Misplaced Jesus, Pop Culture, Theology — February 9, 2011 at 1:21 pm

Hip-Hop as Biblical Narrative

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The division between rap and Hip-Hop is difficult to grasp. Most people use the words interchangeably, but they are quite distinct, both in meaning and the values they express. Hip-Hop is a culture while rap is an art. And though the art of rap was conceived within Hip-Hop culture’s womb, rap does not always express Hip-Hop’s values.

Historically, rap has been cautiously tolerated by the church (think DC Talk’s breakthrough self-titled album and Nu Thang), while Hip-Hop music has been seen as a negative expression in mainstream culture. Specifically Christian culture has often articulated that Hip-Hop is something that is incompatible with Christianity.

In the mid-nineties, many Christians jumped onto the conservative bandwagon, led by then Vice-President Dan Quayle, which attempted to mount a force against artists like Tupac, stating that such music was “not fit for society”. The irony is that while socio-political conservatism within the broader Christian culture wanted to rid society of “unfit” voices, many of these same voices produced music as a conduit to rid society — especially their neighborhoods — of violence, depravity, injustice, and tragedy.

As a self-described Hip-Hop aficionado, who has sifted through culture and contemplated about the philosophy, I have come to realize that authentic musical expressions of Hip-Hop culture display the same suffering, hope for reconciliation and paradox as the Old Testament.

Yes, many Hip-Hop artists live in contradiction; they get caught-up into the capitalist music industry, fall prey to the vices they rap about and are sucked into the tragedies of the very communities they wish to renew. However, those contradictions are why I believe Christians should embrace Hip-Hop as a mirror to the biblical narrative.

There are many examples of the moral paradoxes in scripture, but let us just take two of Christianity’s most hailed biblical heroes, David and Jacob. King David killed one of his closest men, Uriah, abusing his kingly power because he wanted to sleep with Uriah’s wife. Moreover, David’s kids — children from various baby-mamas — established gangs of men that fought one another for control of Israel. Many centuries earlier, David’s (great, great, great, etc.) grandfather Jacob hustled his brother out of his birthright with help from his mother. He also shacked-up with his wives’ maidservants, which resulted in four different baby-mamas.

Perhaps we should simply place an “explicit content” label on the Old Testament.

Further, themes in Hip-Hop echo themes in scripture. Read the books of poetry and the prophets alongside the lyrics of Nas, Common, Tupac, Bone Thugs N’ Harmony and Talib Kweli. Look for the correlations between the lamentations of the biblical prophets: their frustration with oppression, the desire for authenticity, the need for community, the theology of suffering and a host of other themes. These theological tension points are at the very heart of the Old Testament; paradox, suffering and the hope for reconciliation are timeless Christian themes. Yet, when expressed through Hip-Hop they are too-often devalued or seen as squalid.

I am not saying that we should encourage the negatives of Hip-Hop, just as scripture doesn’t suggest that we should have multiple baby-mamas or enviously kill someone. I also realize that not all Hip-Hop artists are prophetic, just as throughout Judaic and Christian history we have had to contend with false prophets.

I am not saying that Hip-Hop artists are morally superior or even consistently morally sound. I am not saying that Hip-Hop culture doesn’t have its problems. What I am saying is that we have to look at Hip-Hop as a vehicle for prophetic art. It can be an expression of what Walter Brueggemann defines as an “alternative to the consciousness and perception of the dominant culture around us.”

The stories of Hip-Hop are the real complex stories of what it means to be human living in a broken world and desiring God to show His presence. The group, the Roots, speak for society through Hip-Hop when they ask, “Why is the world ugly when you made it in your image?”

Hip-Hop music can be a narrative that leads to a Christian imagination that more fully ushers in the Kingdom of God. Hip Hop music can direct us to be ministers of reconciliation in a world of broken glass that no longer reflects the image of God, but desperately wants to.

3 Comments

  • Joshua, thanks for this writing! You really get it.

  • Good stuff. All the more reason for me to love Wyclef, Legend, and the Roots. Especially appreciate the distinction between “rap” and “Hip-Hop.”

    One thing I wondered as I read your description of Hip-Hop offering that prophetic imagination (yay Brueggemann!) is whether Hip-Hop is a subculture (maybe an African American stream) of an even larger culture – those in exile/on the margins?

    Many of the things you identified within Hip-Hop (opposing injustice, violence, etc and echoes of Scripture) are easily found in the songs of a Johnny Cash (country), Bob Dylan (folk), Marley (reggae), U2 (pop), Derek Webb (whatever he feels like that morning), Queen, Aerosmith, Bowie, or Pink Floyd (rock), etc. They’re singing songs of protest and hope, born out of a deep frustration with the present reality. So while I would definitely agree with the embrace of Hip Hop as a stream within that prophetic culture, I wouldn’t want to see us ignore the other voices doing the same sorts of things. Solidarity and unity baby, not uniformity.

    I don’t think you’re suggesting ignoring these other streams, maybe you’re trying to make sure Hip Hop gets a seat at the table and I’m all for that, I just think some could run with it that way.

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