So Fresh and So Clean

Hip-hop’s Voice on Personal Image and Your Ministry

Dan Hodge | Jan 13, 2005

Ask yourself this question: Could you see Jesus wearing a silver necklace with his initials (J.C.) embedded with diamonds around his neck? Or could you see Paul wearing FUBU, Roca Wear, or even Phat Pharm? Do these situations sound far-fetched to you? Are these styles pride and vanity in the eyes of God, or are they fitting into the culture so we can reach more people?

I have asked myself that question many times as I have opened up my closet door. Is trying to be in style a sin or is it in some way actually a ministry tool? As youth workers, we can learn a lot from culture. Hip-hop music and culture, which many of the students we work with are engaged in at some level, influences our ministries when it comes to image, the self, and our own self-esteem. Do these clothing labels define who we are or do they help us relate better to our students (or maybe some of both)? Is it worth all the time and money it takes to be hip in order to reach out to students who aren’t part of your youth ministry yet or are there better ways to spend our money and energy? These questions can only be answered once we have made some efforts to understand hip-hop.

Hip-hop and personal image

Hip-hop sends a lot of messages about image. Through videos, music, language, and the hip-hop community in general, we see that clothing plays a crucial role in the culture. Clothing manufactures like FUBU, Roca Wear, Baby Phat, and South Pole let hip-hoppers easily identify one another. But what is hip-hop music trying to relay to us about clothing/image? You can actually learn new things about the culture simply by watching a video and seeing the latest fashions in them. [[Source: Tricia Rose, Black Noise: Rap Music & Black Culture in Contemporary America (1994): Wesleyan Publishing: pp.50-55]] Let’s take a closer look:

· Clothing: Clothing is a value in the hip-hop community. But not just any clothing; there is specific hip-hop gear. Hip-hop gear has been synonymous with baggy clothing for the past 15 years. But in the early days of hip-hop, tight fitting clothing was a value because that was all most could afford! Over the years, the trend to wear baggy clothing made its way into hip-hop culture and has been the staple figure for hip-hop gear.

· Different Styles of Hip Hop: To better understand hip-hop culture and clothing we must be able to distinguish between different sub-genres of rap music within hip-hop culture that dictate different clothing styles and image requirements. Please refer to the following diagram:

Each sub-genre of hip-hop music presents its own sub culture and signature clothing trends. For example, gangster rap has the signature clothing trend of wearing baggy clothes while party rap has the trend of wearing loud, expensive, and “bigger than life” clothing. Hip-hop culture is very complex. It has grown from being just a way of music; it is now a way of life for many.

· The Bling Bling: The group “Cash Money Millionaires” made this particular rap song popular in 2000. “Bling Bling” refers to the type of jewelry that is exotic and most often very expensive. If the jewelry has a shine, sparkle, or is extremely large, then it is considered “Bling.” The term can also be interchanged with clothing and personal image. If the person or persons are larger then life and are well connected, then they are “all about the Bling Bling.”

· The Authentic Self: In hip-hop culture, authenticity is a requirement for all. Those who are not authentic in character are quickly found out and disliked. Being authentic simply means to be who you are. If you’re from the projects and grew up on food stamps, then be proud, remember the struggle, and don’t try to act like you lived in a mansion. If you are from the suburbs and want to live in the hood, then let people know and don’t try to “act” like you’re from the hood or you will be found out and exposed as a fraud. This is why the term “studio gangster” [[Studio Gangster: A person who is only a gangster within the studio walls, or within crowds of people that do not know that person’s past; they are not really gangsters, only wannabes.]] was coined in hip-hop culture. Being real and being who you are is a staple in hip-hop culture.

Historical Perspectives Behind “Looking Good”

Run DMC was one of the first rap groups to gain vast media attention. They made Adidas famous in their 1984 video, “My Adidas,” when they appeared on stage with large gold necklaces and brand new, crisp Adidas shoes. The entire song was about their shoes, how they were better than other people’s shoes, and that they had enough money to buy these new gold chains and tennis shoes.

Two successful cultural norms were established here. The first was that Adidas was now marketing to the Black community. For years, they had had no success in the urban community; in fact, some thought the shoes were too “White” and did not deserve Black attention. [[As indicated by “Andre,” an older hip-hopper that was around during the 80’s.]] However, since beloved and respected hip-hop moguls Run DMC were now wearing them, they must be good for the culture. The second phenomena that was a result of this video was that individuals living in the ghetto now had a vision to be “rich” and “famous” by the association of wearing Adidas shoes. In general terms, the ethos behind this was that since the artists were wearing the shoes, one could be (in theory of course) just like Run DMC by wearing Adidas shoes with no laces and making sure they were brand new. The attitude of a “created” affluence or “illusion” of wealth had begun, and it was run on MTV in heavy rotation.

Sociologists Gregory Maio and James Olson call this particular phenomenon “Persuasion by a Single Route.” [[Maio, Gregory R., James M. Olson (2000) Why We Evaluate Functions of Attitudes. New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates Publishers; pp 66-67.]] This implies that a single group and or person can influence the masses by persuading them to either “buy-into” an issue or, in this case, a product. This is done through a “single route”: the routes were image, clothing, and fame that were directed to the inner city. Because of this, many now had someone they could relate to and identify with who was also wearing good clothes.

By 1990, Run DMC’s former producer and life-long friend, Russell Simmons, decided that it was time that hip-hop culture had a voice in the fashion market. In 1992 the clothing label Phat Pharm was born. Now the hip-hop community had clothing that actually fit right. [[By “right” I mean that clothing was now designed to fit some of the body types that other clothing lines could not get. For example, African Americans typically have larger hips than, say, Anglos. Because of this issue, jeans must be a little larger in that area. Jean companies like Levis do not understand this issue and therefore jeans would fit “snug” around that area. Phat Pharm set a new precedent with their fashions for the hip-hop community.]] Before this one had to wear clothes that never really fit that well or looked that good for that matter.

Wearing your pants low or “saggin’” as it is called on the street was not popular in the main public arena until around 1993. Saggin became popular because of the prisoners coming out of prison with their prison uniforms that did not fit at all. The prison system would release them with their issued prison uniform and it was usually three sizes too big. The uniform would “sag” down below the waist. Before long, Levi pants that were once too tight, and cheap, were being bought by young hip-hoppers three sizes too large. They would wear them below the waist to symbolize their identity in hip-hop culture. The reason saggin’ became so popular was because it was first seen in an NWA video around that same year from someone who had just been released from prison. Before that, it was only a local thing and the American public did not know of the concept. From then on, the sag was in. The trend stuck, and now even The Gap (a predominantly suburban Anglo clothing chain) carries the “Baggy” fit. [[For more on this trend you can read Nike Culture: The Sign of the Swoosh. Sage Publication 2000. by Robert Goldman & Robert Papson.]] This trend was made popular only in the last eight years after the 1997 economic shift in the hip-hop industry.

Most of what we have been discussing here has been about predominately male fashion. However, there are women who wear the “baggy” look and prefer that style. Still, most women’s fashions are designed to be more snug and form fitting. While this is the style that is portrayed by MTV and other media outlets, there are still some women’s fashions that sport the “baggy” look. More importantly, in some hard core hip-hop sub-cultures, there are women that sag their pants; it’s just not as common as it is with men.

Even youth in skate culture sag their pants. Some adults have critizized young people wearing their pants that low because they feel there are gang ties. While most gang members do sag their pants, it is important to note that the phenomenon is NOT exclusive to gangs nor does it have to represent gang membership.

Hip-hop’s Attraction to Suburban Youth

In 1993, a revolutionary thing happened in the hip-hop industry. Dr. Dre’s label at the time, Priority Records, marketed his album The Chronic to an outside market: the suburbs. As a result, he sold over three million copies in two weeks. [[Source:, Dr. Dre Profile, accessed August 2004.]] Within six months, Dr. Dre, Snoop Dogg, and Weed were household names in suburbia. Hip-hop had gone to the suburbs and while “White” kids and youth from the suburb had bought rap music in the past, never had they been directly marketed to by the hip-hop industry. This was revolutionary.

Before long, scores of suburban youth were chanting “187 on your ass, Beeacch!” [[Disclaimer: Engagement with contemporary culture will sometimes be “messy”. By that we mean that we won’t often agree (and sometimes can be offended by) what we read, hear or see. Swearing is one of those areas in which our ears/eyes could be offended. Hip-hop culture contains some of these components. Yet a successful engagement necessitates that we are exposed to the dynamics of the culture (at least to some degree) so that we can discuss its meaning with youth and their families.]] Hip-hop’s image of the authentic self, looking and smelling good, questioning the norm, and challenging the system became appealing to young suburban youth. In 1994, Tu-Pac’s albums went double platinum [[This means there were 2 million sales of his record.]] and 55% of the buyers were from the suburbs. [[Ibid. Tu-Pac’s biography and record sales, accessed August 11, 2004; also you can look at]] Pac’s message of being your own self, questioning authority, and the harsh realities of the inner city became appealing to many suburban youth. From then on unfamiliar terms such as ho, pimp, pimping, nigga (as opposed to nigger), G-ride, and the blatant use of the “F word” were now becoming the norm for many in the suburbs that were shielded from the reality of inner city life. Hip-hop culture grew from being a primarily “Black” thing to a multicultural music genre. Hip-hop’s image of the Thug and political conscious rapper were very appealing to suburban youth. In 1999 when Eminem dropped his first single, white, angry, suburban youth now gained a voice in hip-hop culture.

Youth Culture, the Hip-Hop Image, and Jesus: Some Practical and Theological Reflections

Hip-hop culture is here to stay. Whether you work in South Central Los Angeles or Boise, Idaho, hip-hop has some—or will have some—influence where you live. We cannot just ignore the culture and ignore what is outside our church window.

We have been discussing image, self-identity, and how one looks at themselves from hip-hop culture’s perspective. But how do we think about this as Christians? Given trends in hip-hop, could you see Jesus wearing His pants below His waist? What do we do with Matthew 6: 19,20 in which Jesus urges us to not look for “earthly” gain here on earth and that we should store up our treasures in Heaven? Does that mean we ignore looking good?

While there is a danger of becoming engulfed in image and then image becomes the “idol,” there is also value in being relevant and contextual, with the mission strategy of Jesus as our model. Let’s do a little theology here. The chosen mission strategy of God Incarnate was to take on the specific dress of the common person, the specific “street” language (probably Aramaic) of the people he was attempting to reach, and although we can’t prove it, the common hairstyle and other mannerisms and customs of the Jewish people. Remember, God isn’t Jewish but Jesus – as God Incarnate – was! That’s contextualization and relevancy.

Now let’s turn back to our contemporary context. Please also note that many of the fashions we have been discussing so far are expensive. A basic pair of Sean John jeans will cost you $90 or more. Shoes are even more expensive; a good pair of Timberland boots, a trademark in hip-hop culture, costs at least $105. Those nice, smooth and silky jogging outfits you see Jay Z wearing cost over $150. How do we, as youth workers on meager incomes, respond to that?

Here’s another question: how do we deal with students who are broke? As youth workers, we still have to deal with the fact that some of our students cannot afford popular clothing, even if it is cheap. This is not something we can overlook, nor is it something we can just hope will blow over. Those students that cannot afford clothing (any clothing for that matter - not just hip-hop gear) are still going to want name brands and face tremendous pressure to get them. We have the awesome privilege of discipling kids in a way that helps them distinguish between true desires and the lust of the world; this is not an easy task.

As for you, the youth worker, being authentic also means staying true to who you are. Hip-hop youth will sniff you out if you try to switch over. Someone who is from the suburbs and has never lived in the inner city does far better when they are up front and honest about their situation than if they try to just “fit in.” If you are a GAP type of person and you want to change your style, then ask the students you work with. They’ll tell you and sometimes even take you on a hip-hop clothing makeover!

That said, if you are going to reach out to hard-core hip-hop culture, then yes, a sense of style and attentiveness to trends are very helpful. That is why I said earlier I wear Pro Club T-Shirts. Those T-Shirts are the staple for hard-core hip-hoppers and if I want to “earn the right to be heard,” then I’d better know that.

What Does This Mean if You Want to Minister Among Urban Kids?

We are called to serve the students we work with, not out of obligation or because it is in our job description but because we are truly called. Dealing with fashion is not easy. Being contextual is a balance; you lean too much to one side, and things get out of balance quickly. If done right, there should always be a tension between “fitting in” and what God calls us to be in Christ: a challenge to the status quo. The latter always checks the former. That will not go away. However, certainly we have the responsibility to both the students we work with and Christ to live in that tension and to keep asking the hard questions, both of ourselves and of the students we serve.

Action Points:

Below are some questions and situations to consider as you reflect on looking good and identifying with the students you minister to.

  • You are the new youth pastor and your ministry is quickly becoming multicultural. One of your students seems to always wear the right clothing and they are becoming popular with the other students. The parents of this student are becoming concerned because they feel that clothes are their idol and now want you to intervene. What do you do? What do you say? How do you deal with this issue?
  • Take a survey of the brand names that are being worn by the kids in your ministry. Write them down and begin to see if there are any brand names that stick out more than others do. Why do or don’t they?
  • How far would you go to “fit in?” How far is too far?
  • How do you dress when you go up on campus to meet with students outside of your ministry? Why do you dress that way? Is there anything you should change about how you dress?
  • There are many kids who cannot afford the latest clothing. One of those students just came to your group and is desperately trying to fit in. They are embarrassed, ashamed, and even insulted that they have to wear such old and “out of style” clothing. They have even begun to talk about stealing some clothing to fit in. What do you say to them? Would you involve their parents? Is it a good idea for you take them shopping and buy them some clothes?
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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