Something historic happened in October 2003. As Joan Anderman reported in the Rochester Post-Bulletin, “For the first time in the 50 year history of the Billboard charts, all Top 10 songs in the country last week were by black artists—signaling the culmination of hip-hop’s ascent as the dominant force in popular music and culture.”
Since then, hip hop has continued to be a dominant force in not only popular music but as Walt Mueller, President of the Center for Parent / Youth Understanding, said, “hip hop is driving mainstream culture.” Hip hop is not a passing fad. Hip hop has lasted nearly thirty years. It is here to stay.
There is a lot of evidence that Mueller is right. In the musical field, rap is being blended with other musical genres like jazz and metal. Rapper P. Diddy has his own clothing line. Rap artists are key spokespeople in commercials for tennis shoes. When Cadillac executives wanted feedback on the future model of the Escalade, they invited rappers and athletes to meet with them. Film soundtracks feature rap songs and rappers like Eminem are starring in movies. I have seen two magazines devoted to the hip hop culture: The Source and XXL. Pick up a copy at your local grocery store and while you’re there, quench your thirst by sipping on the energy drink, PIMP Juice.
Rap music is everywhere and the postmodern generation that has been weaned on hip hop will not let us ignore it. Young people of all races, ethnicities, and social-economic levels listen to hip hop, whether they are urban, rural, or living in the suburbs. Private school students, public school students, and home schoolers listen to it. God’s people—those who confess with confidence that God is sovereign—have at least two responses. Either we can condemn this hip hop culture and in effect “throw the baby out with the bath water” or we can creatively seek ways to use rap music’s popularity to advance the kingdom.
How might we define rap? First, rap is talking in rhyme to the rhythm of a beat, or spoken poetry over other existing music genres. In effect, rappers are poets.
Rap also serves as a forum, according to Rapper Bubba Sparxxx, “to tell people about our lives and what we’ve seen.” Rap artists rap about the good, bad, and the ugly from the perspective of their life’s experiences.
In her book, Black Noise, Tricia Rose offers this definition: “Rap music is…a hidden transcript. Among other things it uses cloaked speech and disguised cultural codes to comment on and challenge aspects of current power inequalities…rap music is a contemporary stage for the theater of the powerless.” (pp. 100-101)
Rap was birthed in the early 1970s in the South Bronx, NY; however, many believe that rap music had it predecessors in the early 60s and 70s in African American music such as the Last Poets, Gil Scott-Heron, and Millie Jackson, “as well as in the speeches of Malcom X, the Black Panthers, and blaxploitation films.” Blaxploitation, or black exploitation, films featured black actors in gangsta fiction and in “pimp narratives;” narratives that explored the ins and outs of the ghetto redlight district. Superfly is one example, about a drug dealer named Priest who was determined to earn enough money so he wouldn’t have to work for white man the rest of his life.
Typically, when you speak of the origin of rap music, three men are mentioned: Jamaican-born Kool DJ Herc who is considered the “godfather of hip hop,” Afrika Bambaataa, and Grandmaster Flash. It’s interesting to note that among these revered founders of hip hop, “money was not a goal,” according to Nelson George’s book, HipHop America. “None of these original DJs expected anything from the music but local fame, respect in the neighborhood, and the modest fees from the parties given at uptown clubs or the odd midtown ballroom.”
The first rap song to go mainstream was “Rapper’s Delight” by the Sugar Hill Gang, which was released in September 1979 and remained on the Billboard chart for 12 weeks, although it never climbed into the top ten. While I was a sophomore at the University of Kansas in Lawrence, KS, we danced to this song at every opportunity and I owned my own vinyl copy.
Listening to the Heart
Listening to any music begins with listening to the heart of the performer and glimpsing their world view. Dr. Walter Turnbull, founder of the Boy’s Choir of Harlem, said in his book, Lift Every Voice, art “is the one thing that provides a mirror to an individual’s soul. The brain is easily confused; the heart rarely lies.”
Jesus said something similar in Mark 7: 20-22: “what comes out of a person is what defiles him. For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride, foolishness.” In other words, what resides in the heart—the good and the evil—comes out in many forms. Rap music provides an inside look into the hearts of rap artists; it’s here that we see the good and the bad, the glory and the shame.
What we hear in rap music emanates from the hearts of persons who are glorious ruins. So, when we listen to rap, what do we hear? Let’s begin with the obvious.
Degradation of women
It’s painfully clear in predominately gangsta rap that women are mere sex objects. While I don’t excuse this behavior, we should not be surprised since we live in a culture that exploits women, a culture that treats women as inferior. We live in a sex-saturated culture in which women are the pawns. Consider Hooters Restaurant, the Dallas Cowboy Cheerleaders, or the Hardees commercial where an attractive woman is riding a mechanical bull making very suggestive sexual gestures while eating a burger. Male rappers, like many men, get a power rush when domineering over women. While some rap music is rightfully criticized for its themes of misogyny and denigration of women, it would be unfair to stop there. For instance, Tupac—an icon of hard core gangsta rap—raps affectionately and tenderly about his mother:
You always was committed
A poor single mother on welfare,
Tell me how ya did it
There’s no way I can pay you back
But the plan is to show you that I
You are appreciated…
Much has been made of the angst in rap music. Let me say, this angst is not unfounded, for it finds its roots in slavery, the civil rights period, the days of Jim Crow, and quite frankly, the daily black experience which is often one of despair and hopelessness. Dr. Turnbull, who took young African American boys from the Bronx and built an internationally renowned choir, says “these children lived in neighborhoods filled with broken-down spirits and a frustrating sense that the weight of the white man crushed all their positive efforts. The result was a troubling street ethos: get what you can by any way possible.” (Lift Every Voice, p. 124)
Another source of anger is what Rose calls a chasm. “Rap music…articulates the chasm between black urban lived experience and dominant, ‘legitimate’… ideologies regarding equal opportunity and racial inequality.” (Black Noise, p. 102.) Rap artists see and experience the dominant social order and critique and resist it in their music (and sometimes in life). It’s no wonder that the “target” institutions of this angst are “the police, the government, and dominant media.” (Black Noise, p. 105).
Consider these lyrics from KRS-One, and note their sarcasm:
Fire! Come down fast!
You were put here to protect us, but who protects us from you?
Everytime you say, “that’s illegal,” does it mean that it’s true
Your authority’s never questioned, no one questions you
If I hit you, I’ll be killed, if you hit me, I can sue.
As Rose points out, “Rap music is….a hidden transcript. Among other things it uses cloaked speech and disguised cultural codes to comment on and challenge aspects of current power inequalities…rap music is a contemporary stage for the theater of the powerless.” (Black Noise, pp. 100-101).
Anger and cynicism is not a recent notion among African Americans. Honestly, as an African American male, I can empathize with these rappers. Rappers choose to express their anger explicitly in their lyrics, however, some African American men cope with their anger in other ways. Some choose to drown or deaden their anger in liquor. Some do drugs. For many, including myself, the savage and brutal beating of Rodney King has been indelibly marked on our psyches. You might say I am a bit cynical of the police and thus I fear not only for myself but also my 10 year old son when he starts driving. I’ve talked to many black families who live in the suburbs whose sons are often pulled over by the police for no apparent reason.
Like anger and cynicism, the nihilism in rap is not new. We clearly hear nihilism articulated in gangsta rap. Gangsta rap lasted a decade—beginning in the 80s and peetering out in the 90s—and cannot be understood apart from the introduction of crack into already blighted and drug-infested urban contexts. Crack-empowered gangs ran on a philosophy of old fashioned, excessive, insatiable, and unending revenge. Crack became a way to earn money fast and led to violence, pushing murder totals in D.C., L.A., and Detroit to record numbers. Cynicism surrounded the police: were they our protectors or co-conspirators?
Gangsta rap is often the first-person narratives of those who actually lived the lives they rap about, while in other gangsta rap songs, the artists are not “gangsters” but instead offer caution and warning about street life. Aside from drugs, you will find in gangsta rap a profound sense of hopelessness, a celebration of jail culture, dominance over the weak (especially women), and violence. Notable gangsta rappers include Dr. Dre, Snoop Dogg, Tupac, and Notorious Big. While most of the gangsta rap music has been curtailed, a few gangsta rappers like 50 Cent are still on the scene.
Neo-Black Panther Party Ideas
The Black Panther Party was a nationalist organization that arose in the middle 1960s. Its Minister of Defense, Huey Newton and other Panthers protested that blacks were not guaranteed their constitutional rights to bear arms in defense of their lives against racist mobs or fascists in or out of uniform. They considered themselves involved in a revolutionary political struggle to reject racism and imperialism or white authority in the United States. As a little boy growing up in Kansas City, MO, I remember having to honor a curfew in fear of clashes or confrontations between the local police and the Black Panthers. But lest I give a one-sided impression of the Black Panther Party, I should point out that they also led the way for women’s equality, and organized programs ranging from free breakfast for children, to free health clinics, to free clothing drives, to campaigns to stop drugs, crime, and police murder and brutality.
For some Black Panthers, Christianity was not a viable option. Nathan McCall writes in his book, Makes Me Wanna Holler: A Young Black man in America, “Christianity was the white man’s tool, another way to keep niggers nonviolent so white folks can keep cracking them over the head.” This view, that Christianity is solely a white man’s religion, is held by many, if not most, Black Muslims as well. You can hear the influence of the Black Panther Party in James Brown’s infamous lyrics, “Say it loud, I’m Black and I’m proud.” A raised, clenched fist was a sign of the Black Panther movement.
One rapper influenced by the Black Panthers is Paris, a San Francisco rapper and a member of the Nation of Islam (NOI). Consider the lyrics from “The Devil Made Me Do It:”
P-dog comin’ up, I’m straight low
Pro-black and it ain’t no joke
Comin’ straight from the mob that broke sh*t last time
Now I’m back with a brand new sick rhyme.
So, black, check time and tempo
Revolution ain’t never been simple.
Let’s unpack these lyrics. “I’m straight low” means his position is “low” because of white control or colonialism; “the mob” is the Black Panther movement; and “check time and tempo” is a reference to the NOI cry, “Do you know what time it is? It’s nation time.”
Other rappers whose lyrics are influenced by the Black Panther Party ideas include Tupac and Kanye West, whose fathers were Black Panthers.
Unfortunately, many people, including Christians, consider all rap music to be gangsta rap and therefore conclude that it’s all inherently evil. However, there is quite a bit of rap music that is filled with messages of fun and playfulness. There is more to rap than anger, nihilism, cynicism, and black panther ideas.
Frolic. Chingey, a St. Louis native, makes fun of the St. Louis drawl or diction with his song, “Right Thurr.” Will Smith and Jazzy Jeff celebrate the end of the school year and rap about trips to the park to check out the ladies in “Summertime.” Craig Cornett and his friends Kelly Wild and Sylk Smoov created “Cardinals This Year,” when the Cardinals went to the World Series.
Social awareness. Many rappers are keenly aware of the social issues plaguing us. It is no wonder that authors John Teter and Alex Gee entitled their book Jesus and the Hip-Hop Prophets because many rappers do have a “prophetic voice.” For instance, Lauryn Hill raps about the folly of pre-marital sex in “That Thang.” She asks, “Will that thang (pre-marital sex) really make us happy?”
In “It’s Not a Fairytale,” rapper Sarai tells of the real life struggles of being a pregnant teen whose boyfriend has abandoned her:
What can I say
This wasn’t supposed to happen
Here I am turned my back on my fam…
This wasn’t even part of the plan
I’m spazzin’ out
When I lay down at night the hurt
Just burst out I shoot how could he leave
At my time of need
Especially now I’m pregnant
And due in three
Maybe I should have it
And give it for adoption
I can’t graduate…
Yearning for the transcendent. We shouldn’t be surprised that even rappers yearn for more. You can hear it in MC Hammer’s “Pray.” And as a Muslim, Mos Def yearns for Allah in “Love:”
Pray Allah keep my soul and heart clean
Pray the same thing again for all my team…
Kanye West’s song “Jesus Walks” is replete with cries for the transcendent, and despite his faulty Christian theology, you can hear in his lyrics God’s passion for the weak, oppressed, and down and out among us.
Quick to Listen, Slow to Judge
As discerning Christians, we would be wise to be quick to listen and slow to pass judgment on rap music. Too many Christians have come to the conclusion that rap is evil and therefore deserves no hearing. But carefully listening to rap music is vitally important because it has messages and themes that run the gamut, and because, as I pointed out earlier, rap is here to stay.
Listening to rap music means trying to understand where the particular rap song falls in the history of rap, and remembering that words have meanings in the context of the hip hop culture. In some ways, this process is akin to Biblical hermeneutics. A passage is rightfully understood by first understanding the history in which it was written.
Rap music talks about street life, about women, and societal ills. Some lyrics can be very funny, and others have several themes operating at the same time. In other words, it would be highly unfair to conclude that all rap music has the same message and therefore deserves only condemnation.
As discerning Christians, what should be our response to hip hop music? I would like to suggest eight responses.
In a world that seems to suppress creativity and imagination, we should celebrate and applaud the creativity, imagination and technical skill of these rap artists. As men and women made in God’s image, they image God with their creative and imaginative lyrics and music videos. And while I did not address the technical skill of these rap artists, the ability to sample and mix music takes time and skill.
We should celebrate their humanity. As men and women made in God’s image, “what you see is not all that there is.” In other words, these rappers are not one-sided individuals. For example, Calvin Broadus (a.k.a. “Snoop Dogg”) coaches his son’s little league football team and Sean Combs (a.ka. “P-Diddy”) sponsors Daddy’s House, a program that tutors NYC kids and prepares them for life.
Celebrate their keen sense of social issues. Many of these rap artist offer true and brutally honest commentary on our societal ills. And we should applaud them for their acute awareness of issues that continue to plague us such as economic injustice and racial profiling. Because of their willingness to comment on our society, many rap artists have been appropriately dubbed the “Hip Hop Prophets.”
We must be willing to “call a spade a spade.” In other words, some rap music is simply bad and we must be willing to say so and not be cowered by our culture’s insistence that we be tolerant. However, when we announce such a judgment our manner must be one of respect and compassion.
In the fullness of time, Christ entered the space and time of a first century Jewish culture; a culture characterized by social mores, language, tradition, ritual, politics, and religion. That is, Jesus was incarnational. We too must be incarnational and enter into the hip hop culture by learning its history, tradition, language, and world view.
As Christians, we must seek to apply Jesus’ metaphor of “new wine is for fresh wineskins” in Mark 2:22. As such, we should seek ways to be creative and perhaps “exploit” hip hop music to advance the kingdom of God. Remember the apostles? They exploited the Roman Roads and the Greek language, for example, to advance the kingdom of God. Likewise, should we consider setting traditional church music to alternate tunes (…like rap)? Is this allowed or is some traditional church music off limits? Can we reach an unchurched generation this way?
We find recorded in Matthew 9:36 that Jesus surveyed the crowd and was moved with compassion for them because they were as sheep without a shepherd. God calls us to have compassion for these rap artists because many of them are like sheep without a shepherd. Remember we too were at one time like sheep without a shepherd. We should avoid condemning rap artists and the hip hop culture as Jesus did not come to condemn the world but rather He came that the world might be saved through Him (John 3:17).
God calls His people to pray or intercede on behalf of others: believers and unbelievers. Thus, we should pray fervently for these rap artists and the hip hop industry. When I pray, God often brings to my remembrance two rap artists in particular: Snoop Dogg and 50 Cent (Curtis Jackson). We should not only pray earnestly for rap artists but also pray that God will raise up Christian artists who will dare to enter the mainstream rap culture to bring reform. Christian rap is not the answer as that erects a Christian ghetto in my view. Rather we need men and women who will infiltrate the ranks of the hip hop music culture and for example, produce edgy lyrics that are seasoned by a Christian world view.