FAQs and The Low Down Dirty on Hip Hop Culture Fo Yo Ministry
Have you ever wondered what Hip Hop is exactly? Have you ever thought to yourself, “What is it with this music that has consumed many of our youth?” Is Hip Hop nothing more than glorified rap? Are there any redeeming qualities within Hip Hop that I, a minister of the Gospel, need to pay attention to? These are just some of the questions that emerge whenever I speak to others about Hip Hop.
Our goal in this first of a two part series is to provide you with some basic answers to these frequently asked questions (FAQs). By doing so, we hope to provide you with some deeper insight into Hip Hop’s culture, its music genre, its people, as well as its missiological and theological significance.
Question # 1: So what is Hip Hop culture, anyway?
Great first question! Like most current cultural phenomena, Hip Hop is hard to define precisely, but there are some important descriptors that help us understand its nature.
First, Hip Hop is a type of “culture”. By “culture”, we mean “a learned meaning system that consists of patterns of traditions, beliefs, values, norms, meanings, and symbols that are passed on from one generation to the next and are shared to varying degrees by interacting members of a community.” 1 According to Tricia Rose, Nelson George, Bakari Kitwana, 2 Michael Dyson, 3 Efrem Smith, Phil Jackson, and Jeff Chang, we are entering the third generation of Hip Hoppers.
Nelson George, author of “Hip Hop America,” argues that many Hip Hoppers are comprised of “post-soul” aesthetics. As children, they witnessed the Vietnam War and the turmoil of the late 1960’s and early 1970’s as fathers returned home from the war with severe post-traumatic stress symptoms. Hip Hoppers’ mothers also had to face the fact that their husbands were not the same men as when they had left. 4 For George, Hip Hop is “the spawn of many things. But, most profoundly, it is a product of schizophrenic, post-civil rights movement America.” 5
While George takes a sociological approach to defining the culture, Dawn Norfleet states:
Hip-hop is a creative expression, sensibility, and aesthetic that first emerged in largely African American, Afro-Caribbean, and Latino communities of the Bronx and then spread to Harlem and other sections of New York City in the early 1970s. It encompasses a wide range of performance expressions: aerosol art (‘graffiti’); b-boying/girling (‘breakdancing’); DJing, or the art of using turntables, vinyl records, and mixing units as musical instruments; and MC-ing, (‘rapping’), the art of verbal musical expression. 6
Others, like Efrem Smith and Phil Jackson, also add street language, street entrepreneurship, beat boxing, street knowledge, street fashion, and Hip Hop spirituality. 7
As you can see from these divergent definitions, Hip Hop is vast and complex. Rap icon and Hip Hop pioneer Grand Master Flash states, “Hip Hop is the only genre of music that allows us to talk about almost anything. Musically it allows us to sample and play and create poetry to the beat of music. It’s highly controversial, but that’s the way the game is.” 8 Hip Hop is not a simple video or rap song that you hear on the radio. It encompasses a vast arena of voices, art, customs, and people.
In his book “Can’t Stop Won’t Stop: A History of The Hip Hop Generation,” Jeff Chang describes Hip Hop as a voice for people. 9 It gives meaning to everyday life, just as most types of music have for people throughout the ages. 10 Tricia Rose states, “Hip hop culture emerged as a source for youth of alternative identity formation and social status in a community whose older local support institutions had been all but demolished.” 11
Question #2: So what is the difference between Rap & Hip Hop?
I get asked this a lot, and I have to admit that for a long time I did not know the difference myself. The table below spells out some of the differences.
- Something Being DONE.
- The music and genre of music that drives the culture.
- Can be stale and McDonaldized.
- The verbal part of the music, derived from the 1970’s slang term meaning “to talk to.”
- Anyone can do it and still not be apart of Hip Hop Culture; for example, the differences between Vanilla Ice and Ice Cube.
- Can be made into a fad.
- At times can be extremely counterfeit and record industry-based.
- Something being LIVED.
- The beliefs, norms, values, and customs that comprise the culture of Hip Hop.
- Can be creative and artistic.
- The culture as a whole which, at times, reflects the music and musical genre.
- A little harder to fake. It’s a lifestyle. The personalities, clothing, language, and ensuing attitude that derives itself out of the music while still recycling itself within the culture. In other words, the two are separate yet symbiotically connected.
- Is usually a lifestyle and NOT a fad.
- Authentic & real; no fakes or commercialization of the genre.
In other words, rap is simply the music that drives the overall culture of Hip Hop. One of the arguments currently is whether the rap music that is being played now is really part of Hip Hop culture or just a cheap commercialization of it. 12
Question #3: Isn’t Hip Hop a “Black” thing?
No, Hip Hop culture is not only for and about Black youth—although many times it is stereotyped that way. Hip Hop has reached into almost every facet of our society and the world. For example, about a year ago, I heard of an Iraqi rap artist named The Iron Sheik. His message was a politically-conscious one, but is gaining much momentum with young Iraqi youth. In Kenya, another rapper fashions himself off the rap artist Nelly and brings in great crowds at his concerts. And in Latin settings, Reggaeton (a hybrid of Banda, Salsa, and rap beats) is gaining much momentum. Further, Hip Hop has taken on a huge identity in the Korean culture. A good friend of mine who is a youth pastor in a Korean church reports that his younger kids are listening to Snoop and Tupac. Elizabeth Blair adds:
Rap music, with its boastful rhymes and synthesizer-created claps and pops, has moved out of the inner cities and into the mainstream of popular culture. Mass media advertisers have recognized the value of using rap to sell their products, even though they do not always have a thorough understanding of the subculture from which it came. 13
As we see from the above examples, Hip Hop has reached into cultures – suburban, urban, and even rural – worldwide. Hip Hop is a culture and music genre that can be translated across cultures. 14
Here in the United States, the history of Hip Hop in the Bronx includes Latinos; more specifically, Puerto Ricans and Cubans. Many times the media portrays Hip Hop as a “Black Thing” in its early history, but upon closer inspection, it’s clear that Latinos were intimately involved in launching and developing Hip Hop and its culture. 15
Question #4: Is Hip Hop evil, and therefore should we avoid it?
I am of the opinion that there is no one evil culture that creates all sin and harm. Nor is there one single culture that is all good and perfect that emanates pure life and love. All cultures are mixtures of the good, the bad, and the ugly. 16
Therefore, I feel that Hip Hop culture is neither inherently evil nor totally pure. As George Nelson would say, I have a “love-hate relationship” with Hip Hop. 17 On one hand, it can be a very liberating and uplifting culture, but on the other hand, it can be a very degrading, vulgar, and male dominated culture.
Question #5: If Hip Hop is a mixture of good and evil, how do we evaluate it?
Given that Hip Hop isn’t 100% good or 100% evil, we must be able to critically assess and evaluate different rap songs. To do this, we must understand how the different genres within Hip Hop culture are categorized: 18
In the figure above, there are seven different genres of Hip Hop culture, each representing its own sub culture, language, dress, and customs. While each has its own structure and autonomy, each is also dependent on the next (as indicated by the arrows). Currently we are in a “party rap” mode. This is the music that is played on the radio and is what most of our students are listening to right now. The R & B/ Smooth Rap genre with artists like Beyonce’, Usher, Joe, and Neo is a subset of Party Rap.
For any one genre to take precedence, there must be some sort of dramatic change. For example, we emerged from a Gangsta Rap era in 1997 when the music industry began downsizing its gangsta rap artists due to several deaths of its engineers and executives. 19
With this understanding of genre, we can now begin to do what 1 John 4:1 20 encourages us to do, which is to critically test every notion, idea, concept, and opinion to see what is “right” and what is “wrong.” This critical examination helps us move beyond our spiritual and intellectual laziness or our blanket acceptance of whatever our leaders teach.
Hip Hop is a very challenging culture to engage. With its “in your face” approach, it can seem intimidating and “sinful” to the naked eye. But if we begin to take a closer look, we are able to find artists such as Mos Def, Common, Eve, and Tupac who give us deeper insight into tough questions and struggles that we and our students face regularly.
Question #6: The kids in my youth ministry don’t listen to Hip Hop artists, so what does Hip Hop matter to them?
If your students are listening to Kelly Clarkson, Jessica Simpson, and the Backstreet Boys, then you have to ask yourself: where does most of their inspiration come from? Moreover, who is producing their music? More often than not, it is the same producer or producers who are doing Snoop Dogg’s and Common’s tracks. Simply put, Hip Hop is everywhere. When Grammy-winning producer QD3 (Quincy Jones’ son) was interviewed, he shared how he had worked on many different albums including some rock and even jazz albums. For music artists, using a producer who also has connections in Hip Hop can help expand your music’s influence.
Question #7: As far as rap lyrics go, where do we draw the line?
This is a question I get asked frequently. I typically start off by reminding youth workers and parents that Hip Hop is not the creator of all this “mess.” While it is easy to point the finger at Hip Hop, the reality is that music lyrics were controversial long before Hip Hop. 21 You could pack up all the Hip Hoppers on a boat and send them far, far away and you would still have sin and “mess” in our society today.
Lyrics are the “meat” of the song. 22 Keeping that in mind, let us take a closer look at language. Well-known scholar and renowned linguist, Edward Sapir, claims that “language is a cultural, not a biologically inherited function.” 23 Moreover, language is defined by humankind and we, as humans, put limitations on speech and language. “Language is a purely human and non-instinctive method of communicating ideas, emotions, and desires by means of a system of voluntarily produced symbols.” 24
Language is set by the terms of different cultures. Values, tone, what is right, and what is wrong are all set by each culture. In other words, what is a curse word in one culture may not be in another. 25 I observe this when I go from the academic classroom to the street. Each culture has its own language hierarchy and defines its own words. Thus we must always remember, the meaning of the word is not in the word itself, it is within the person!
Does that mean we can listen to the “F word” all day and not be affected? I don’t think so. However, if we are going to critically examine lyrics, then we must ask what is the overall message of the song? For example, many of Tupac’s lyrics contain language that some might consider “vulgar” and “profane”. But let’s look closer and ask, what is the message behind the song? What is the story? Does it hold truth? And if so, what type of truth is it?
An example of this is Tupac’s song “So Many Tears.” In it he lays out a basic “sinners prayer” and gives us a Hip Hop version of the Lord’s prayer. 26 Another example of a great rap song is Common’s song “Faithful” in which he talks about being faithful and living up to responsibilities. 27 Moreover, Common gives great support to women in this song.
This is not to say that there are not inappropriate lyrics in rap music. Personally, I have a problem with artists who continually speak of “booty”, refer to women in a negative fashion, profanely address sacred issues, and just plain outright do not know how to rap. But far too often, we throw out the entire song because of individual words that we might consider to be “bad” or “sinful”.
Question # 8: What can we as Christians do to gain control of Hip Hop?
This question in and of itself poses a problem. My typical response back to someone who asks this is, “Why do you feel you have to ‘control’ something?” Far too often, we Christians attempt to control something so that it remains within our perceived grasp (me included!).
God gave us the power of free will. He does not “control” us; we make decisions every day. So if God is not a control freak, why should we be? Hip Hop is not something that can be “controlled” and regulated. In fact, no culture or person is. So, we must first get that out of our mind before we venture forward.
If Jesus were around today, how would He respond to Hip Hop and rap music? Would He want to “control” it? Or would He begin by breaking bread with some Hip Hoppers and asking questions to better understand where they were coming from?
In Matthew 9:10-13, Jesus is once again sitting and eating with “sinners” and tax collectors. The religious people of that time thought He was crazy for sitting down with sinners. But Jesus responds, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, and not sacrifice.’ For I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.” I believe that Jesus would sit down and talk with those who are part of Hip Hop culture, sagging pants and all.
- Think about the students – and adults – in your ministry. What are some ways Hip Hop culture has impacted their worldview, musical taste, clothing style, language, and spending habits? What elements of this influence have been positive? Which elements have been negative? How have you responded?
- What still remains unclear when you think about Hip Hop? Who could you have a conversation with in the next week to help clarify what Hip Hop is or how students (or volunteers, or parents) think about and interact with it?
- Where do you draw the lines when it comes to listening to rap lyrics or allowing your students (or children!) to listen to them? How do you balance engaging Hip Hop culture with pursuing a holy life, and how do you help your students walk that line?
- Do think it’s true that Christians tend to want to “gain control” of cultural influences like Hip Hop? What do you make of that? How do you usually respond to “non-Christian” influences, and how do you suppose Jesus would respond? In what ways do you see those response patterns impacting the ministry you have with students?