharrell Williams, “WTF (Where They From),” has received positive attention from fans and music critics alike. In reviews and commentaries, it has not gone unnoticed that the song contains some references to esoteric religion. Esotericism is a broad category that includes a variety of religious and metaphysical orientations that are unconventional and unorthodox. They are not mainstream. Esotericism is practiced only by a select few, an “in group,” hence the term “esoteric” (from the Greek esotero, meaning “more inside,” or “further within”). Esotericism includes ancient traditions of Hermeticism and Gnosticism, as well as astrology, alchemy, theosophy, Kabbalah, and Freemasonry. It is somewhat synonymous with occultism. It is the mysterious world of initiations into secret societies and magical practices. So, what does this have to do with “WTF”?
Pharrell makes numerous esoteric references in his verse. First of all, there is an explicit reference to Hermes Trismegistus, the legendary author of the esoteric text Corpus Hermeticum, which transmits secret knowledge of the unity of self, world, and “God” (in an Abrahamic-Platonic sort of hybridity). In Latin, the name “Hermes” translates as “Mercurius.” In its liquid form, Mercury is called “quicksilver,” which metaphorically refers to any substance that changes shape rapidly; “shape shift,” as Pharrell puts it, after describing himself psychosexually “like liquid.” Pharrell also makes reference to “God” in terms of the hexagram (the “almighty yellow star, God”), that is, the Star of David, which is a symbol used throughout Abrahamic religions as well as esotericism.
What is Pharrell saying here? Is he recommending practices of magic, alchemy, and astrology? Is he just playing with images and symbols? Is he trying to undermine the authority of orthodox religions with the authority of secret societies? Is he expressing academic interests in classical metaphysics and Western esotericism, or is he hinting at initiation into a secret society like the Illuminati?
There’s no need to answer those questions now. It’s a provocative verse, open to interpretation. To keep it open to interpretation, I want to defend Pharrell against any interpretation that closes off the meaning of his music. For instance, consider the interpretation given by a reviewer at the online magazine Reality Sandwich. The reviewer finds fault with Pharrell’s esotericism. The shapeshifting magic and secret wisdom are fine. The fault is in the way esoteric practitioners think that they have somehow transcended other people, becoming extra special and different, as when Pharrell says, “I am so different than y’all, so far apart.” To that reviewer, Pharrell is undermining unity and solidarity, being divisive by claiming such difference and apartness. However, that is a mistaken interpretation. The following three points clarify the musical context of Pharrell’s esoteric statements.
First, the concluding line of Pharrell’s verse explicitly says that you do not have to be an esoteric initiate to see through illusion and understand reality. In particular, he refers to Freemasonry, a secret society of ritual initiations and arcane symbols, which are traced back to medieval guilds of stonemasonry. “You ain’t gotta be a mason to see through some of this shit on occasion.” Pharrell is saying that you do not have to undergo any special initiation or learn any secret handshakes to see the truth. One of the truths you might see is that we are all unique, which means that it is paradoxically our difference that we have in common. It is our apartness that makes us part of the same unity.
Second, the music itself conveys this sense of unity not as a homogeneous blob of sameness but as a complex continuity with difference. For instance, when Pharrell says, “You don’t gotta be a mason,” he raises his pitch an octave for the subsequent “some of this,” and then drops the pitch back down for “shit on occasion.” His jump in pitch between the higher and the lower resonates with the Hermetic axiom “As above, so below,” which refers to a paradoxical unity of opposites, including the unity of the whole (macrocosm) and the part (microcosm), the high and the low, and the esoteric practitioner and the uninitiated person. This continuity with difference is also indicated in the song’s rhythm. If there is no separation in music, then there is no rhythm. You hear a beat because there is a break, silence, or some kind of difference. Without any difference, you would only hear an extended tone with no discernible rhythm. The continuity of a rhythm requires difference. The first beat of the measure might say to the other beats, “I am so different than y’all, so far apart.” It is that difference that keeps them together as a rhythm.
Third, another way that the song conveys this complex sense of unity is by its juxtaposition of two vocalists, Pharrell and Missy. Like Pharrell, Missy also declares her proclivity for separation, “I’m different, rippin’ shit.” That difference is not elitist or divisive. It is what makes a duet a duet and not a solo. They are different people, yet they are together on one track. It is the difference that keeps them together. If they were not different, their vocals would blend into an indistinguishable solo where there is no unique Pharrell voice or Missy voice.
Differences, separations, breaks, and rips are not opposed to solidarity and unity, no more than “below” is opposed to “above.” Wholeness and apartness intimately intertwine. Pharrell’s declaration of difference is not one-upmanship, dissociation, or divisiveness. His lyrics and the song as a whole express the esoteric paradox that opposites coincide: above and below, life and death, unity and difference. And such paradoxical truth is not the exclusive property of esotericism. Missy and Pharrell sound radically egalitarian. Anyone can figure it out. You just need ears to hear. You don’t have to be a mason to see through Pharrell’s reference to being “so far apart.” You just have to listen. You don’t have to look at his engagements in charity and philanthropy, although there are many. You just have to listen. “That’s how they do it where they from.”