Hip Hop and the art of pastoral care

A Different spin on the role of the youth pastor, Part 1

Kimberly Williams Image Kimberly Williams | Feb 14, 2012

The “DJ” was born in 1973 at a New York house party in the Bronx. Clive Campbell, better known as DJ Kool Herc, by using two record players found a way to create a whole new song. [[Henry Adaso, Hip-Hop Timeline: 1925 – Present, About.com 2009. Accessed June 10, 2009. Available from https://rap.about.com/od/hiphop101/a/hiphoptimeline.htm.]] This was the beginning of hip hop.

Five years later, in Livingston, New Jersey I was born. Both because I was too young and because my mom filled our house with classical music, I was completely unaware of the movement that was stirring just 30 miles away.

While hip hop music videos began to blare through MTV into young people’s living rooms, I could be found singing four part harmonies in my church choir. In some ways I was aware of the popular music that was going on around me, but for the most part I wasn’t listening. I didn’t spend any of my money on concerts, cassettes, or CDs. I never committed the names of popular artists or songs to memory. I found various ways to dodge the question, “What kind of music do you like?” Instead I immersed myself in the culture of the church. While my peers were discovering different styles of music, I was learning the different books of the Bible.

If it hadn’t been for one of my Old Testament courses in seminary, hip hop and I might never have met. I admit it was a strange place to discover one another. My Old Testament professor, Dr. John Goldingay, gave us the assignment to connect the Biblical text with the “texts” of today: music, movies, or novels. Having no idea where to begin I enlisted some of my urban friends to help. I asked them to read from Proverbs and Ecclesiastes to tell me if it reminded them of any rap songs they knew. After some fascinating conversations, like how Lupe Fiasco’s “The Cool” relates to Proverbs, and whether Kanye West and the author of Ecclesiastes would be friends, I was interested in getting to know the music more.

I started asking my friends to introduce me to new music and tried to figure out what genres of music influenced one another. As I timidly entered into the music world, I wondered if what I was feeling was similar to how my urban youth feel when I invite them to enter into my theology world. I started making all sorts of connections between music and the Bible, and particularly between the role of the youth pastor and the role of the hip hop DJ. I started to think about how the DJ and the pastor both study material and then form it into a message for a specific audience. Both are looking to move their listeners to respond. Both share with others out of a love and a passion for their subject matter. This line of thinking led me to the Los Angeles Scratch Academy, a school for aspiring DJs.

This is where I met DJ Hapa, the Executive Director of the Scratch Academy, in December of 2008. A few weeks before this I purchased the first album I’ve ever owned, a confession that confounded the DJ before me. At first Hapa was confused why a non-musical theology student had requested an interview with him, but it didn’t take long for him to see the connection as well. Hapa invited me to come back to the school, and for the next six months I sat in on classes at the Scratch Academy. [[In 2009 I attended classes at the Scratch DJ Academy in Los Angeles, CA.]] It was exciting to sit at the feet of DJs to see how they are trained to listen and communicate.

From DJ school I have discovered some fresh insights that have shaped the way I approach my role as a youth pastor. In this two-part series I will share some of what I’ve learned from spending some time in the DJ culture. This article will focus on new ways to approach studying the Bible and prayer. The next article will focus on communicating to a specific audience.


Listen to Lots of Music
If the Biblical books are to a pastor what records are to a DJ, then the DJs have me beat on how well they know their material. In fact, they probably have most Christians beat. A Baylor survey of American Religion found that only 16% of Mainline Protestants in churches, like the one I grew up in, read scripture weekly or more, and 21.9% never read the Bible. [[American Piety in the 21st Century: New Insights to the Depth and Complexity of Religion in the US, The Baylor Religion Survey, 2006, p. 14.]]

The very first homework assignment the DJ101 students at the Scratch Academy receive is to listen to as much music as possible before their next class. They were encouraged to listen to songs broadly and deeply. In my interview with Hapa at the Scratch Academy he said, “One thing we preach over and over again here is, as a DJ, because you’re not composing music and because the music that you’re playing for audiences isn’t your own, you really have to know that music even more than anyone else would.” [[DJ Hapa, Interview December 5, 2008, Los Angeles, CA.]] This challenged me to read the Bible broadly and deeply since this was the material that I work with. When I familiarize myself with the different books in the Bible, when I take time to listen to the stories, I find myself making connections between the text, my life and my community. As a pastor, this is what I then offer to others. When I am not reading the text, I start relying on sharing old and maybe even halfhearted connections I’ve made. In order to explore the Bible, to go deeper, and to be more creative I need to first open myself up to the text. I need to hear it, converse with it, let it live inside of me, and allow it to walk with me in my day, much like the DJ allows music to do. Next time you encounter a DJ, ask them the longest amount of time they’ve ever been without music and what that was like for them. I asked my friend DJ Mark Luv and he said, “I’ve never gone without music. I have music constantly playing in my head.”

Map Out the Songs
A DJ listens to music differently than the average music listener. For many of us, the part of the song that sticks out to us the most is the lyrics, but DJs are trained to listen for the beat underneath the lyrics. Good DJs will “lock in the beat,” or move their body to the rhythm of the music. What the DJ knows is that there is a continuous beat flowing throughout the music.

By listening to the pattern of the beat, DJs are able to map out songs into different sections according to moments when the music shifts. This gives them a way to break the song down into smaller pieces. Barry Taylor, a professor of contemporary culture at Fuller Seminary says, “We think if we change the words of the song we’ve changed the song, but there is a whole structure of the song that you still have to contend with.” [[Barry Taylor, TC500: Theology and Culture, Fuller Seminary, Pasadena, CA, 4/27/2009.]] If we learn what to listen for we can hear what leadership experts Ronald Heifetz and Marty Linsky call “the song beneath the words.” [[Ronald A. Heifetz and Marty Linsky, Leadership on the Line: Staying Alive through the Dangers of Leading, Harvard Business School Press, Boston, MA, 2002, p.65.]]

The way that the DJ studies his or her songs is similar to the way the pastor will exegete, or study, a scripture passage. A pastor looks at the context of a passage. He or she investigates the original language and learns about author and their cultural context. Good Biblical scholars know that there is a lot more to the Bible than what you can sometimes see at face value. There is a song beneath the words.

A pastor studies individual passages in order to hear the heartbeat that flows throughout the entire Bible. It is only by studying the whole Bible that you can start to recognize themes throughout the whole text. By reading broadly and deeply you begin to see God’s character, the continuity in the story of God’s people, and the effect of divine love.


Becoming an Expert Listener
One reason hearing the beat in scripture can be difficult is that we are not always great at listening. It is hard to listen well. We are busy. We cannot escape our own whirling thoughts. Perhaps we are afraid of what we may find. And yet, the same skills we develop in listening to those around us are the skills we use in prayer. The better we are at listening, the more we can hear, but we need to educate our ears to hear.

Hapa once told me that he could hear a DJ’s confidence levels coming out of the speakers just by the transitions they make and their music choices. When I listen to the same music Hapa is listening to, I cannot hear those nuances. Taylor says, “You have to learn the language of specific music.” [[Barry Taylor, TC500: Theology and Culture, Fuller Seminary, Pasadena, CA, 4/27/2009.]] The same is true for prayer: there is a language of the divine. And just like any other language learning, it takes effort to learn. As the DJs at the Scratch Academy soon discover, they must explore music outside of their comfort zones. They can’t only play their favorite songs for others; they need to be fluent in all sorts of genres. In the same way, pastors can explore different prayer practices. They may have a favorite place or way to pray, but by branching out into new spiritual disciplines and practices they may train their ear to hear new things.

Hearing Multiple Tracks
DJs don’t just focus on learning new types of music, but they focus on listening to multiple things at the same time. In fact, when they perform, they keep their headphones on only one ear. This is so they can listen to the music that they are going to play as well as to the music that is currently playing at the same time. Recently I went to a training seminar for spiritual direction which was focused on training people to listen to God and listen to people at the same time. It takes effort to hear two things at once.

In my first experiences of counseling, my head seemed filled with the advice that I wanted to offer those I was with. Sometimes I could barely even hear what the person was saying because I was too busy forming a response. At some point I realized this was not the point. I started challenging myself to hear what the person was telling me through a lens of what God had shown me about that person’s life. I would ask God, “What is it that you are doing in this person’s life at this time?” This caused me to listen to a response from God and to the person in front of me at the same time.

It was not a matter of tuning out one voice in order to hear the other, but the voices informed one another. I needed both. Sitting in on the DJ classes, watching the way they are taught to listen to multiple songs at the same time reminded me of this type of prayer listening.


The role of the youth pastor or any other pastor is a strange one. Unlike many other professions, the pastor’s inner life is constantly on display. It is through study of the Bible and prayer that the pastor cultivates this inner life. Just like the DJ is tasked with knowing music, the pastor is charged with knowing the text of the Bible and communicating with God.

In his book, The Wounded Healer: Ministry in Contemporary Society, Henri Nouwen writes, “Only he who is able to articulate his own experience can offer himself to others as a source of clarification.” [[Henri Nouwen, The Wounded Healer: Ministry in Contemporary Society, Image Doubleday, New York, NY, 1972, p.38.]] Neither youth pastors nor DJs have anything to share with others if they don’t study, reflect, and experience their sources firsthand. It is from this place of study and listening that they are challenged with the job of communicating what they hear to others, a task that we will explore in the next article in this series.

Action Points

  • When is the last time you opened your Bible just to read it? What draws you to do this? What keeps you from doing this? In what setting do you find it easiest to read the Bible?
  • What do you think the “beat” is that runs throughout the scripture? What are themes you notice running throughout the Bible?
  • Try utilizing an audio version of the Bible. Pick books that are unfamiliar to you and listen to them while you drive in the car.
  • Choose a short section, verse, or chapter and print or photocopy it. Carry it around with you and read it every single day for one month. See if your understanding shifts or changes for you over the month, and if you discover new insights in a few weeks in that you did not see at first.
  • Chose a chapter of the Bible to “map out.” Take some time to sit with this passage. Try to see what is going on “underneath” the words. Where does the passage seem to shift? When does a new character enter into the story? Where does the mood seem to change? Do these shifts remind you of similar shifts in other parts of the Bible? What happens when you read these stories side by side?
  • How good are you at listening? What was the last conversation you had before you read this? How much of it do you remember? Go back to that person and see if you can repeat back to them what they told you. Ask them if this was what they said.
  • See if you can practice prayer listening. Pray for a person while they are sharing with you. It may help to choose a simple phrase like, “Lord, Jesus Christ have mercy on [name]” to repeat in your head as you listen to what the person is telling you.

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Kimberly Williams Image
Kimberly Williams

Kimberly Williams is the Executive Director of the Good Shepherd Volunteers, a Catholic volunteer program that supports recent college graduates to live in community, explore their faith, learn about simple living, and serve in social service agencies domestically and internationally. She has been involved with urban ministry for over twenty years in Newark, NJ, Oakland, CA, Los Angeles, CA, and Washington, DC. She has worked in the fields of addiction, homelessness, education, and volunteer support. Kimberly holds two masters degrees from Fuller Seminary. The concentration of her Masters of Theology degree was self-care for urban workers and her Masters in Intercultural Studies degree explored the connections between pastors and hip hop DJs. She is passionate about building bridges between communities, insightful conversations, puns, and good chocolate.

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