FAQs and The Low Down Dirty on Hip Hop Culture Fo Yo Ministry! Part II

Dan Hodge | Oct 9, 2006

As stated in [intlink id=“162” type=“post” target=“_blank”]Part I[/intlink] of this series, we have put together a list of frequently asked questions (FAQ) that come up regularly in discussions about Hip Hop and youth ministry. While this is not an exhaustive list of questions, our intention is to introduce you to the culture of Hip Hop and help you know how it relates to your ministry. Whether you are out in the “cutz” doing rural ministry or in the heart of the Bronx, sooner or later (probably sooner), Hip Hop will be at your front door. Our goal is to aid you in your ministry to young people involved and engaged with Hip Hop, and to dispel some of the misunderstandings about Hip Hop culture.

Question # 1: Evangelist Craig G. Lewis says that all Hip Hop culture is evil. Is he right, and if he is, should we destroy all of our rap CDs?

This is a question that I get every time I speak on Hip Hop. If you have not heard of Lewis, you might want to check out www.exministries.com. Lewis argues that none of Hip Hop culture is redeemable and all of it is of the devil. I disagree. As I stated in the first article, I believe that no culture is either totally evil or totally holy.

I’d like to respond to a few of Lewis’ claims individually. First, on the Bone Thugs album, Lewis argues that there is a “curse” on the back of the album derived from black magic and sorcery. [[See Craig Lewis’ DVD, The Truth About Hip Hop.]] The curse would be activated when the words were read; typically, the words would be backwards and would have to be read in a mirror for the curse to be implemented. [[See Rodgers, Perry M. 1997. Aspects of Western Civilization: Problems & Sources in History. Vol. 1. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice-Hall, Inc., pp.281-371 (The Medieval World).]] However, the group Bone Thugs wanted to have original cover art on their album that represented life and death. The entire “E 1999 Eternal” album was about life after death and how God could love and save a thug or street hustler. The “curse” on the back of the album that Lewis vehemently claims is a “curse” is actually a blessing for those who read it. It was meant to encourage and help the young person living a life on the streets and to present a message of hope where there is little. Lewis misinterpreted it to mean that the “devil” was cursing young people.

Second, Lewis claims that all of Hip Hop culture is derived from satanic worship and musical trances that originated with the founding fathers of Hip Hop. Yet if we are to agree with this argument, then we must apply Lewis’ reasoning to every aspect of culture. If we do that, then we must dismiss many of the current songs what we hold as classic “Gospel Spirituals” because they were derived from bar room songs. [[See Burnim, Mellone V. 2006. “Religious Music.” In African American Music: An Introduction, edited by M. V. Burnim and P. K. Maultsby. New York, NY: Routledge; Epstein, Dena J. 2006. “Secular Folk Music.” In African American Music: An Introduction, edited by M. V. Burnim and P. K. Maultsby. New York, NY: Routledge; and Merriam, Alan P. 1964. The Anthropology of Music. Northwestern University Press.]]

I wish Lewis would more clearly reveal his sources and methods of evaluation. While I agree with Lewis that we must protect our minds and think on those things that are of God, I would also add that this is subjective. What I consider “godly” is often different than what my neighbor considers to be “godly.”

Question # 2: What is the future ministry of the church as the Hip Hop generation replaces the church’s current leaders from the baby-boom generation?

This is a deep question. I remember a scene from the classic 1985 film The Breakfast Club in which Paul Gleason (Principal Richard Vernon) and John Kapelos (Carl the Janitor) were having a conversation about the current generation. Gleason stated that this generation had turned on him and had rejected him. Kapelos corrected him and said that kids were basically the same; it was the principal who had actually changed. Gleason disagreed and argued that the kids were just “bad” today. But then he said something that resonates with many “older” folk today, “You know what I’m really afraid of? You know what really keeps me up at night? It’s the fact that when I’m old, these kids will be taking care of me! That scares me!”

Twenty years later, many view future leaders, especially those influenced by Hip Hop culture, in the same way. The problem with those who fear the future is that they fail to understand contextualization and its role in translating culture, norms, values, and customs of the church and its leadership for each generation. Fuller Seminary faculty member Wilbert Shenk describes key features of contextualization:

Contextualization is a process whereby the gospel message encounters a particular culture, calling forth faith and leading to the formation of a faith community, which is culturally authentic and authentically Christian.

Control of the process resides within the context rather than with an external agent or agency.

Culture is understood to be a dynamic and evolving system of values, patterns, behavior, and a matrix shaping the life of the members of that society. [[Shenk, Wilbert. 1999. Changing Frontiers of Mission. Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books, p.56.]]

A contextual gospel message reflects the values and needs of the current culture. Therefore, if the Hip Hop church is going to keep developing, then it must look, feel, smell, taste, worship, love, and preach like Hip Hop. While God’s Word never changes, we do, and so does our culture. When this occurs, Hip Hoppers are able to not only hear the Gospel, but to do something that is key to the culture, and that is feel the Gospel message.

In the midst of our efforts to contextualize, Shenk asserts that we should not water down the Gospel message in our efforts to finding the “right” technique or approach. [[Ibid. p.58.]] For example, we might have such a strong desire to reach a certain group of people that we back down on certain concrete doctrines — like salvation through Christ or the doctrine of the Trinity. In some cases, folks have even gone as far as allowing all types of “sin” in order to attract many. While I can agree with being relevant and contextual, we must remain true to what God has called us to as laid out in the Bible.

Question # 3: What is the fascination with Tupac?

Tupac Shakur was a rap artist who was born in 1971 and died as a result of several gunshots in September 1996. Tupac forever changed the landscape of the Hip Hop community. Tupac’s name is still stated with reverence and much respect and admiration in many Hip Hop circles, especially the East Coast and Dirty South (a Rap music genre that originates from some of the southern United States like Georgia, Alabama, and Texas). Tupac influenced Hip Hop culture in six significant ways:

  1. His authenticity: Tupac’s uncanny way of being real and transparent influenced many. To this day, many Hip Hop artists gage their authenticity in the Hip Hop community by the standards Tupac set. Tupac also was granted lifetime ghetto passes (passes that actually allow certain individuals into certain neighborhoods and grant them certain levels of access in that neighborhood) in all hoods—an unprecedented move for anyone.
  2. His work ethic: In the rap industry, Tupac modeled a strong work ethic. When he was working, he was working. He inspired many to get the job done, and when it was time to party, it was time to party. But Tupac never confused the two; he knew his mission and passed that along to many.
  3. Tupac’s missional mindset: Tupac had a calling to the inner city, especially to young Black males of the ghetto. Tupac spent countless hours doing work for them (raising money, visiting sick youth in the hospital, locating housing for many who needed homes, and sponsoring young people’s education). Hip Hop Culture now has a bigger concern for the ghetto because of Tupac’s efforts and vision.
  4. Tupac’s martyr image: No other Rap artist in Hip Hop has had the image of a martyr to the same degree as Tupac. Tupac is, and continues to be, a ghetto prophet and saint because of his prophecies about Rap music, ghetto life styles, and his own death. Tupac predicted that Hip Hop Culture would change once he died—it would change to a more “party style.” This has been true for mainstream Rap music and Hip Hop culture.
  5. His lyrics: Tupac is considered to be one of the greatest rappers in Hip Hop. Not just because of his Rap flow or stylings, but because of the depth of his songs and music. Tupac often chose music to fit his lyrics, not the other way around as most Hip Hop artists do. Tupac told stories and fables about the ghetto life. He presented all points of view, not just one. His lyrics continue to make the charts, even today. Tupac recorded over three hundred songs in his career that never even made it to the radio. [[According to his mom, Afeni.]] There is still much more to come from Tupac, even almost ten years after his death.
  6. His theological message: Tupac was the irreverent natural theologian that gave voice to a community who was suffering. [[Dyson, Michael Eric. 2001. Holler if you hear me: Searching for Tupac Shakur. New York: Basic Civitas Books, pp.201-229.]] In other words, Tupac had no formal training in theology, but connected deep theological matters — like the personhood of Christ — to everyday life within the hood. Tupac’s lyrics were a messianic message of hope, vision, blessings, and care for the broken and brokenhearted dwelling in the inner cities of America. As James Cone argues, African Americans needed a “Black Jesus,” or a leader that blacks could relate to who was socially aware of their struggles, and would have compassion on them because of their hardships. [[Cone, James. 1989. Black Theology & Black Power. Markyknoll, NY: Orbis Books; 1997. God of The Oppressed. Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books.]] For many, Tupac became that person.

In the midst of Tupac’s influence in Hip Hop culture, I see many similarities between Tupac’s message and that of Christ. Both preached love, tolerance, compassion, social justice, education, and loving your neighbor. Tupac had a “nitty-gritty” hermeneutic [[Anthony Pinn was the first to coin the theological term nitty-gritty hermeneutics (1995). In this, Pinn too uses hermeneutics as a model for understanding culture and theology. He states, “Hermeneutics denotes interpretation of the meaning submerged in events, texts, etc. That is, words and texts contain valuable information that must be recognized and processed within one’s system of values and concerns. Hermeneutics makes this possible” (1995:115). Here Pinn argues that there are greater issues at large at work in society, especially when it comes to Black culture and the issues that arise within that culture. Pinn states, “Only the broadened frame of reference implied by Bennett will allow for a full explanation of all vital materials relevant to the problem of evil” (1995:114). In other words, the nitty-gritty allows the person to state that there are forces larger than the simplistic answers given to us by many pastors that “God just allows evil and evil has to exist.” Tupac uses his own nitty-gritty interpretation from life that tells him that things in life are not that simple and easy to explain away. For Tupac, the nitty-gritty helps explain the entire context behind each event and why Brenda had the baby, got the abortion, and was left out in the cold. See Pinn, Anthony B. 1995. Why Lord? Suffering & Evil in Black Theology. New York, NY: Continuum.]] that connected with others, which in turn made them feel connected to not only Tupac, but to God as well.

Question # 4: How can we have true dialogue with Hip Hop culture given its obvious sinful appearance (e.g., its pride & lack of respect)?

The key word in this question is dialogue. Without dialogue, we will make little progress in our ministry to those embedded in Hip Hop culture. That means that first we need to listen so we understand the pain and experiences of Hip Hoppers.

If one of your students is listening to a particular artist that you don’t agree with, some good questions to ask are: “So what makes this artist good?” “What about the beats, what makes them good?” “What is your favorite song on the album, who produces it and are they a part of someone else’s clique?” If students don’t seem to want to say much, try asking questions that can be answered by either “yes” or “no.” As Fuller faculty member and renowned scholar, theologian, and church and culture specialist Eddie Gibbs teaches, we don’t have to “win” a person on the first conversation. We can give the relationship some time.

Second, do your homework. Find out everything you can about that artist or artists. You can do that at www.allmusic.com. Who was the producer? Who was the executive producer? What is their bio? What other groups are they affiliated with? Are they East Coast, West Coast, Dirty South, or Midwest? What are their lyrics like? You can download and view the majority of rap artists’ lyrics at www.ohhla.com. All of this can add more depth and substance to your conversations with kids.

When I was running a Young Life club a few years ago, one of the games I played during our announcements was “Hip Hop Trivia.” Kids loved it and looked forward to it every week. It even got to the point where we were actually giving out big prizes like camp scholarships if they could answer tough trivia. Some students came to our meetings just for that. Besides creating solidarity and community, it gave us as leaders great credibility and standing with kids. Moreover, when we were critical about certain rap artists, the kids knew that we really did understand and know what we were talking about, and not just condemning their music.

Third, help kids think critically about what they are hearing. After you have listened and done your homework, you are now ready to help kids analyze Hip Hop for themselves. For example, if students are listening to music that objectifies women, ask, “I noticed that this particular artist refers to women as ‘sluts’. What do you think about that?” “Do you feel that is a helpful way to refer to women?”

After you ask the question, you once again get to practice listening to their answers. Some people (women included) will have no problem with an artist calling women “sluts.” If that is the case, then an entirely different conversational door has opened up about their views on women. If the student is confused about the issue, now is an opportunity to begin to reason with them, and help them realize God’s perspective on women. Keep in mind that you should be helping them come to conclusions themselves instead of you telling them what the answers are. That may take some time. That’s good, it should! After all, when we have conversations with Hip Hoppers, we want dialogues and not monologues.

Action Points:

  1. If you are new to the whole Hip Hop scene and want to listen to someone “easy” to get your feet wet, download a couple of artists and listen to them and then download their lyrics. Some “easy” artists might include Will Smith, Outkast, Bow Wow, and Kanye West’s first album “The College Dropout” (2004). What do you hear? What do you feel? How are the artists connecting with the people? What differences are there in the music and/or styles? Are there any theological connections? Why or why not?
  2. If you can, buy Craig Lewis’ 1st DVD, The Truth About Hip Hop, and watch the entire thing. What points does he make? How, if at all, does he connect to your particular context? Where is he right? Where is a little off? Might you show this to your youth group? Why or why not?
  3. Spend some time with a key student in your group with whom you have a close relationship. What artists are they listening to? Are the artists good or bad in your opinion? Once you answer that, now ask the student to describe why they listen to this artist. What about this particular artist makes them good? Where might you, the leader, bring in some salt and light into the message of the artist? What theological connections, if any, can you make with the artist’s message?
  4. Let’s go a little deeper into Hip Hop culture and rap music. Read KRS-1’s book Ruminations and pick apart his message. Download some of his lyrics (www.ohhla.com/YFA_krs). Is Hip Hop larger than what’s on MTV, BET, and the radio? What about Tupac? Look at Tupac’s “Me Against The World” album (www.ohhla.com/YFA_2pac). What is his overall message? What are some themes that arise in his lyrics? Sometimes, seeing the lyrics without the music is far more powerful than hearing the entire song (plus you can actually understand what the artists are saying).
  5. With your entire leadership team, rent two DVDs: Rhyme & Reason (1997) and Letter to the President (2004). Both of these films are documentaries on Hip Hop culture. Rhyme and Reason is a more of a “101” on the culture, while Letter to the President deals more with socio-cultural issues within Hip Hop culture. After watching them, debrief as a team:
  • What were your initial thoughts?
  • What are some of the main points made in Rhyme and Reason?
  • What are the fundamental foundations of Hip Hop culture?
  • Why do you think Hip Hop is attractive to so many people, adults included?
  • Why do you think it all started?
  • In the film Letter to the President, what are the main arguments?
  • How does that connect with the fundamental foundations of Hip Hop?
  • Where are some areas that you disagree with in Letter to the President?
  • What points were hard to hear, yet made sense?
  • Now, what is your missional response to Hip Hop? Where is Christ in all this?
  • How could you develop an intentional approach to reach Hip Hoppers to proclaim the word of God in that culture?
Dan Hodge

Dan White Hodge, PhD is a dynamic speaker, scholar, Hip Hop theologian, urban worker, & racial bridge builder that connects Urban popular culture with daily life events. Dan has been an active member of the Hip Hop Community for over 20 years and continues to not only study the culture from both an academic and practical perspective, but live it as well. He has over 16 years of urban youth work experience having worked for Young Life and now working with undocumented peoples in Los Angeles with his wife Emily. Dan’s books are “Heaven Has A Ghetto: The Missiological Gospel and Theology of Tupac Amaru Shakur” (VDM Academic 2010) and “The Soul of Hip Hop: Rimbs Timbs & A Cultural Theology” (IVP August 2010).

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