*** The following is a paper I presented at the 2012 American Academy of Religion National Conference for a session entitled “Critical Approaches to Hip Hop and Religion”***
Karl Rahner has remarked that the Western theological tradition has “never paid any serious attention to the question whether there are prophets even in post-apostolic times, how their spirit can be recognized…[and] what their role is in the Church.” When African people were shackled and forced to build a new empire in the west, did God have nothing to say? When they were taught they were the descendants of the first murderer and shown bible verses instructing slaves to obey their masters did God “approve this message?” Or has God actually been addressing us all along, through a Baptist minister from Georgia who echoed the prophet Amos’ cry to “Let justice roll like water” to a nation torn asunder by a disastrous war in Vietnam and a bitter struggle for civil rights at home? And if we can agree, as I think we might, that God has indeed spoken through courageous prophets like Frederick Douglass and Dr. King, that God was not silent, but could be heard in the cries for abolition and integration, then we must ask not if but how and through whom God is continuing to call for justice and peace in the twenty-first century.
Cornel West has stated that “To prophesy is not to predict an outcome but rather to identify concrete evils…not to call for some otherworldly paradise but rather to generate enough faith, hope, and love to sustain the human possibility for more freedom…to confront the darker sides of societies and souls with compassion and justice.”
I can’t read the prophets without getting the impression that they were the rappers of their day— controversial, challenging, and provocative figures whose creative speech and acts subverted conventional understandings to point to deeper truths about God, themselves and their societies. They “sampled” from the covenant tradition but flipped the script in surprising ways to reveal God’s will to justice and peace. It strikes me that this hermeneutic could be a helpful way for many in our culture to begin to understand the prophets of the bible and the continuity of this prophetic tradition into our own time.
Hip hop is an ideal place to investigate because it’s poetics are deeply rooted in African-American culture, which has been a prime source of prophetic expression from the time of slavery to the civil rights movement, and, I will argue, into the twenty-first century. Hip hop began as a way for a generation of marginalized urban youth to gain a voice and express themselves during a period of American history marked by rapidly increasing inequality of income and living conditions, a neglected War on Poverty, an escalating War on Drugs, and the rise of a prison industrial complex which profits from the ills that plague many urban communities.
Because of this unique vantage point from the margins, hip hop offers a prophetic word that twenty-first century American Christians can no longer afford to ignore. It is not that hip hop is prophetic in and of itself; but, as a popular discourse which values ghetto authenticity and subversive truth telling, hip hop can be ideal vehicle for urban prophets to spread their messages beyond the narrow confines of denominations and traditional religious affiliations. Bible scholar Walter Brueggemann has identified four essential traits of prophet-producing sub-communities:
- There is a long and available memory that sinks the present generation deep into an identifiable past that is available in song and story,
- there is an available, expressed sense of pain that is owned and recited as a real social fact…understood as unbearable for the long term
- there is an active practice of hope, a community that knows about promises yet to be kept, promises that stand in judgment on the present, and
- there is an effective mode of discourse…that is taken as distinctive, and that is richly coded in ways that only insiders can know.
It must be admitted that much of what you see on BET and MTV will fall short of such a high standard. Yet there is also a significant undercurrent of artists both underground and mainstream who thoroughly embody each of these traits, making hip hop an ideal cultural landscape in which to investigate contemporary examples of prophetic imagination.
Since Brueggemann highlights two essential functional attributes of prophetic poetry—criticizing the dominant consciousness and energizing the people to move in an alternative direction—I will identify three key points of religious criticism in hip hop and their energizing alternatives. First is the critique of religion as pacification to justify and maintain an oppressive status quo. Second will be the critique of religious exclusivism and the otherworldly concept of heaven and hell, and finally, the critique of religion as institutional and authoritarian. These critiques are countered by energizing religious models of empowerment for the disenfranchised, an emphasis on inclusivity which embraces the concrete struggles of real people in the present, and the mobilization of democratic grassroots movements as a source of power and authority.
Religion as Rationalization of the Status Quo
One of the major reasons that the church has had difficulty accepting hip hop has been the perception that rappers are irreverent, sacrilegious and even blasphemous. Many religious people simply don’t want to encounter the deeper messages of hip hop music, and perhaps rightly so, because at the core they will likely find a critical denunciation of their own tightly held ideology. Hip hop is particularly critical of the “white-washed” Jesus of American Christianity depicted variously as an authoritarian figure, a judgmental moralist, and an unquestioningly obedient son—images that either overtly or subliminally serve to rationalize and maintain an oppressive status quo. In contrast, hip hop reintroduces us to the Jesus who embraced and uplifted prostitutes, drunks, diseased people and tax-collectors and who rebuked the religious hypocrites who ignored and disdained them. Thus, Amir Sulaiman rhymes, “I’m scrolling through my contacts in search of the righteous Praying the Lord send me someone Gʼd up like Jesus, Flipping over tables in the Temple cause that’s how real Christ is And that’s how real life is.”
This image of a “Gʼd up” Jesus illustrates how rappers often speak fondly of the “real” Jesus because they see him as a righteous revolutionary, but remain highly critical of the church and popular religion for watering down Jesusʼ more provocative words and deeds. In another song, Sulaiman reinforces this analysis through two references to the Sermon on the Mount, which, in his view, has been twisted to undermine the willingness to resist oppression. First, he says, “The revolution is for cats in the street, cats that are playing for keeps…and the strong will have to usher in the days that ʻthe meek shall inherit the earth.ʼ” This is a hedge against the notion that the people must passively wait for God to deliver them from oppression. In the second reference he elaborates on this point, exclaiming, “Both sides of our face [are] bruised cause we turned the other cheek…On the promise of history and prophecy, itʼs time to get free.” While he is equally critical of senseless violence, he questions the use of turning the other cheek on the basis that it might reinforce a victim mentality that prevents meaningful liberation. As he explains in another song, “Thatʼs why I speak with a voice somewhere in between your pastor in a pulpit and a hijacker in a cockpit.” The purpose of such intense rhetoric is to motivate and mobilize listeners into action; the prophetic word must not only be heard, it must also be done by those who hear it because it is the revelation of the will of God. There is an important energizing function in the appeal by Muslim rappers like Sulaiman to Jesus and Christian imagery, as it becomes an invitation for Muslims and Christians to join together in re-envisioning Jesus’ words and deeds together in more liberating and empowering ways. Even while espousing one particular faith tradition, rappers like Sulaiman inhabit a free discursive space, which permits and often encourages them to “sample” from the vast array of ideas, symbols, and concepts that lie outside that particular faith tradition. While for some this certainly has been perceived as a problem or a threat, hip hopʼs discursive free-for-all could also be conceived as a ripe venue for interfaith dialogue and cooperation.
Critique of Heaven and Hell Exclusivism
The inclusivity of this approach leads us to our second point of criticism. In the concrete jungle of the American inner-city, the theology of salvation and redemption must also be conceived in terms of a concrete liberation from oppression. On the hook from Chicago rapper Lupe Fiasco’s most recent single, he exclaims, “Live from the other side, what you see? A bunch of nonsense on my TV, Heaven on earth is what I need but I feel I’m in hell every time I breathe…rich man, poor man, we all gotta pay, ‘cause freedom ain’t free, especially around my way.” Similarly, Brooklyn rapper Talib Kweli rhymes, “Religion create[s] divisions, make the Muslim hate the Christian, make the Christian hate the Jew, make the rules of faith that you condition to…and God forbid you go to hell, but if you’ve ever walked through any ghetto then you know it well.” Doctrines of religious exclusivism couched in the harsh rhetoric of heaven and hell as eternal destinations after death fall drastically short of a winning strategy to reach out to those who are drawn toward hip hop culture. And heres why. Many in this demographic are looking for a sense of acceptance and community that is marked by affirmation rather than the judgment and condemnation they often associate with religious groups. Exclusive and condemning language only magnifies the sense of religious alienation that hip hoppers are already articulating. How can an “other- worldly” theology of heaven and hell speak in a relevant way to those who define hell as their current living conditions and heaven as their redemption and deliverance from hell on earth, and to those who view the religious escapism of this theology as a cause of, rather than a solution to, their oppression? Thus, Talib Kweli says, “It’s like God skipped past the church and came to me/No that aint vain to me; it’s just the particular way that I came to see…the poem’s divine ‘cause it coincides with a growing tide/Of those who [are] looking for God, [and] know to go inside.” Exclusivity and condemnation are supplanted by words that affirm and empower young people to seek truth and healing outside the walls of the church, meeting them where they are at: in the streets.
Perhaps the clearest example of this energizing spirit of inclusivity can be found in Erykah Baduʼs song “The Healer.” She sings, “Alhamdulillah, Allah, Jehovah, Yahweh, Dios, Maʼat, Jah, Rastafari…hip hop/Itʼs bigger than religion…Itʼs bigger than the government.” Her use of divine referents from a diverse array of religions and languages emphasizes the “healing” capacity that hip hop possesses when bringing unity out of this tremendous diversity. She goes on to say, “Weʼve been programmed, wake up…Go get baptized in the ocean of the people/Say reboot, refresh, restart, fresh page, new day.” This line cleverly couples religious language with technological terms to remind us of a God who says, just as it appears to be the end of days, “Behold, I am making all things new” (Rev. 21:5). It reminds us that our gospels have often failed to deliver truly good news to those who need to hear it the most. The spirit of inclusivity is thus an integral part of the prophetic energizing that takes place in hip hop. The willingness to engage a diverse spectrum of partners in dialogue has given rappers a broader audience that appreciates their moving beyond mere “tolerance” toward a much richer engagement beyond religious frontiers.
Critique of Institutional and Authoritarian Religion
One of the most important features of prophetic hip hop is the claim to have the authority to speak on Godʼs behalf without the mediation or acknowledgement of religious institutions. Thus, in the very claim to be an authentic hip hop prophet there is an underlying critique of institutionalized religion. In Talib Kweliʼs song “Give ʻEm Hell,” as I referenced earlier, he grapples with what he sees as the judgmental hypocrisy of organized religion and seeks to articulate a more authentic spirituality that resonates with hip hop culture. Not only is this perspective emblematic of the sentiments of many members of hip hop and wider African-American culture, it is reflective of an entire generation of young Americans from every ethnic, socio-economic, and denominational background who are leaving institutional religion behind for very similar reasons. In his book You Lost Me: Why Young Christians are Leaving the Church and Rethinking Faith, David Kinnerman writesthat today’s youth share a “disdain for one-sided communication, disconnect from formulaic faith, and discomfort with apologetics that seem disconnected from the real world.” In addition to this negative appraisal of religious institutions, however, Kinnerman identifies a more hopeful trend that emerged from his research: “Apparently, they are a generation prepared to be not merely hearers of doctrine but doers of faith; they want to put their faith into action, not just talk.” In other words, to be disenchanted with institutional religion is not the same thing as a rejection of faith and spirituality as a whole. On the contrary, one could just as easily read the dismissal of organized religion as an expression of faith—that hypocritical, judgmental, or simply disconnected and irrelevant forms of religion are to be rejected because these are not authentic expressions of faith, but reflections of idolatry or corruption. To quote Talib Kweli once more, “If we all made in God’s image that means his face is mine, wait or is that blasphemy? If I don’t look like my Father then the way I live is bastardly…If we’re all God’s children whats the word of the reverend worth? I used to study my lessons, it was a blessing not a curse; I learned that heaven and hell exist right here on earth, word.”
Many Hip hop artists reveal an extensive literacy of Christian, Islamic and various other religious traditions. Yet, their refusal to formally label their own religious orientation again illustrates the underlying inclusivity and fluidity of religious symbolism in hip hop. Hip hop is a story telling culture, which places primary emphasis on the need for marginalized practitioners to find a voice and express their narratives of struggle and their hopes for redemption. Biblical quotations and theological constructs are “sampled” to the extent that they aid in the telling of these stories. Thus, in “Final Hour,” Lauryn Hill rhymes about finding hope for the story of her people by virtue of the similar Exodus narrative of the Bible: “Our survival since our arrival/Documented in the Bible, like Moses and Aaron/Things gonna change, itʼs apparent/And the transparent gonna be seen through, let God redeem you.” Since the Exodus narrative appears in the scripture traditions of Jews, Christians, and Muslims alike, it provides the building blocks for assembling an inter-religious theology of liberation, which divests from traditional and institutional sources of authority and invests in grassroots struggles for a common cause. While their music is certainly an indispensable platform for such activism, many rappers have also engaged in transformative projects within their communities as educators, ministers, politicians and activists. From KRS-One’s Stop the Violence campaign over the last two decades to countless examples of relief concerts, after school programs, non-profit organizations and independent businesses founded by rap artists, it is increasingly evident that these young men and women see themselves as community leaders and role models.
Hip hop truly is bigger than religion, as it contains a multiplicity of perspectives which defies easy categorization. Hip hop’s unique poetics enable it to bring such vast diversity into the harmonious groove of a common beat. As a dancing culture, it compels bodies into motion and action, yet it is also very much a culture of the spoken word. This combination of spoken word and musical groove gives hip hop an intrinsic capacity to invite people to become both observers and participants, and thus to become both hearers and doers of the word. Its prophetic consciousness empowers listeners to resist oppressive circumstances and opens up the possibility for an imaginable alternative to become a living reality through transformation and redemption. For many who have a vested interest in maintaining the status quo—those whose disproportionate access to power and privilege demands a pledge of allegiance to keeping things the way they are—the prophetic call for transformation into an alternative arrangement can seem quite unsettling. Yet on the basis of the book of Amos, we have to seriously consider the possibility that God sometimes wants to say to us, “I hate the sound of your worship and sermons, and the things you have done or said in my name.”
Because hip hop is so vast, it is inclusive of good and bad, constructive and destructive elements. Rather than remain preoccupied with its ills, however, I have attempted to constructively put hip hop, at its prophetic peak, into a much needed dialogue with religion. Through this dialogue, we have seen that many hip hop artists have critically engaged American pop culture, politics and religion through their words and actions. While hip hop culture grants asylum to many who feel alienated from American religious and social institutions, it also creates the capacity to join these institutions in a mutually transformative dialogue. In putting aside the false dichotomy between the sacred and the profane, and in opening ourselves up to the often hostile and gritty discourse of prophetic hip hop, we are challenged to adopt a hermeneutic for prophetic theology which takes concrete suffering and systemic evil with the utmost seriousness. At a time when young Americans are increasingly finding themselves at odds with religious institutions and exclusivist doctrines, hip hopʼs prophets are creating alternative narratives which grapple with understandings of ultimate meaning in a way that many young people find to be uniquely relevant to their daily struggles. They emphasize the need for a theology which adequately accounts for the earthly hell of life in ghetto communities, and which correspondingly addresses the need for an earthly redemption. In short, the hip hop prophets appear to be offering a word— to those of us who have ears to hear—which criticizes the way in which American institutions claim to execute freedom and justice in order to energize those who have been afflicted by slavery, injustice and discrimination. This language is unabashedly vulgar in the sense that it is language created by and for the people, and therein lies its ultimate value; hip hopʼs poetics offer an important means by which the insights of academic scholarship and biblical hermeneutics can be intelligibly remixed into the realm of pop culture. The transformative imagination which the prophetic word speaks into existence, after all, can only be realized if common people are empowered with the capability of imagining otherwise and participating in the alternative. Perhaps then we might find the ability within our daily struggles to say to God, with the utmost sincerity, “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven, Amen.”