Have you ever wondered why it is so important for some young people, particularly urban youth (be it White, Black, Latino, Asian, or Somali), to let others know where they’re from? Moreover, have you ever noticed at a summer camp how upset a group gets when you do not mention their city or area at “roll-call” during a meal? Why is that? Why is “space” so important to some, and not to others? Why is it that some will even go to the extent of tattooing an area code to their body even when that area code may change in a few years?
For some young people, “space” is the difference between being known and not-known; it’s the difference between being represented and being marginalized. In The ‘Hood Comes First: Race, Space, and Place in Rap and Hip-Hop [[MurrayForeman, The ‘Hood Comes First: Race, Space, and Place in Rap and Hip-Hop, (Middletown, CT.: Wesleyan University Press, 2002).]] , Murray Foreman begins to construct how and why space came to be so important. Foreman examines the dimensions of space and place and their relationship to race, particularly for young people involved in Hip Hop Culture. The emerging issue of “space” is an important reality for all youth workers to understand as we minister to a new generation of young people influenced by Hip Hop.
Modern v. Postmodern: Changing Views of Space
In the modern era (meaning approximately the mid 1800’s to the 1970’s or 1980’s), urban and non-urban communities often held different views about the degree to which a belief or paradigm had to be “proven.” For example, Foreman suggests that within the urban community there has always been an understanding of a deity, a “higher-power,” and/or God. In both the modern and postmodern eras, this spiritual awareness has meant that urbanites have tended to be more aware of their “space” with God. [[Murray Foreman, 68-69.]] For example, slaves often felt they needed a “higher-power” to survive; that “higher-power” was Jesus Christ. That understanding of who Jesus was and how He operated in their lives has given African Americans historically their deep sense of their space within Christ in the midst of their suffering. In contrast, the modern era outside of the urban community held quite a different view of the divine. It was assumed that a deity or God has to be explained, or proven by “facts.”
Yet in the midst of these differences in the modern era, both urban and non-urban communities viewed space through similar lenses. Quite simply, it was the area a person occupied. In the modern era, our world, or our “space” could be explained, and often that explanation came from outsiders who were deemed experts in the following spheres:
- Science: In the modern era, science helped people wrestle with unexplained events in their lives and space through empirical validity tests that would “prove” what had been unexplainable.
- Morality: In the modern era, morality and the rules that guided how we acted in our “space” was given by “professional experts” who laid out the “rules” for behavior.
- Art: In the modern era, the meaning of art was generally determined by wide consensus based on the opinions of others.
- Language: As with art, language in the modern era was regulated by the consensus of those who decided “correct” and “incorrect” uses of language. [[Adapted from David Ashley in which he discusses the philosophy of each subject within the modern worldview (1992: 92-93). Ashley, David, “Habermas and the Completion of ‘The Project of Modernity’”. In Theories of Modernity and Postmodernity, edited by B. S. Turner. (Thousand Oaks CA: Sage Publications, 1990).]]
Now fast forward to today. For youth in the postmodern era, views of our world and our space are different. Kids often believe that the “expert” institutions, legislators, establishments, and societies cannot be trusted; all of them can let you down. While this view is pervasive in both urban and non-urban communities, it seems to be even more keenly felt in urban contexts.
In urban communities, what can be trusted? Your community. Your community is the force that can help you in all four spheres that were previously the domain of outside experts. In the field of science, the only “validity” test is what you and your community develop. Morality is left up to the code of the streets. [[See Elijah Anderson, Code of The Street: Decency, Violence, and the Moral Life of the Inner City. (New York NY: W.W. Norton & Company, 1999).]] As we see with Graf Artists (Graffiti Artists), art is a representation of the self. Similarly, we don’t have to have broad consensus about the meanings of certain words; language is what we make of it. [[See Russell A. Potter, Spectacular Vernaculars: Hip-Hop and the Politics of Postmodernism, New York NY: State University of New York Press / Suny Series, 1995.]] Space, therefore, is subjective and cannot be easily explained in the postmodern urban context.
Space Within The ‘Hood
Perhaps nowhere is space more an issue than in the inner city. Gangs set their territory by space; families relegate themselves to a certain square mile and rarely leave that space; urban neighborhoods are “sectioned” off by city officials; and Rap artists identify themselves with the “space” they are from (or the Hood they are from). [[Murray Foreman, 2-3.]] Many within the inner city use streets, area codes, zip codes, and even street letters and numbers to identify themselves with their hood. Hip Hop Culture embraces that identification and gives the young person identity through the music and culture as a whole.
Space can also determine how much of a “woman” or a “man” you are. [[MurrayForeman, 190.]] For example, the amount of “turf” or “sets” you have in your community can reflect upon your manhood or womanhood. Similarly, your fighting win/loss record in your space also reflects upon your manhood and womanhood. In my community, there is an arranged place for fights when beefs and disagreements cannot be settled. The amount of fights people win in that space often determines how “tough” or “manly/womanly” they are. Moreover, that space is often named after that person after they set up a precedent of fight wins.
Area codes play a large part in the reality of space in the hood. This is one of the reasons that Rap artists yell out their area code. In films such as 8 Mile, the characters are distinguished and categorized by which area code they are from. For many urban youth, this is one of only a few self-identification factors they have; therefore, area codes become a large identification factor for the inner city and Hip Hop Culture. [[MurrayForeman, 263-277.]] This is also why certain rappers often talk about which part of the country they are from—West Coast, East Coast, Tha’ Dirty South.
Space can highlight different sections, or Hoods, of various cities for the outside world. In 1992 West Coast Rap artist DJ Quick recorded “Jus’ Lyke Compton.” This track made Compton, a sub-section of Los Angeles, identifiable for youth whether they lived in the city or not. Compton was further made popular in earlier years by the famed group N.W.A. [[Niggas With Attitude]] who joyously claimed to be from Compton. [[SeeMurrayForeman,193-198.]] Hip Hop groups were, and still are, notorious for “representin” their area. In other words, they make the listener take notice of what area or space they are from. [[MurrayForeman, 256-257.]]
Not all urban youth see “space” in the same way. Another interesting concept about the postmodern urban space is stated by Jude Tiersma Watson, Associate Professor of Urban Mission in Fuller’s School of Intercultural Studies:
One of the things I notice being around ‘taggers’, or ‘writers’ or ‘graffiti artist’ as they call themselves, is how they use space differently than gangs. It is one of the things they fight over. So while gangs are more tribal (pre-modern) in sticking with a few blocks of territory that is theirs, ‘writers’ write all over the city. To be really good means to get your name up in as many spots as possible, as far reaching as possible. They are a network, and thus more postmodern than gangs. One of the reasons they fight is because they use space differently. So the gangs don’t understand why a writer will put his name on a wall in the gang’s claimed territory — (they have) different rules about use of space and how identity is marked. [[Taken from an email conversation with Dr. Jude Tiersma Watson on 1/30/06.]]
Connecting Space To Ministry
As conscious and missionally-minded youth workers, thinking about space through the eyes of urban youth is another way to add to our growing understanding of Hip Hop culture. Whether you live in rural North Dakota or inner-city New York, Hip Hop and urban popular culture are cultural realities. Black, White, Latino, Asian, and other ethnicities are attracted to this culture and its music.
For some, their “space” and location is all they have. For others, it’s a symbol of hope and prosperity. [[MurrayForeman, 39.]] Most young people, particularly urban youth, define themselves and identify with some spatial reference: a t-shirt with their city’s name on it, a jacket with their area code on it, a tattoo with their street’s name, or maybe even a city subsection for a film title such as 8-Mile.
First, as youth workers, we must begin to see that this is normal and not evil if it occurs in our youth groups. To go even deeper in our relationships and ministry with students, we can begin by asking the young person what makes their space so important to her or him. We might even want to ask to go with that young person and see where they hang out and how they define their space.
Second, since space is such an issue for many young people, we need to ask ourselves: what elements of space are we ignoring? For example, when young people talk about their space with that certain twinkle in their eye, do we dismiss them by laughing at them, minimizing their space, or even worse saying, “That’s not important”? If you are from a background that holds space as a high cultural value, then this will be easier for you. But if you come from a cultural background that values space differently, or come from a community where people do not tattoo their street name on their necks, then this will be a little harder to understand, but it’s vitally important in your relationships with kids.
Third, we must begin to move towards a theology of space. Urban, rural, and suburban students alike take space and geography seriously. As youth workers, it is important to see how the young people we work with define space and the places they call “home.” The places we occupy have real meaning and value. As we see in John 4:1-42 and chapter 6, Matthew27:32-33 and 57-60, and Luke 23, space and geography can carry significant meaning.
Last, we need to make room for different spaces in our ministries. In other words, we need to “represent” the different areas that are within our groups. Even simple acts like allowing a wall for graffiti art, mentioning different parts of our city in our talks, or having those groups of young people that are a little underrepresented over to our house for a film night make a difference. Even if we minister in a youth group that represents just one city area there are still elements of space and representation taking place in our community.
These are simple things that can be done to give voice to different groups of young people. Every generation has to make its mark and make itself distinct from the next. For many today, that distinction is their space.
- Take some time and see the film Wild Style. How do the young people make their mark in the space they live in? How important is that to them? Why do you think that is? Where are the connections in your own youth group?
- If you have the time and opportunity, drive down some streets that have graffiti art. Bring students with you if possible. Observe some of the different styles. What do you notice? Are there any themes? Are there any artists that re-occur? How does this relate to your group?
- Read John chapter 4 and 6. Why was location so important at the time? What about the location of Jesus made it special or not special? How did this connect back with the people? How can you apply some of these concepts to your own group?
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Photo by Tim Arterbury
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